The Ladies' Singles final of The Championships, Wimbledon 2011 is set, with 2004 champion No. 5 Maria Sharapova taking on No. 8 Petra Kvitova on Centre Court Saturday.
Here's a look at the two combatants, and how they got here:
No. 8 Petra Kvitova
Petra Kvitova may be a new name to casual tennis fans, but she's been on the sports radar since February of 2008, when as the WTA No. 143, a seventeen-year old Kvitova ousted Venus Williams in the first round of Memphis. Kvitova continued that success at the next grand slam, the 2008 French Open, at which she made it to the second week of the tournament with wins over Samantha Stosur and No. 12 Agnes Szavay before bowing out in the fourth round.
At the US Open in 2009, Kvitova upset top-seeded Dinara Safina in the third round, courageously beating the much-maligned WTA No. 1 in a third set tiebreak to make it into the second week of a grand slam for the second time.
Kvitova's biggest successes at a grand slam previous to this tournament came the next year, at Wimbledon 2010. The unseeded Kvitova eliminated No. 23 Zheng Jie in the second round, No. 14 Victoria Azarenka in the third, and No. 3 Caroline Wozniacki in the fourth. Kvitova's victory over Wozniacki (who would become No. 1 later that year) was especially emphatic, embarassing her by the score of 6-2, 6-0 in one of the most shocking stompings in recent tennis history. Kvitova then saved five match points in her win over Kaia Kanepi in the quarterfinals, before falling 7-6(5), 6-2 in a fiery semifinal against eventual champion Serena Williams.
Petra Kvitova in 2011:
Having been named the "WTA Newcomer of the Year" in 2010 (a title many thought was years late), Kvitova was well established as a name to watch by 2011. She opened the year with a title in Brisbane, beating Andrea Petkovic 6-3, 6-1 in the final. As the No. 25 seed at the Australian Open, Kvitova upset No. 5 Samantha Stosur and No. 22 Flavia Pennetta, before falling in the quarterfinals to No. 2 Vera Zvonareva. The run gave Kvitova the achievement of having made it into the last sixteen of all four grand slams at the age of 20, an especially impressive feat given the success veterans have had in women's tennis over the last several years.
Kvitova won the two biggest titles of her career in the coming months, showing her all-surface game in the process. She first won the Premier-level event in Paris in February, beating No. 2 Kim Clijsters in straight sets in the finals on a fast indoor court. In April, Kvitova beat three top ten players (No. 3 Vera Zvonareva, No. 6 Li Na, No. 5 Victoria Azarenka) at the Premier Mandatory Madrid Open, a title that launched her into the top ten for the first time.
Kvitova fell to eventual champion Li Na in the fourth round of the French Open, but recovered nicely when the tour shifted to grass, making it to the finals of the prestigious warm-up event in Eastbourne.
Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon 2011:
Kvitova's road to the Wimbledon final began relatively easily, beating American qualifier Alexa Glatch in the first round, and Briton Anne Keothavong in the second, losing a combined seven games in her first four sets. Her third round match was a decidedly tougher challenge, facing No. 29 Roberta Vinci, who had just won the warm-up tournament in 's-Hertogenbosch the week before. Kvitova was hardly challenged, however, and dispatched Vinci 6-3, 6-3.
Having flown somewhat under the radar in the first week, Kvitova loudly announced her presence in this tournament in the fourth round. Facing No. 19 Yanina Wickmayer, Kvitova hit thirty-one winners on her way to a 6-2, 6-0 victory that took only 45 minutes to complete. Kvitova then made it into her second consecutive Wimbledon semifinal with a 6-3, 6-7(5), 6-2 victory over fellow 2010 semifinalist Tsvetana Pironkova, ousting the player who had previously eliminated five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams and No. 2 Vera Zvonareva.
Doing what she had been (understandably) unable to do against Serena Williams the year before, Kvitova booked a spot in her first grand slam final with a 6-1, 3-6, 6-2 win over No. 4 Victoria Azarenka.
What winning Wimbledon 2011 would mean for Petra Kvitova:
Though she is unlikely to have the A-List marketability of previous breakout champions like Maria Sharapova, a win for Kvitova would signal the arrival of a enormous force to be reckoned with in the women's game for the next decade or so. She would be the first Czech to win a grand slam since Jana Novotna won Wimbledon in 1998, and the first left-handed woman to win one since Monica Seles won the 1996 Australian Open.
