It took four months and 18 tournaments, but when the WTA finally produced a repeat tournament winner on Sunday, Petra Kvitova accomplished the job with class. She remained calm and confident in Stuttgart, Germany, as she outhit powerful Anett Kontaveit to break the hex at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix.
Roger Federer broke a similar streak of one-time winners for the ATP a month ago at the Miami Open. Week-to-week bragging rights may not appear to be up for grabs to the same extent on the ATP Tour, but in the big picture it's trending that way. First-time winners have claimed three of the past four Masters 1000 events. And on Sunday at the Barcelona Open, where a Spanish player or two-time champ Kei Nishikori had won every title since 2002 (Rafael Nadal accounted for 11 of those), Austrian Dominic Thiem crushed Russia's Daniil Medvedev to win.
Here are five things we learned from the four main ATP and WTA tour events last week:
Petra Kvitova is in the driver's seat
The two-time Wimbledon champion left most of her team behind and drove to the Stuttgart tournament from her home in the Czech Republic with a couple of friends. She might make better time on the way home, as a sports car was part of her reward on Sunday for winning the Porsche Grand Prix with a 6-3, 7-6 (2) victory over Kontaveit in the final.
The real race, though, is in the rankings, where Kvitova moved past Simona Halep for No. 2 on Monday and is closing quickly on No. 1 Naomi Osaka -- with a stretch in which the 6-foot lefty is often at her best coming up. Kvitova won two titles on clay last year, including the Madrid Premier Mandatory, and that lefty juju ought to be lethal again when the tour moves from clay to grass this summer. Those factors, combined with Osaka's recent tribulations and Halep's growing injury woes, make Kvitova's ascent to No. 1 seem almost inevitable.
And why not? The power-serving Kvitova has crept to within a single set of achieving that ranking twice in her career (most recently three months ago at the Australian Open). Kvitova is inarguably the best WTA pro never to have held the top ranking.
What makes Kvitova's present situation remarkable is her backstory. During a gruesome home invasion in late December 2016, a knife-wielding assailant nearly destroyed Kvitova's left hand. But after surgery, Kvitova returned to the tour in May 2017. She has been a model of consistency since, reaching 10 finals in 23 months -- including four already this year -- and is 8-2 in those championships matches. Among the top players, only recently deposed No. 1 Halep made more finals over the same span (12), but she has won fewer (four).
Can it be that Kvitova's traumatic experience and injury have somehow provided her with greater resolve and focus? Once a player prone to negativity and loss of confidence, she told reporters at the Australian Open about the new, more positive way she reacts to losses: "Like the day after, I'm always looking back and seeing what [I've] done and what I achieved from the time [of the attack]. I think I'm seeing life a little differently compared to before."
There's never been a better Thiem to shine
You have to feel for Dominic Thiem. He has been designated as "King of Clay" Rafael Nadal's successor for years, but the monarch just won't go quietly into the night. At age 25, Thiem falls between generations -- too young to be part of the Big Four crew, too old to benefit from all that Next Gen hype. Instead, the amiable, ultrafit, diligent Austrian has patiently waited for his time to come.
It may have arrived.
Thiem had a great week in Barcelona. In the semifinals, he became the only player besides Novak Djokovic to log four career wins over Nadal (who had been 22-0 in Barcelona semis and finals) on clay. In the final, Thiem spotted Next Gen star Medvedev -- the tour leader with 25 wins this year -- a three-game lead, then ripped through 12 of the final 13 games to win 6-4, 6-0.
"Only great players have won here," Thiem told reporters after the final. "Rafa has won it 11 times, and it means a lot that [fellow Austrian clay expert Thomas] Muster won it twice. It's a big moment for me."
It would be rash to read too much into Thiem's win over Nadal, though. The French Open is almost a month distant, and Nadal has said his greatest need following a series of career-interrupting injuries has been continuity of the kind he is now getting on his beloved red clay. But a French Open final rematch against Thiem, whom Nadal crushed in last year's final, is a tantalizing possibility.
Naomi Osaka's secret weapon
Players who find themselves in the limelight and under pressure to build on their success come up with all kinds of techniques for dealing with poor results, starting with denying that they feel any pressure at all. Osaka hasn't won three consecutive matches at a tournament since her early February parting with the coach who orchestrated her rapid rise to No. 1, Sascha Bajin. While she doesn't exactly quote Billie Jean "Pressure is a Privilege" King, Osaka takes a clear-eyed view of the position she's in and the criticism leveled at her.
