- Associated Press - Saturday, July 2, 2011

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND (AP) - Not a bad day’s work for women’s tennis. In new Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, it has a new star. In runner-up Maria Sharapova, it has a star reborn. And Serena Williams showed on these lawns she is several steps down the comeback trail, too. So just why, exactly, were so many people so down not so long ago about the state of the women’s game?

Kvitova’s first major title won’t be her last.

She cracks forehands and backhands like Indiana Jones’ whip. Her left-handed serve, particularly when thumped down out wide, is as slippery as snakes in soapsuds for righties like Sharapova to grab hold of. Kvitova showed the same brand of fearlessness that Sharapova wowed Centre Court with as an insouciant 17-year-old champion in 2004. The wavy-haired blonde from the Czech Republic is the complete tennis package, with the cool-under-pressure poise that allows champions to convert mere opportunities into actual trophies.

“I don’t think this is the only time she’ll win here,” said 18-time major winner Martina Navratilova. “It’s very exciting. A new star.”

Since the Open era began in 1968, most women _ two-thirds, to be precise _ have lost their first Grand Slam final.

Kvitova, whose previous Grand Slam best was a Wimbledon semifinal last year, looked at home on the unfamiliar stage. Nerves and over-hit forehands cost Kvitova her first service game. But those in the crowd who wondered whether she might simply wilt from that point quickly got their answer when Kvitova immediately broke back.

Against players who roll over far easier than the ever-gritty Sharapova, the final score could have been 6-1, 6-1, not 6-3, 6-4 _ so convincing was Kvitova’s play.

“And serving it out with an ace, now that’s fashion,” said Martina Hingis, the 1997 champion.

Sharapova studied the runner’s-up trophy with a detached, half-interested air.

“Obviously, I would have wanted that big one,” the Russian said.

Well, perhaps next time. That can be said with more, although not absolute, confidence now. But it would not have been said a year ago. Then, it seemed that the former No. 1 might never recapture the strength she lost when her right shoulder first started creaking like an ungreased cog in 2007 and then ultimately failed her in 2008.

She had a cortisone shot to get her through the 2007 French Open, where “I basically played without a shoulder,” and anti-inflammatories and 2 1/2 hours of treatment each day _ acupuncture, massage, ice, “you name it, I do it,” she said _ at Wimbledon that year.

She went on an 18-match winning streak after winning the 2008 Australian Open. But the shoulder problems returned with a vengeance not long after she lost in the second round of Wimbledon that year, her earliest Grand Slam exit since her first full season on tour in 2003. She couldn’t play at the Beijing Olympics, nor at the U.S. Open. The medical verdict: not only had she torn the rotator cuff tendon that helps to stabilize the shoulder but had been playing with the injury for months.

From there, it has been a long and winding road back. Ten weeks of shoulder rehab in Arizona with similarly injured pitchers and quarterbacks didn’t stop the pain, so she had surgery. At that point, many others might have given up. Not Sharapova. With her semifinal this year at Roland Garros and, now, her second Wimbledon final, she’s undeniably back.

For athletes who once felt invincible, injury confronts them with their own vulnerability. It can make confident world beaters more timid. There is the shock of discovering that while they are sidelined, the sport they once ruled carries on without them and, sometimes, depression for those, like Sharapova, who can’t be sure how quickly they will heal.

“It’s a little terrifying,” said Sean McCann, the head of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Sport Psychology department. “Some people don’t have the willpower and drive to pull that off.”

Willpower is not something Sharapova lacks.

“Even among top athletes, it’s a rather unique story _ her ability to fight back multiple times from injury,” McCann said. “Impressive.”

But when Williams, a fourth-round Wimbledon loser, is back to her best after her 11 months out with a cut foot and blood clots on the lungs, and when absentee Kim Clijsters’ right ankle is better, how will Sharapova fare then? Her serve is still a weakness. She had successive double-faults that not only gave the sixth game of the first set to Kvitova but gave the future champion the momentum, too.

Billie Jean King said Sharapova has “fought her shoulder and had to change her swing on her serve.”

“Her shoulder is so loose, the joint, that she had trouble knowing where the face of the racket is on the back swing,” she said. “She’s much better now. If you notice she has a shorter, abbreviated _ it’s not abbreviated abbreviated _ but it’s shorter and doesn’t come back as far on the back part of her swing as it did when she won here when she was 17.”

Still, you can be sure that Sharapova will be out working the practice courts as soon as this disappointment wears off.

This wasn’t an epic final. It wasn’t a bore, either.

Kvitova and women’s tennis were both winners.


John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or https://twitter.com/johnleicester

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