On her good side

DURING THE EARLY ROUNDS of Wimbledon in June, 18-time grand slam winner Martina Navratilova and reporter Joel Drucker sat in the Tennis Channel's broadcast booth discussing the legacy of the lefthanded tennis player. The great male lefties came to mind quickly: Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Rod Laver, Goran Ivanisevic, Rafael Nadal. The women were tougher. Beyond Navratilova herself, Monica Seles and 1969 Wimbledon champ Ann Haydon Jones came to mind. Those three had been the only lefthanded women ever to win a grand slam singles title in the Open era. But by the end of the fortnight, Petra Kvitova had changed that.

It was a victory that Navratilova and Drucker probably saw coming. The 21-year-old Kvitova had climbed from No. 34 at the close of 2010 to No. 8 at the start of Wimbledon. There at the All England Club, the Czech lost just two sets en route to her first major title, dazzling opponents and fans alike with her steep lefthanded spin on an already heavy serve. Wimbledon became the crown jewel in a Cinderella season that included six tournament wins, a Fed Cup title and the prestigious WTA Player of the Year Award. Kvitova ended her season in the No. 2 spot, and in January she'll head into the Australian Open poised to land her second slam.

The ultra-aggressive Kvitova, who modeled her game after her ultra-aggressive compatriot Navratilova, spent the year establishing herself as the deadliest member of the WTA triumvirate -- along with No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki and No. 3 Victoria Azarenka. She dominated the more defensive Wozniacki during their lone meeting in 2011 at the WTA Championships in Istanbul, and she compiled an impressive 3–0 match record against Azarenka. Each time they faced off, Kvitova used her penetrating ground strokes to keep the athletic Azarenka on her heels and repeatedly forced the issue at the net. "Petra is really going
for it," says Azarenka. "I think she can beat anybody, any day, because right now she has a really good game."

If -- or more likely when -- Kvitova claims the top spot from Woz, she'll become the first No. 1-ranked lefty since Seles held the seat in 1996. It's a fact that speaks as much to Kvitova's skill as it does to the scarcity of southpaws in the world of professional tennis. The Czech is one of only seven lefthanded players in the WTA's top 70; there are also just seven in the men's top 50. "I started playing tennis when I was 4 or 5 years old," Kvitova says. "Even then, my father told me there was an advantage for the lefties."

It's simple physics. When a righty plays another righty, the spin on the serve and forehand causes the ball to go to the dominant forehand side of nearly every tennis player on the planet. But when a southpaw serves, the opposite happens. The ball spins to the weaker backhand side, making returns by righties more difficult. In an effort to emulate the lefty spin, many righties, including Sam Stosur and Andy Roddick, have developed kick serves that spin to the backhand side. But even the best kick serve cannot duplicate what a lefthander does naturally and with more power. "Petra would be hard to play whether she was lefthanded or righthanded," says Stosur. "But her serve is especially difficult because there just aren't many lefthanders out there."

The benefit of being lefthanded is so undeniable that Nadal's Uncle Toni, his longtime coach, forced 8-year-old Rafa, a natural righty, to hold his racket in his left hand. "I always hated playing lefties," Toni Nadal told the The Telegraph in June. "I thought he should at least try it." Of course,
now Rafa's scorching lefthanded forehand is the one shot that can consistently break down Roger Federer's perfect one-handed backhand.

Kvitova's forehand shows similar potential, and she has two advantages Nadal does not: She was born a lefty, and she's tall. At six feet, she uses her extra reach to get more on top of the ball and create even more spin. Imagine a mirror image of Venus Williams' killer serve. "The longer you are, the longer the arc, the steeper the angle, the more spin you can put on the ball," Navratilova says. "Petra has a great slice, and it's not because of the wind, you know?"

But even with all of Kvitova's weapons, the 115-point spread that separates her from No. 1 is larger than it seems, and overtaking Wozniacki by February will be difficult. If Kvitova has a weakness, it's her play on outdoor hardcourts. In her past six events on that surface, Kvitova has logged a weak 6–6 match record. And nowhere do heat and wind wreak more havoc than on the courts Down Under. "No. 1 is very close," Kvitova says. "But it's still a big step."

Momentum, however, is on Kvitova's side. She hasn't lost a match since the first week of October and plans to continue her 12-match winning streak in Australia. If not? She'll still go down as one of the best female lefties in the history of tennis.

Linsday Berra is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.