Winning Wimbledon changes everything. Andre Agassi might have confessed that it changes not a damned thing — and there’s truth in it if you’re the sort who believes that in the long run we’re all dead, but try telling Petra Kvitova that.
The girl who began playing in Fulnek — a Czech town with, as she says, four tennis courts, a castle, and a sports centre — and kept at it because her father was worried she’d walk the streets with her friends smoking cigarettes found that she was now a celebrity.
While being stared at was strange it wasn’t difficult to deal with. Not so easy to manage was the pressure of expectations.
Martina Navratilova, Czech-born and Kvitova’s idol, identified her as the next great female player. The pair even travelled to Wimbledon in the winter, Navratilova telling her protégé stories of her nine singles titles here.
But Kvitova had, to borrow the American phrase, a target on her back.
“When I was (ranked) 60, for example, I had my best game against the top 10 players. So it has changed a little bit now,” she said.
And having suffered a first-round defeat in the tune-up at Eastbourne, the 22-year-old came to her opening match here at SW19 without the game-time on grass she’d have liked.
If she were to address the less-than-stellar results of the year past — early US Open exit, season-ending triumph at the WTA Tour Championships, semifinals at the Australian and Roland Garros — Kvitova had to make a beginning.
Akgul Amanmuradova, a 6ft 3in Uzbek with a fondness for collecting giraffes, wooden and stuffed, made it particularly awkward. But Kvitova put behind her a shaky start, waited out a rain delay having just wasted a match point, and prevailed 6-4, 6-4
The defending champion’s nerves showed in her lack of timing on the forehand flank: she was forcing her stroke, not keeping her 6ft frame low enough for long enough. With her trusted lefty serve not operating at full steam, Kvitova was under constant threat. Her parents, guests in the Royal Box, shifted uncomfortably in their seats.
Amanmuradova came within a whisker’s breadth of gaining a double break and a 4-0 lead in the first set. Her two-handed back-hand return at 30-40 missed the line by that much — it was just enough to allow Kvitova into the set.
Although Amanmuradova kept the pressure up with her formidable serve, she had let slip her opportunity. Sufficiently relaxed, Kvitova started to find her range from time to time. She changed direction with her compact two-handed backhand, which she takes early and hits flat, exploiting her opponent’s middling movement. The forehand grew marginally steadier against Amanmuradova’s single-handed slice, which had troubled it earlier.
With these improvements, Kvitova won five games in a row to take the first set. Although she couldn’t free herself from inconsistency, she did enough to take a 5-3 lead in the second, earning a match-point on Amanmuradova’s serve.
A nagging drizzle began as she squandered the opportunity. The players were forced off court.
Amanmuradova held when play re-started. But Kvitova’s serve chose the moment to announce itself, offer its owner three crisp aces, and settle the contest.
“Yeah, I was nervous,” she said after the match. “It was the first time for me as the defending champion of a Grand Slam. You know, it was a huge honour to come to Centre Court. Of course I would like to make everyone happy, but it's not that easy. Yeah, it was lot of firsts for me today, but I'm happy that I stayed calm inside and did not panic in the important points. I'm glad that I won last year and I played and won today.”
Meanwhile, Sania Mirza and American Bethanie Mattek-Sands, advanced to the second round of the women’s doubles with a comfortable 6-4, 6-2 victory over the American-Russian pairing of Sloane Stephens and Alla Kudryavtseva.