MELBOURNE, Australia - Set to play her first Slam final since 2014 on Saturday at the Australian Open, Petra Kvitova has already won more matches at the majors in 2019 than she did in the entirety of 2018.
The two-time Wimbledon champion was a force on the WTA Tour last season, leading the tour with 5 titles in St. Petersburg, Doh, Madrid, Prague, and Birmingham. But her brutal first-round loss here to Andrea Petkovic at the Australian Open last year set the tone for a disappointing Slam season, one that saw her go 4-4, with two third-round appearances at Roland Garros and the US Open.
Kvitova speculated then that the pressure and stress got to her at the Slams.
"I think was one of [the toughest moments was] just last year when I lost to Petkovic in my first round here, which I felt really terrible," Kvitova told reporters on Friday. "Of course, losing in Wimbledon was hurting a lot, as well, at the time.
"I think those two losses were really tough for me. Was especially in the Grand Slams, of course. The feeling how I felt wasn't really nice. Sometimes I'm probably too stressed and it's not really great."
Coach Jiri Vanek believes Kvitova put too much pressure on herself at the Slams because she wanted to win to reward the loyalty shown by her team during the tough months after the violent attack in her home in December 2016.
"Before she was, like, so many people around her, and she said, Yeah, for them, I want to come back for them and I want to do for them.
"Sometimes she [cares too much] about other people than herself. So I just telling her every day, It's your tennis. It's up to you. You are a two-time Wimbledon champion. Nobody else can judge you. Just play for yourself.
"In the beginning, she was still, like, Yeah, You were so nice to me, my fitness coach was nice to me, my parents, everybody around. She was too much focused on some other people than herself.
"So I think this just changed. She's now taking much [more] seriously about herself."
Tennis players are notoriously selfish and single-minded - they have to be, after all - but Vanek's theory rings true when it comes to the affable Czech. The 28-year-old, who could become the oldest woman to debut at No.1 in the Open Era if she wins on Saturday, is an immensely popular figure in the locker room. Kvitova has won the WTA Karen Krantzcke Sportsmanship Award, as voted by the players, the last six years.
Perhaps now Kvitova is finally putting herself first. After her title run in Sydney the weekend before the tournament, Kvitova has opted not to practice during her off-days.
"I'm playing only matches," Kvitova said with a laugh. "So I think it's helping me, as well, to kind of have mind a little bit more free. I needed those days off after Sydney, as well, that I really need to recover and more energy for the matches. In that routine, we stayed with. That's I think is really helping me a bit."
As they ready for the challenge presented by another fearless hitter in Osaka, Vanek says he plans to keep the gameplan simple.
"Naomi of course is a great player, and she plays similar game like Petra," Vanek said. "She go for winners. Petra go for the winners.
"You don't have the time to make some great tactics. Especially Petra, it's not like the runner who is pushing the balls back. Both of them are playing so fast.
"I think who is going to have bigger heart and she can do it."
"Naomi was once in the final and Petra was twice, so it's not too much more experience in the Grand Slam final.
"I told her before that I'm not gonna prepare her something different. Just enjoy her game, think about yourself. Don't look who is on the other side, with opponent. Just play yourself and believe yourself and believe your power. Then that's it.
"We just try to put her to her bubble. Then she find her killer instincts."