It is hard to build confidence without winning matches, but hard to win matches without having built confidence. Such is the situation in which Petra Kvitova has found herself lately, struggling to string together any victories as illness and injury have combined with a loss of form. In the night session on Rod Laver Arena, her struggles sprang to the surface in an ugly three-setter against Laura Robson, to whom she succumbed 2-6 6-3 11-9 after an improbable series of twists and turns.
Bearing some tape on her right ankle, the British teenager started in the most dreadful fashion imaginable by dropping her serve at love with two double faults, a forehand error, and a netted volley. A smartly angled backhand winner in the next game appeared to revitalize her fortunes, and two double faults from Kvitova set up a chance to regain the break, which she handed back to Robson with a gruesomely netted forehand. Despite another difficult service game, the younger woman escaped with consecutive aces towards her opponent’s forehand.
Following the two-game swing to Robson was a two-game swing for Kvitova, who began to find the range on her weapons more consistently than the Brit. She still remained very much bang-or-bust on serve, striking two aces and two service winners to outweigh a double fault and a wildly sprayed backhand in the sixth game. Rarely able to hit more than a few balls at the time before her opponent ended the point one way or another, Robson could establish little rhythm to settle into the match.
The teenager wielded plenty of powerful weapons herself, especially on her forehand, and she produced some inspired shot-making from that wing on the occasions when Kvitova gave her time. Those occasions came infrequently as the eighth seed’s high-risk style reaped rewards against an opponent often caught on the back foot. Lacking much experience against the weight of shot that Kvitova can unleash, Robson struggled to position herself or find the right amount of depth behind the baseline to defend her court adequately while looking for opportunities to attack.
An insurance break offered Kvitova two chances to serve for the set, but she clanked double faults on her first two set points just before Robson’s forehand caught fire. A long game ensued, unwinding through a series of oscillations between the ridiculous and the sublime on both sides. After she saved six break points, many created by blistering second-serve returns from Robson, Kvitova finally found consecutive first serves to close out the set.
Extending through deuce after deuce, the game illustrated how much the Czech depends on her first serve. With it, she took control of the point immediately and permitted no opportunity for Robson to regroup. Without it, she exposed herself nearly defenseless to explosive returns from which she could not recover.
Into the second set continued the staccato rhythm of points that ended after just a handful of strokes. Showing some fine resilience, Robson halted Kvitova’s run of games at five with a strong hold, and two more double faults left the Czech in another deuce situation. Then, the British teenager’s groundstrokes began to find the net with alarming consistency, a product of her flat swings. Robson lacks a margin for error when her timing goes awry at all on those shots, and her notoriously flammable temper began to simmer. Nevertheless, she clung to her serve in a match still searching for momentum.
A wildly sprayed backhand by Kvitova, who continued to betray a lack of belief, set up Robson with her eleventh break point and ninth break point of her previous three service games. Once she converted it with a penetrating return, the Brit survived a difficult service game of her own as her opponent alternately scarred lines and missed the doubles alleys with her shots. Particularly representative of her woes was a forehand putaway inside the service line that she smacked into the middle of the net.
Trying to regain the rhythm on her first serve, Kvitova experimented with taking some pace off the shot to increase her percentage, but Robson continued to punish her with returns. More wayward groundstrokes from the reeling eighth seed handed her opponent a 5-1 lead. When consecutive double faults threw her a lifeline, however, she seized it opportunistically to record a love hold. Just as the balance of power threatened to tip against her once more, though, Robson drew level again.
Now in a dogfight, Kvitova needed to start the third set positively. She did so, narrowly, with a hold of serve that displayed more consistency in rallies. That trend continued into the next few games as she broke the increasingly frustrated Robson with more accurate returning and started to find a groove with her first serve. Somehow releasing the tension in her shoulders, Kvitova began to swing more freely in the manner that had brought her to the top. The reprieve proved temporary, though, for another pair of double faults not only raised her total to 14 but set up a break point that Robson exploited.
Handed another break courtesy of Robson’s wavering serve, Kvitova tossed it back directly with a break at love. All the same, she clung to a 4-3 lead in the final set despite her increasingly downcast body language. When Robson held once more, Kvitova faced a dire moment with a break point that would have given her opponent a chance to serve for the match. Down crashed consecutive aces, a stunning and stunningly timely response to the adversity. Although the game would not ended until several points later, with another ace, Kvitova had Robson where she wanted her: serving to stay alive.
Or so she thought. Winning the first point of the tenth game, the Czech edged close to the finish line, only to see Robson outlast her in several tense rallies. With the rare hold in hand, the teenager broke Kvitova for the opportunity to serve for the match, but it quickly slipped away from her with loose forehand errors. A second-serve ace produced the first of six straight holds that brought the match to 9-9, not without Kvitova saving another break point in the fifteenth game.
The quality of the tennis improved distinctly over these last several games as both women fought valiantly with their backs to the wall. In the nineteenth game, Robson broke through when she followed a Kvitova backhand error with a sensational forehand return winner down the line. Drained of energy and hope, the Czech mustered no resistance as the teenager fired down a series of first serves en route to closing out the match at love. The triumph marked her second straight over a major champion in the second round of a major, following her upset of Clijsters at the US Open. For Kvitova, however, the loss marked her eighth in her last twelve matches and yet another dispiriting stage in a downward spiral that merely has deepened with time.