Petra Kvitova, the No. 5-ranked women’s tennis player in the world, came to the New Haven Open with a singular focus: win. Perhaps aided by a knee injury to four-time defending champ Caroline Wozniacki in the semifinals on Thursday, Kvitova, the 2011 Wimbledon champion, achieved that goal yesterday with an efficient 7-6(9), 7-5 win over 12th-ranked Maria Kirilenko of Russian before 4,840 fans at the Connecticut Tennis Center on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon.
Efficient, yes … but hardly a cakewalk. Kirilenko challenged Kvitova throughout the match.
The championship match started off as if neither player wanted it, with with service breaks on the first three serves. In all, each player broke the other three times each. With the set tied at 5-5, Kvitova broke Kirilenko to go up 6-5 and positioned to serve out for the set.
But not so quickly.
The 25-year-old Russian, perhaps more famous for who she’s dating—NHL star Alex Ovechkin who was in the stands, rooting on his main squeeze—than for her tennis, broke right back to send the first set into a tiebreak.
The break-fest continued in the extra set as the 22-year-old Czech broke Kirilenko’s serve in the first game and built a 5-2 lead. But she had trouble putting away Kirilenko, who was making her ninth appearance in New Haven.
Kirilenko fought off two set points at 6-4, then rallied to take an 8-7 lead and was serving for set point.
But guess what happened?
You got it… another mini-break by Kvitova knotted the tiebreaker at 8-8. From that point on, Kvitova won three of the next four games to win the tiebreak 11-9.
“I didn’t think any about the score,” said Kvitova, who was making just her second appearance in New Haven. “It was pretty close, a pretty good tiebreak. I’m really glad that I won it.”
Then, in the second set, she rallied from two breaks down.
“I saw that she as well got tired,” said Kirilenko at the post-match press conference. “Suddenly I break her. I’m 5-2 up, and I started feeling ‘woo!’ I have a chance to win the set!”
That break represented the 12th straight point that Kirilenko had won. It would ultimately prove to be her last of the match, however. In women’s tennis, owning the serve isn’t nearly as much of a slam dunk as it is in men’s tennis.
Kirilenko was fresh off a victory over Kvitova in the Olympic Games in London, where she stopped the Czech in straight sets, 7-6(3), 6-3, en route to a bronze medal. That match, however, was played at Wimbledon, on grass. New Haven is a hardcourt tournament, as is the U.S. Open.
“Even though I lost today, I still feel positive,” she said. “I played really well this week. I played good match today. Unfortunately, I was unlucky. But I have couple days to recover because I know that I’m playing Tuesday. So two days; it’s good for me to have rest.”
For Kvitova, New Haven represented the second win in her last three tournaments.
“I think it is unbelievable,” said Kvitova, the tourney’s No. 2 seed. “Play three tournaments in a row and win two… It’s great for me.”
Kvitova earned $107,000 for her efforts. She had already won the U.S. Open Series before the tournament even started. That mean’s she will earn an extra $1 million if she wins at the Open, where she reached the third round in 2009 and the round of 16 in 2008, but has also been bounced in the first round twice, including last year. But the 22-year-old lefty is riding a wave of confidence right now as she heads down I-95 to Queens.
“Maybe because I play a lot of matches here, maybe that’s why I’m feeling more, like, relaxed and confident on the court,” she said.
Attendance for a tournament was 52,972—a far cry from the halcyon days of tennis in New Haven when the likes of Steffi Graf, Lindsay Davenport, Venus Williams, Jennifer Capriati, James Blake, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras would play before upwards to 12,000 fans per session, and the tournament carried title sponsors such as Volvo and Pilot Pen. Still, it represented nearly double the attendance at WTA events held earlier this year in Stanford and Carlsbad, Calif.
“In this day and age, when it’s so hard to get people off their couch to an outdoor sporting or entertainment event, I think 55,000 spectators are very respectable,” said tournament director Anne Worcester, vowing to keep the tournament going. In fact, she joked to Kvitova that her coach had already committed her to next year‘s tournament during the awards presentation.
“This is the new normal.”