Petra Kvitova stands on the verge of completing one of the bravest comebacks in tennis after ending the fairytale run of unseeded American Danielle Collins to reach her first Australian Open final on Thursday.
Two years after missing the tournament while recovering from an attack by a knife-wielding home intruder, the eighth seeded Czech booked her first Grand Slam final since her 2014 Wimbledon triumph with a decisive 7-6(2) 6-0 victory at a scorching Melbourne Park.
“To be honest, I’m still not really believing that I’m in the final,” Kvitova told reporters, after becoming the first Czech finalist in Melbourne since Jana Novotna in 1991.
“It’s kind of weird, as well, that I didn’t know even if I was going to play tennis again.
“I think not very many people believed that I can do that again, to stand on the court and play tennis and kind of play on this level.”
The 28-year-old lefthander will meet Japan’s U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka, who held off seventh seeded Czech Karolina Pliskova in the other semi-final, in the title-decider.
The tall Czech has not lost a set at Melbourne Park and will enter her first hard-court Grand Slam final on an 11-match winning streak, playing with the confidence and freedom that won her two Wimbledon titles.
Against the feisty Collins, who stunned world number two and former champion Angelique Kerber during her magical run, Kvitova survived a testing first set in stifling heat before clinically dismantling the American.
After trading breaks of serve, the match was paused at 4-4 in the first set for a few minutes as the roof was closed to protect the players from the 38 degree Celsius (100F) heat.
After resumption, they slogged their way into the tiebreak where Kvitova quickly took command.
She fired a blazing backhand winner to cap a 16-shot rally and roared to a 5-1 lead before setting up four set points with an ace and converting the first with a serve-volley.
Florida-born Collins was left cold by the decision to close the roof, which is mandatory under the tournament’s new extreme heat policy when the conditions reach a high threshold.
“They need to start the match the way it’s going to finish, I think. I think they do that in football, and I think it certainly changed a little bit of the rhythm in the match,” she said.
The first game of the second set was laden with drama, as world number 35 Collins carped with chair umpire Carlos Ramos over a malfunctioning net cord sensor while on serve.
Already irked by a line call that went against her, the 25-year-old was further distracted when the sensor beeped in error twice on serve.
She was made to replay the point, and after re-starting with a second serve, she gave up a backhand unforced error to concede two break points.
She saved one with a big backhand winner but netted a forehand on the second and from there things unravelled quickly.
Swinging her forehand as if felling trees with an axe, the Czech ramped up her power game to roar to 5-0.
The day after Serena Williams gave up a 5-1 lead in the third set of her quarter-final to be overhauled by Pliskova, Kvitova was in no mood to wobble, even after allowing the American to crawl back to 30-30 when serving for the match.
The shell-shocked Collins miscued a forehand to give up match point, allowing Kvitova to fire her 30th winner for victory and the chance to crown her courageous comeback in Saturday’s final.
Traumatised Kvitova doubted she would ever be back in Slam contention
Petra Kvitova was left such a nervous wreck after being attacked by a home intruder in 2016 that she struggled to be in a room by herself, let alone have thoughts of returning to the tour as a Grand Slam contender. At the Australian Open on Thursday, the 28-year-old Czech came within one match of crowning one of the bravest comebacks in tennis after beating Danielle Collins 7-6(2) 6-0 to reach her first final at Melbourne Park.
Kvitova missed the 2017 tournament while recovering from surgery on the stab wound to her racket hand she suffered during the attack — the same hand that struck 30 winners to fell Collins in stifling heat at Rod Laver Arena. It was much more than a case of overcoming a physical injury, however, with the attack having exacted a heavy mental toll on the twice Wimbledon champion.
“It wasn’t really a nice time to be dealing with everything,” the tall lefthander told reporters at Melbourne Park. It took me really a while to believe the people around me again and especially men, for sure. So I wasn’t pretty confident to be alone somewhere.”
“I do remember the first time I was alone in the locker room in Prague in the club, and I came to my team and said, ‘Well, it was first time I was alone there, and, yeah, it was good one today that I really felt okay.'”
“Those three months were very, very tough … so I think that kind of the mental side was there, and I really needed to be strong and not really think too negatively about it, but of course those thoughts were there, as well. “Yeah, it’s been a long journey.”
The attack on Kvitova revived memories of the trauma that nine-times Grand Slam champion Monica Seles suffered when she was stabbed by a deranged fan during a match in 1993. She spent two years away from the tour but returned to win the 1996 Australian Open, the last of her Grand Slam titles.
Kvitova met Seles last June during a 2018 season in which she was unable to get past the third round at any of the four Grand Slams.
“Actually, she was the one who wanted to meet me, so it was just great and a big honour,” said Kvitova, who will meet U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka in Saturday’s final. “I know that it affected her career a lot, especially (that) it happened on the court. So it’s a bit different, but it was such a nice feeling to meet someone who kind of went through same things and thoughts and everything.”
Five years after the second of her Wimbledon titles in 2014, the former world number two is again playing with the freedom and confidence that made her one of the most feared women on the global circuit.
She will head into the final against Japan’s Osaka on an 11-match winning streak, looking to become the first Czech to win the tournament since Hana Mandlikova in 1987. “To be honest, I think not very many people believe that I can do that again, to stand on the court and play tennis and kind of play on this level,” she said.
Australian Open run was no ‘fluke’, says Collins
Few would have backed the 35th-ranked to have been the last American woman standing out of a high-quality batch featuring 23-times Grand Slam champion Serena Williams and former U.S. Open winner Sloane Stephens.
Yet the former University of Virginia player thrashed 2016 Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber during her magical run after dumping out seeds Caroline Garcia and Julia Goerges.
All this after having never won a Grand Slam match let alone a WTA title since graduating in 2016 as the United States’ top-ranked collegiate.
“I definitely don’t think anybody would have put their money on me to get this far in the tournament,” the feisty 25-year-old told reporters.
“I certainly have been a big underdog, and I think I have held that title really well and fought my hardest.
“There is a lot of positives to take away from this, and, yeah, it’s been an incredible run.
“Unfortunately I wish the narrative could have been different for me today, but a lot to be proud of and I think a lot to build off of.”
But she emphasised that Kvitova was the decisive factor in her defeat, and pledged to learn from the match of her life. “I think I learned that experience plays a big role in tennis, and Petra is an incredible champion,” she said of the Czech, who will play Naomi Osaka in Saturday’s final.
“I think there is a lot to learn off of what she does on the court. I think she went out and played fearless tennis, so I think all credit to her.
“Maybe some people thought I was a one-hit wonder, it was a fluke. Clearly none of this has been a fluke.
“So it’s kind of showed me no matter what the situation, I can handle it very well and compete my hardest and play my best tennis in important situations.
“I could probably write a whole book after this tournament.”