2019-09-15 10:14:00

On the morning after won Wimbledon in imperious fashion this summer, for the second time in her career, she cleaned the whole house she had rented for the tournament. The 24-year-old Czech swept and dusted and vacuumed and then, before checking that her suitcases were packed and ready for her departure after the Wimbledon Ball, Kvitova wheeled out all the dustbins so they were in place for collection the following week.

Kvitova laughs in mild embarrassment when her homely story slips out. She realises how unromantic it sounds and that it might even appear as if she is presenting herself as a pure antidote to the spoilt sporting celebrity. “It wasn’t a big thing to do, really,” she says, in the midst of contrasting her annual fortnight in the suburban comfort of Wimbledon village with the frenetic blur of New York during the US Open, which begins on Monday.

Yet it might explain why the unassuming Kvitova often seems at a loss in New York – while feeling so at home in Wimbledon.

“If I can stay in a house at a tournament I like it much more,” she says. “And I didn’t want to leave the house dirty for the people who live there. I would clean it anyway but this is my third year in a row so I know the people who rent the house to me. It’s good to leave it as you found it.”

After winning Wimbledon in 2011 Kvitova followed it with a disastrous US Open, when she was defeated in her first match at Flushing Meadows by Romania’s Alexandra Dulgheru. Kvitova became the first woman to follow a grand slam victory with defeat in round one of her next major tournament.

This year Kvitova, seeded at three, should avoid similar humiliation against the relatively obscure Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic. She also arrives in New York having won the Connecticut Open in a comprehensive display on Saturday. In 2011, in contrast, her new-found fame felt intrusive and unsettling – especially as she was lauded as an almost certain multiple slam-winner – whereas now she is relaxed. She laughs when asked if, at the start of Wimbledon, she actually expected to win it again.

“No,” Kvitova exclaims. “Of course, I wanted to win. Somewhere deep inside me I had this feeling of how much I want to win. But I’d had a hamstring injury and I didn’t know how I was going to do in the first round. The turning point was when I played Venus Williams. It was a very tough match and I wasn’t so happy I was playing her in only the third round. But even when she only needed two points to win I didn’t feel it was slipping away. I kept my head up. It was difficult but when I beat her I was very happy. OK, I’m on my way to the second week. There was not so much pressure after I beat Venus.”

There were some surreal moments instead. Before her fourth-round match, and during the first weekend of the tournament, her racket stringer Richard Sodek was working at the rented house in Wimbledon. “Richard found that one racket was broken,” Kvitova says. “Normally I have six and this time I only had five rackets. He had two more at home [in the Czech Republic] and one of his friends picked them up. The quickest way he could get them to Richard was to take them to the airport to find someone flying to England. He saw this group waiting for an easyJet flight and one man had a cap with the letters RF on the side. He thought, ‘Ah, a Roger Federer fan!’”

At this point in her story Kvitova starts to laugh – as if she can’t quite believe how the small team around her manages to avoid the anonymous sheen of corporate sport. She clearly relishes their homespun attitude. “My stringer’s friend talked to the group. He was trying to give them the rackets but they wouldn’t believe him. They thought he was joking and they were being filmed by a TV camera. But he convinced them. They took the two rackets and met my coach and my stringer at Wimbledon. I signed one of the rackets for them and gave them some tickets because they had come to Wimbledon and they were planning to wait in the line. So they got to see my fourth-round match.”

Kvitova’s powerful game gathered momentum. Her mind also became increasingly uncluttered as, with the help of her sports psychologist Michal Safar, she prepared herself mentally for her sustained tilt at the title. “We are working together a long time and Michal knows me very well. Every day we talked about what I wanted to achieve. He helped me because I was under a lot of pressure. I was the favourite for all my matches – and he was trying to feel what I’m feeling and that helped.”

Her coach, David Kotyza, meanwhile produced an even simpler message of positive thinking just before Kvitova played Eugenie Bouchard, the new darling of Wimbledon, in the final. Kotyza and Sodek went to the closest supermarket and bought a small mountain of kitchen roll. When Kvitova awoke on the morning of the final she looked out of the window and saw that a Czech word had been written in giant letters, on strips of kitchen towel, so that it filled the garden. “The word was ‘POJD’,” Kvitova explains, “and it means ‘come on!’ They put it all over the garden. It was a show that they believe in me. I was surprised when I saw it. But it made me happy.”

