Kvitova comes from behind to reach quarterfinal

  • Suzi Petkovski

Petra Kvitova is the first woman into the quarterfinals of AO2020, ending the career-best charge of Maria Sakkari 6-7(4) 6-3 6-2 in a tense affair Sunday at Rod Laver Arena.

“I just kept playing,” said the relieved 2019 finalist, of the 132-minute, mostly uphill battle against the speedy Greek who’d taken two of their three prior meetings.

“It’s pretty tough to play Maria. I knew it was going to be difficult. Suddenly I got used to her game a little bit.” 

MORE: AO2020 women’s draw

‘Unplayable’ is a word often used to describe the Czech lefty shot maker. Kvitova dropped the fewest games of any player into the fourth round (14) and reduced her first opponent to tears in a 6-1 6-0 rout. Her last victim, No.25 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova, didn’t last much longer.

But it was a nervy, hesitant No.7 seed who dropped her opening serve with three errors, looking ominously like her out-of-sorts compatriot Karolina Pliskova, the second seed who was ousted Saturday.

In the second game, Kvitova hastily stopped play to challenge a Sakkari shot that took the baseline and the No.22 seed had the early running for 2-0.

Sakkari, no less adored by Greek fans than her charismatic countryman Stefanos Tsitsipas, had toppled 10th seed Madison Keys to debut in a Grand Slam fourth round, and defeated Kvitova in their last meeting on hardcourt in Cincinnati.

Her court speed and agility again pressured Kvitova to play an extra shot or second-guess her lashing would-be winners. Sakkari’s slice and dipping ball - the “Sakk attack” according to the Greek chorus - often evade Kvitova’s lethal strike zone.

Kvitova was too error-prone to exert pressure on her less-experienced opponent, and had to wait until Sakkari faltered serving for the set at 5-4 for a chance to take control. When the Czech couldn’t press her advantage and was broken, Sakkari again tightened serving for the set at 6-5.

Shrugging, gesturing and ranting at her player box, the underdog betrayed the strain.

The Czech went 2-0 up in the tiebreak; then at 4-all a disastrous double fault put the set on Sakkari’s racquet. She sealed the opener with a serve winner on the sideline in 52 draining minutes.

Maria Sakkari in action against Petra Kvitova

Kvitova, who’d sprayed 19 unforced errors, settled into an arm wrestle for the second set, which saw break points fly thick and fast in all but one game as both players grappled for timing and confidence on big points.

Kvitova finally made the critical break for 4-3, turning the match her way as the pressure of pushing ahead in virgin territory told on the 24-year-old. After no less than seven Grand Slam exits in the third round, including here last January against Ash Barty, Sakkari was striving not just for a first major quarterfinal but the first for a Greek woman. It was a feat that eluded her mother, former WTA pro Angeliki Kenellopoulou, who watched nervously from the player’s box.

Finally gaining an easy hold for 5-3, Kvitova was looking like her old shot making self as she powered to 3-0 in the third, winning six straight games and savaging the Sakkari serve with withering returns.

The “Sakk attack” that so animated the Greek chorus was blunted; the tentative, struggling Kvitova of the first set long gone. Unplayable Petra was back. 

Ahead for Kvitova is a same-time-next-quarterfinal rematch with No.1 seed Ash Barty, or No.18 seed Alison Riske.