Journalists are expected to be objective, ethical and professional and so let me clearly state that if Petra Kvitova doesn't win the US Open I will sulk for a week. And all it took was two pictures I saw yesterday to make up my mind.
The first picture was tweeted by the Czech under the caption "This picture tells you everything. Thank you NYC". Her racket has been tossed aside and her hands are half-covering her tearful face in a pose of disbelief. She, the world No. 14, has just won 7-6 (7-3), 6-3 against world No. 3 Garbine Muguruza, who is currently the best player in women's tennis - best player and No. 1 are not always the same - and had won 19 of her last 21 matches.
The Spaniard is Wimbledon champion, four years younger than Kvitova and leads 4-1 in the first set. Kvitova has played only 16 matches this year before the Open (54 for Muguruza) and has been relearning how to hold her racket. The problem is her left hand which is on her face; a hand whose back is turned to us; a hand whose scars we can't see. For that we need the second picture.
On the Internet there is a picture of her left hand on what seems like a hospital table. This is a very famous left hand. In 2011 she won Wimbledon and a reporter asked: "You're only the third female champion at Wimbledon who is left-handed. Does it give you a huge advantage to be a left-hander?" She laughed and replied: "Well, if we are only three, I don't know if it's advantage."
The picture - we can't confirm its authenticity but she has not tweeted an objection - is ostensibly from last December when an intruder entered her apartment and threatened her with a knife till she fought him off but not before receiving deep cuts on every finger. In the picture the index finger looks almost half cut away.
Even amateurs know that the smallest abrasion on a hand can affect a players' feel and cause discomfort and disturb the outcome of a shot. So imagine Kvitova's predicament and her pain and the precision she needs to rediscover.
In May, when she returns, she tells Sports Illustrated that "the scars were very tight and very hard. So every time I touched a ball, I felt it". At the US Open, talking about her hand, she said, "I'm still working on the strength, which is still missing" but "finally, I think that I can hold a little better than before".
Not everyone comes back in sport, not everyone recovers from ruptured Achilles' heels, concussions and fractures. In 1954, a year after she had won the Grand Slam, Maureen Connolly had an accident while riding her horse, broke her right leg and never played again. She was 19. Kvitova's story is more hopeful but it's not only her courage you want to cheer but also her forehand which could be the coolest weapon of carnage on tour.
Kvitova's game is as natural as she is, as unaffected as this woman who reduced Li Na to tears with her eloquence at the Chinese player's retirement ceremony and has won the WTA sportsmanship award five times.
As she said once, bringing a simple perspective to an often overwrought sports world: "Respecting my opponent has always been important to me because without an opponent we can't play this beautiful game."
Her tennis is effortlessly joyous, strokes hit smoothly but with such velocity that when the ball passes an opponent they must feel a gust of wind. There is a particular sound that the well-timed stroke makes in any sport - cricket, for instance - and you can hear the fluency of her game. Said Muguruza later, "she has a great timing and a lot of power".
Most sport has become methodical and played according to a very particular grammar, but Kvitova's tennis still retains an originality. It might make her frustrating for she can spray errors and yet she will hit shots that only the brilliantly impertinent will try. Her coaches might want to plot her matches carefully using data, but there will always be an instinctive adventurer to her.
On Sunday she hit nine double faults yet her first serve on average was 14kmh faster than the Spaniard's. She made 42 unforced errors to Muguruza's 25 yet hit 24 winners to her seven. She served for the first set at 6-5, got broken, was down 0-2 in the tie-breaker and yet stole it. A knife might have cut nerves in her hand but she hasn't lost hers completely.
Kvitova's game is as natural as she is. It is as unaffected and guileless as this woman who reduced Li Na to tears with her eloquence at the Chinese player's retirement ceremony and has won the WTA sportsmanship award five times. As she said once: "Respecting my opponent has always been important to me because without an opponent we can't play this beautiful game."
On a women's tour where form is flimsy and a wild card in a crystal-dotted dress has made the most news, we're grateful for Kvitova. Even her next rival, Venus Williams, 37, who has wrestled with an autoimmune disorder, said: "What she has gone through is unimaginable, unreasonable... what else can I say except I'm glad to see her back". Actually it's good to see them both.
Kvitova, 27, once said her hand might never be 100 per cent and the same might be said of Williams' energy levels. But there they are, scrapping away, hammering balls, holding onto dignity, giving to a game even as they draw sustenance from it. To be fair, it really doesn't matter which one wins. Because either way it'll make for a powerful picture.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2017, with the headline 'Cheering for Kvitova seems like a powerfully good idea'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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