Against Bouchard, who had played thrillingly and without fear throughout the tournament, Kvitova reached a level so crushingly brilliant that she won 6-3, 6-0. The Canadian teenager looked helpless and stunned. Even Kvitova sometimes seemed incredulous. “You know,” she says, “sometimes I didn’t even know what the score was. I was just playing – and playing great. That can happen to me. I get in the zone and I don’t even need to count the points. It was definitely one of the best matches I’ve ever played. Some points I couldn’t believe it. When I held my serve for 3-1 in the first set it was such good play I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing?’

“At the end I was so happy. There was so much emotion when I saw my parents and coach. I had more tears this time. My father cried again, for sure. My coach David had tears too – which is not very usual – but he deserved it. We had tough times and people told me to change my coach. I told David that I wasn’t thinking about it. I told him I trusted him. I still thought he could help me.”

Kvitova sounds less like the bemused 21-year-old she was in 2011 when, overwhelmed by her first grand slam, she barely celebrated. This time Kvitova savoured her triumph, drinking champagne that night and going to the Wimbledon Ball, alongside the men’s champion, Novak Djokovic, the following evening.

“I went shopping the next day and tried on dresses for the ball. I also bought ear-rings as a present for myself. It was very nice having the ball at the Opera House and at our table it was Novak and his brother, me and David, and I loved having [her childhood heroine] Martina [Navratilova] with us.

The first time as champion wasn’t easy. I found it very difficult but now I know what to expect. I’m in the public [eye] a lot because my life has changed so much. It is tough because I am a private person. I get recognised a lot and, three years ago, I was not so comfortable. But I accept it now as part of my life and it’s not so bad.”

When Kvitova is this relaxed it’s easy to believe she will overcome all her residual doubts about sporting fame – and sweep away those peripheral concerns while remaining true to herself and her quest to win many more grand slam tournaments. The US Open, however, is the most taxing of all the slams for her.

“It’s true I have had some bad moments in New York. 2011 was terrible. It was a very tough loss. It was my first experience to go into a big tournament as a grand slam winner but I played so bad; 2013 was also not so good.”

In the third round last year she lost 6-3, 6-0 to Alison Riske, the American who made it into the draw only as a wildcard entry, but Kvitova had a high fever. “I wasn’t feeling so well but that’s not an excuse. I lost badly and I’m hoping for a better result this year.”

Kvitova’s latest title at the Connecticut Open will boost her rising confidence still further. She was at her most impressive when sweeping aside Sam Stosur, the 2011 US Open winner, in the semi-finals on Friday, winning 6-3, 6-1. Yet why, at least until now, has the US Open presented such difficult terrain? “It’s a tough question to answer. Maybe the best way is to say that Wimbledon, for me, feels like home. The US Open is not the same. It’s very crowded and noisy and it’s a big show. I’m more a quiet person, so for me it’s very different. Sometimes the weather is not great and I have to use my inhaler.

“But this year my asthma is good so far. I am feeling OK in New York. It’s true that the hard courts are not as fast as I want. But I can play good on the hard courts and I have reached the semis at the Australian Open. So I need to do at least the same at the US Open.”

Is there a danger that her failure to sparkle in New York might now be a psychological hurdle? “Maybe, yes. I never had a great run at the US Open. But 2012 was better. I also won in Connecticut [matching her latest triumph] and I made it to the fourth round [at Flushing Meadows where she lost to Marion Bartoli]. So I know I can do well.”

Can she secure a third grand slam in New York? “It’s not impossible,” she says wryly. “There is a chance I can break through and win the US Open. But it’s a grand slam and everyone will be preparing hard for it. So it’s not easy. From round one we face strong opponents and I will be the favourite for most of the matches and that’s tough. So I have to be ready.

“The serve will decide so much. If I don’t have the serve it won’t be possible. It’s also very important to be much more patient than at Wimbledon – and not make too many mistakes. There are going to be more rallies so I have to be physically and mentally prepared. But I feel good. I feel ready to do something different. It would be good to feel at home in New York.”