Welcome to Memory Lawn, where wtatennis.com will take a look back at some of the most memorable matches from the grass seasons of the past five years. Our retrospective of Birmingham continues, recounting some of the best matches from the recent editions of the Nature Valley Classic. In 2018, Petra Kvitova authored a successful title defense by beating good friend Magdalena Rybarikova, always a looming threat on the grass.
2015: Kristina Mladenovic def. Simona Halep, quarterfinal
2016: Barbora Strycova def. CoCo Vandeweghe, semifinal
2017: Petra Kvitova def. Ashleigh Barty, final
HOW THEY GOT THERE: A pair of former champions showed off all of their grass court expertise in the final of the 2018 Nature Valley Classic.
In one corner was Petra Kvitova, the reigning queen of Birmingham and two-time Wimbledon winner, who returned for her title defense riding high. Already a four-time winner on tour in 2018, with three titles above Premier level, the Czech returned to the British lawns seeking her first title defense since she captured back-to-back titles at the Connecticut Open in New Haven from 2014-15.
In the other was resurgent Slovakian Magdalena Rybarikova, who returned with a flourish during the grass court season 12 months prior. After missing seven months following knee and wrist surgeries in late 2016 through early 2017, Rybarikova saw her ranking plummet to outside the world's Top 450, but she shocked the world by reaching the final four at the All-England Club.
Having never before advanced beyond the third round of any Grand Slam event, her 2017 Wimbledon run included a best-ever win over then-World No.3 Karolina Pliskova, who was set to rise to World No.1 after that year's tournament, in the second round.
After breaking the Top 30 for the first time at the end of the 2017 season, Rybarikova's good form continued into the early months of 2018 as she recorded a best-ever finish at the Australian Open by reaching the fourth round.
No.4 seed Kvitova did not lose a set en route to the championship match, beating British favorite Johanna Konta, Daria Gavrilova, Julia Goerges and Mihaela Buzarnescu for a berth in the final.
Unseeded Rybarikova, who was a surprise winner in Birmingham nine years prior thanks to a win over future two-time Grand Slam champion Li Na in the final, scored another upset as she defeated Pliskova once more in an opening-round rematch of their Wimbledon encounter to start the tournament.
She later rallied from a set down to beat Kristina Mladenovic in the second round, and later took out qualifier Dalila Jakupovic - who benefited from a second-round retirement by Naomi Osaka - and former Birmingham finalist Barbora Strycova to again reach the championship.
Kvitova and Rybarikova faced off for a Premier-level title for the second time in their careers in a rematch of the 2014 clash in New Haven, which was won by Kvitova in straight sets.
WHAT HAPPENED: The unseeded Slovak was quick out of the gates, breaking Kvitova at love to set the tone for the opening set in the third game of the match.
After surrendering her lead after a titanic sixth game, where she saved four break points before seeing Kvitova level at 3-3, Rybarikova moved ahead in the first set for good in the seventh game with a second break of the Czech's serve.
Her lead held up from there, and Rybarikova later saved a break point herself as she served out the opener in three-quarters of an hour.
Kvitova soon wrestled command of the match from there, as she never trailed in the second and third sets. A love break in Rybarikova's first service game of the second set helped Kvitova build a 3-0 lead, as she came through a pair of tight service games of her own - saving break point en route to holding for a second time.
After winning the last three games of the second set to take the match the distance, Kvitova dropped a colloquial 'hidden bagel' on her Slovak foe, as her run of consecutive games hit six.
Though Rybarikova earned a break back at the close of a marathon fourth game, she immediately surrendered serve again as Kvitova's extended her lead to a nearly insurmountable 5-1.
The Slovak saved a match point on serve to win her second game in the last 10, but Kvitova would not be denied a repeat as she clinched victory in just over two hours with an emphatic love hold.
WHAT THEY SAID: Having lost just 21 games in eight sets en route to the final, Kvitova told the press she needed to overcome both the adversity on the scoreboard, and the challenge Rybarikova's unconventional game provided, to capture her second straight trophy.
"She's a tricky player, so it's always time to get used to. She has a little bit different serve as well. We practiced one day here one day before the tournament, but still, a match is match. I needed a little bit of time to get used to spins and slices and volleys and whatever she plays just starting a game," Kvitova said.
"When I started the match, it was fine. But then I hit a terrible service game. I missed, like, four shots in a row, which is not good [when you] play Magda on the grass. She's playing well on it. I really fought back to get the break back. Then she hit unbelievable to break me again. And it was tough to win the first set. I had chances, but she was little bit better in that.
"I tried probably to be a little bit more patient, not trying to hit a winner from the first shot, which is pretty difficult. I had to wait a little bit. In the end, I fought really physically well. We were both a little bit tired. I found my legs. I saw a little bit that she has a lot [of fatigue] as well.
"I think I was just a little bit more patient. The important thing was that I broke her in the first service game in the second set. I was little bit more relaxed. The same thing happened in third set. Probably, those early breaks made me more relaxed then."
The Czech champion also discussed the emotions of returning to the site where she'd captured the first title of her comeback from hand injuries she sustained in a home invasion, which began in Paris a year earlier.
"Last year was kind of different, much more difficult by the mental side," she explained. "I really enjoyed the time here last year. I didn't really expect to win here. I just played match by match, being very happy to be on the grass and the tennis court.
"It was different compared to this time for sure, but...I didn't expect to come here and win the title [again]. For me I'm surprised. But on the other hand, I felt good on the court from the first rounds. Meeting Jo in the first round wasn't an easy draw.
"That match told me I could play well on the grass again. I was just keeping up the good performance on it. I think today was a great final to kind of fight. We played over two hours, so it was a great final to watch I think, I hope."
WHAT IT MEANT: Kvitova's victory made her the first woman to win back-to-back titles in Birmingham since Maria Sharapova (2004-05) and the fifth repeat champion in tournament history.
As spring turned to summer, the Czech returned to the Top 5 in the WTA rankings for the first time in almost three years by virtue of a semifinal showing in Montreal, and qualified for her first berth at the WTA Finals since 2015 in October.
She ended the season ranked World No.7, her first Top 10 finish since 2015, and was nominated for a Czech team that won its sixth Fed Cup title in eight seasons, though she did not compete due to illness.
Having overcome career-threatening injuries to record new career milestones between 2017-18, Rybarikova was again snake-bitten by the injury bug shortly after her last WTA singles final appearance.
She was upset in the opening round of Wimbledon by Sorana Cirstea, taking a month's hiatus until Montreal, and scored just two more match wins through the end of the season.
After dropping out of the Top 100 in the middle of 2019, Rybarikova scored a Top 10 victory over Aryna Sabalenka in the first round of Wimbledon, but played just two more matches after a second round loss to Coco Gauff.
Having not played this season, the Slovak announced her intentions to retire from professional tennis in early March, with the intention of saying farewell at the Fed Cup Finals before the tour went on hiatus. Nonetheless, that event currently remains postponed due to the global coronavirus pandemic.