"I would be lying if I said it wasn't bothering me," Osaka told reporters in Stuttgart. "I tend to internalize everything, so it just builds up. I think you could tell because I started getting really antsy on court compared to before. If I would make a mistake, I would react upon it. I feel that people that were really watching could tell. ... I felt I wasn't really enjoying myself."
Osaka's honesty and self-awareness will be useful tools in the days to come. Clay is not her best surface, and Kvitova and Halep are hard on her heels in the rankings. But there were some encouraging signs for Osaka in her 2019 clay debut at Stuttgart. She launched with an impressive win over tricky Su-Wei Hsieh (who had beaten her in their previous encounter), then mounted a great comeback from 5-1 down in the third set to beat Donna Vekic. An abdominal strain ended her tournament, but the injury does not appear to be a serious concern. "It's something I've had before," Osaka said. "Thankfully, because I've had it so many times, I'm able to tell what it is and I'm able to know what to do to make it better. I'm happy it was the beginning [of the clay season] and not Rome, when it's really close to the French Open."
Osaka is 5-3 in matches played since winning the Australian Open. It wouldn't take much for her to snap out of the doldrums.
Desperately seeking Sascha
Alexander Zverev, the 22-year-old paragon of the ATP's successful Next Gen campaign, is the defending champion at the next Masters 1000 event, the Madrid Open. "Sascha" will embark on his defense having failed to put together back-to-back wins since he lost to Nick Kyrgios two months ago in the Acapulco final.
"It's not a secret, I'm in a hole," Zverev told reporters in Barcelona, where he took a wild card -- only to lose his first match (despite holding match point) to No. 81 Nicolas Jarry.
Zverev reached No. 3 in November 2017 and has remained in the tennis stratosphere ever since, an astonishing prodigy and presumed heir apparent to the Big Four. He has cracked the Masters 1000 code twice (the first time in Rome in 2017) and accumulated 10 titles. But Zverev has had disappointing results at Grand Slams, so he brought supercoach Ivan Lendl on board last August to help him vault to that next, final level. Last November, Zverev claimed his biggest title when he hammered Djokovic to win the ATP Finals.
Then things went sideways. Milos Raonic, seeded No. 16, handled No. 4 seed Zverev with surprising ease in the fourth round at the Australian Open. Zverev reached the Acapulco final, but without beating a pro ranked higher than No. 26. Five of his six losses since then have been to players ranked outside the top 50.
Zverev isn't panicking -- yet. The unfeigned, preternatural confidence and air of command that seem to have been his birthright are still intact. He said in Barcelona: "I'm experiencing defeats, especially on clay, that I haven't experienced for a few years. But if you ask Rafa or Roger, they will tell you they've gone through the same thing. It's normal."
Actually, neither Nadal nor Federer ever went through a comparably bad patch after hitting the top five, but believing that they did should help Zverev pull out of his funk.
The tours could benefit from more indoor clay events
A few years ago, clay-court experts including Nadal often criticized the ATP Tour for its hard-court-heavy calendar. (This year, the calendar has 36 tournaments on hard courts, 20 on clay and 10 on grass.) Nadal has lobbied for playing the ATP Finals on clay, but that event is in November, and the ATP's clay events are held outdoors.
Enter Stuttgart and the Porsche Grand Prix, one of the most popular -- and successful -- WTA events. Played indoors on red clay, it demonstrates that indoor clay tennis is viable and appealing. (There have been a fair number of successful Davis Cup ties held on indoor clay as well.)
Indoor venues and clay are a good fit. The lack of humidity indoors tends to make clay play fast, and quick clay eliminates the criticism that the surface overly favors defensive players. Clay in general is more forgiving physically at a time when injuries are playing an ever-increasing role on both tours. Tennis has always held up surface variety as a strength of the game -- this would be another arrow in that quiver.
Men's No. 1 Novak Djokovic is a big proponent of moving the ATP Finals around. He played a key role in the event moving from London's 02 Arena to the Pala Alpitour stadium in Turin, Italy, beginning in 2021. So why not vary the surface as well, especially when clay is the native surface in Italy?