One of the two much-anticipated battle of the 'Czech mates' at the Aegon Classic Birmingham pit Petra Kvitova against fellow lefty Lucie Safarova. It is the opening match scheduled Tuesday on Ann Jones Centre Court. 29-year-old Safarova is making her second Birmingham appearance of the decade whereas Kvitova returns to the tournament for the first time since 2008.
For the past couple of years, it has become a custom for Kvitova to begin the grass court swing at the Aegon International Eastbourne, Eastbourne and not here in Birmingham. In her only prior appearance in Birmingham which came in 2008, she lost in the first round to now-retired Indian player Sunitha Rao in straight sets.
Kvitova has come a long way since 2008, winning two Wimbledon titles and peaking at world number two. So far in 2016, nothing has gone the way of the 26-year-old Czech, amassing a less than average 13-12 record, falling out of the top 10 and winning consecutive matches in just four of the ten tournaments she took part in.
Some may deduce the rationale of Kvitova's decision to play an extra Wimbledon warm-up event this year as getting as many matches under her belt and be fully prepared for the third Grand Slam of the year, played on her most favourite surface. A sore throat forced her to withdraw from Eastbourne last year, thus entering Wimbledon with no completed matches on grass under belt. It may have resulted in her earliest exit at the tournament since 2009, having made at least the quarterfinals in her five prior appearances.
As the fifth seed, the Czech was initially in the quarter of Agnieszka Radwanska and was projected to play Misaki Doi in her opener. The withdrawal of third seed Simona Halep pre-tournament saw the Czech take over the Romanian's spot in the draw, now pitting her against Safarova.
After missing out the first two months of 2016 to recover from a bacterial infection and going winless in her first five matches, Safarova rebounded well by winning her first title of the year on home soil in Prague. It was a much needed boost for the Czech who since then, has won at least one match in every tournament.
She then came in direct confrontation with the weight of defending finalist points at the French Open. The Czech faced no trouble in her first two rounds but fell short in the third round to Samantha Stosur who eventually made the semifinals. Due to that early exit, Safarova saw her ranking take a tumble, falling out of the top 20 and is now within the cusp of the top 30.
Safarova has proven that she can perform on this surface, backing up her 2014 Wimbledon semifinal run with a round of 16 showing last year. Moreover, she has also made consecutive quarterfinals in Eastbourne in 2012 and 2013.
Prior to 2014, both ladies have only met once on the tour, in New Haven in 2012 where Kvitova won straight sets en route to lifting the title. Both Czechs managed to avoid each other in draws throughout 2013 but since then, they have been magnetic, colliding seven times, quince in 2014, with all seven going in favour of the younger Czech.
In their last meeting at the WTA Finals, Kvitova defeated Safarova in straight sets for her only win in the round robin stage. Of the five meetings that occured in 2014, two came on grass in Eastbourne and Wimbledon, their only prior meetings on the lawns. Despite winning comfortably en route to her second Wimbledon title, Kvitova was given a run for her money in Eastbourne the week before, coming out on top in a tight deciding tiebreak.
At the moment, nothing much can de drawn out of both players as this will be their opening match on grass this year. Safarova, who is still On the hunt for her first win over Kvitova and will defintely go for it. Their encounter in Eastbourne, demonstrated how close she came to beating Kvitova, on this surface as well.
Being a two-time Grand Slam champion in doubles, Safarova clearly has more experience at the net and might want to execute her doubles prowess to her advantage. Furthermore, she cannot give her opponent any chance to step in and dictate the point.
Being the more powerful and aggressive of the duo, the match will ultimately depend on which Kvitova shows up for the match. Back on her favourite surface, Kvitova will want to kick off her grass court campaign on a good note. The Czech would need to play a clean first-strike tennis and at the same time, avoid making unneccessary errors. Adding to that, she should be aware of the threat Safarova poses, most notably her lethal forehand.
Both players could get off to a slow start with this being their first match on grass. Safarova should be able to deny Kvitova a straight-sets win but ultimately, possessing the upper hand in the head-to-head and more experience on this surface, Kvitova should eventually come out on top and secure her ninth victory over Safarova.
Prediction: Petra Kvitova in three sets