Twenty years ago, the WTA relocated one of its longest-running tournaments, the Bank of the West Classic, to Stanford University. What had previously been an indoor event made a pleasing transition to an outdoor, college setting.
It has always been fascinating to watch these young athletes trek across the grounds of a college campus. That first year at Stanford, 1997, saw Martina Hingis win the title – Hingis just 16 years old, wise beyond her years, at least in tennis acumen.
With a squint and a blur, it’s fun to imagine what these players might have been had they been undergraduates instead of professional athletes. Picture Hingis, a cocky pre-med student, snapping gum, hardly worried at all about that chemistry final.
Yesterday, at Stanford, there was Petra Kvitova, making her Bank of the West Classic debut. She’s the kindly, subdued music major who lugs her instrument across the quad, a mild, smile on her face, head in the clouds.
It has always been hard to see Kvitova in the assassin’s role so pervasive among tennis champions. The two Wimbledon finals she’s won were less interpersonal battles and more supreme performances. In the 2011 final – the first time she’d ever gone that far – Kvitova routinely handled veteran Maria Sharapova, 6-3, 6-4. Three years later, up against ascending Eugenie Bouchard, Kvitova again treated Centre Court like her own private music hall, demolishing the Canadian, 6-3, 6-0. Both finals ended with winners; versus Sharapova, an ace down the T in the ad court and against Bouchard, a crisp crosscourt backhand.
Her first round match at the Bank of the West Classic, Kvitova faced Kateryna Bondarenko. Bondarenko is tennis’ version of a middle manager, a well-seasoned veteran who has punched the clock regularly for more than a decade (save for an 18-month maternity leave) but never made an impression significant enough to have earned a personal parking space or corner office. Still, the last time she and Kvitova had met, at the ’12 Olympics, played at Wimbledon, Kvitova had barely won, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4.
Stanford was different. Severe heat often enervates Kvitova, but this afternoon was overcast, the humidity-free temperature in the low 70s. Not once facing break point, hitting 31 winners to only 11 for her opponent, she dispatched Bondarenko 6-2, 6-2 in 60 minutes. Class dismissed.
It was nice to see Kvitova looking so comfortable. Hardly tested, she showed no signs of the wrist surgery that delayed the start of her 2017 tennis year until late May. At her best, the 27-year-old Czech has an exceptionally pleasing style, be it her ability to crack forceful forehands, as well a rarity in contemporary women’s tennis, a bending lefty serve that strongly opens up the court.
“I served very well, and I was just trying to play my game – which I always try, and sometimes that works, sometimes not,” said Kvitova, sounding like that music major knowing that some days the rhythm was there, and others it wouldn’t.
Of Kvitova’s 20 career singles titles, but three have come in the United States – a trio of victories at New Haven. For what it’s worth, that tournament also takes place in a college setting, on the campus of Yale University. As Stanford unfolds, we’ll see soon enough if Kvitova can continue to ace her exams.