With her powerful left-handed serve and forehand, and her far scarier lack of any fear on the biggest stages, Kvitova seems destined to win multiple slams before her time is done. A win at Wimbledon 2011 would just start that collection of slam hardware earlier than most expected.
No. 5 Maria Sharapova
There has been buzz about the Maria Sharapova since she was a pre-teen. With her devastating power, her screaming grunt, and her model-level looks, Sharapova was given an incredible amount of attention from the time she turned pro on her fourteenth birthday.
But unlike Anna Kournikova, the Russian to whom Sharapova was so often compared early in her career, Sharapova won the hardware to back up her hype quickly. In what was only her second time playing at the All-England Club, No. 13 Sharapova stunned No. 5 Lindsay Davenport in the semifinals, and then shocked the world by demolishing two-time defending champion No. 1 Serena Williams 6-1, 6-4 in the final.
Having won her first slam title at only 17, Sharapova became an exponentially larger media phenomneon, earning staggering endorsement deals and a level of exposure to which few female athletes had ever come close.
Sharapova backed up her shocking Wimbledon title with steady success, making it to the semifinals of five the her next eight grand slams. She earned the WTA No. 1 ranking for the first time in 2005, a ranking she has since earned on three more occasions.
Sharapova won her second slam title at the 2006 US Open, beating Justine Henin-Hardenne 6-4, 6-4 in the final.
Though she had begun to miss time with a shoulder injury, Sharapova came through with her third slam title at the 2008 Australian Open, beating Ana Ivanovic 7-5, 6-3.
But after that title her shoulder injury grew worse, forcing Sharapova to miss much of 2008 and her chance to defend her Australian Open final.
Upon her return from shoulder surgery in 2009, Sharapova's serve, which had previously been one of her greatest weapons, became a huge liability. Regularly double faulting over a dozen times per match, and suffering several early upsets at big tournaments, it was unclear whether Sharapova would ever contend for another grand slam, with many questioning her dedication to winning given her multitude of off-court opportunities.
Maria Sharapova in 2011:
Sharapova's 2011 campaign started inauspiciously, losing 6-2, 6-3 in the fourth round of the Australian Open to No. 33 Andrea Petkovic, widely considered Sharapova's worst performance ever at a grand slam.
Sharapova still seemed unlikelier still to become a real threat to contend at major tournaments when she was drubbed 6-1, 6-2 by Caroline Wozniacki in the semifinals of Indian Wells.
But at Miami, the tournament nearest her childhood training grounds in Bradenton, Sharapova seemed to rediscover her mojo. She upset No. 5 Samantha Stosur in the third round, saved match points in her quarterfinal victory over No. 28 Alexandra Dulgheru, and avenged her Australian Open defeat in the semifinals with a win over No. 21 Petkovic. She lost to No. 4 Victoria Azarenka in the final, but the run signaled Sharapova's return to top flight tennis (and the top ten).
Sharapova won the biggest clay court title of her career (and her biggest title since the 2008 Australian Open of any kind) at Rome in May, beating No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in the semifinals and No. 7 Stosur in the final.
Sharapova matched her best ever run at the French Open later that month, pulling off impressive wins over No. 13 Agnieszka Radwanska and No. 12 Petkovic before falling to eventual champion No. 6 Li Na in the semifinal, a disappointing loss that ended with Sharapova committing her tenth double fault on match point.
Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon 2011:
Sharapova did not have an especially difficult road to the final, but her solid play has made her road look easier than it might have otherwise. After an easy win over former top-five player Anna Chakvetadze in the first round, Sharapova had her hands full with seventeen year-old British wild card Laura Robson in the second round. Robson raced out to a 4-1 lead in the first set, but
Sharapova used her experience and trademark grit to force a tiebreak, which she won 7-4. Sharapova won the second set with considerably more ease, finishing off Robson 7-6(4), 6-1.
Sharapova continued her sharp play through her next three rounds, dispatching quick Czech Klara Zakopalova 6-2, 6-3 in the third round, and No. 20 Peng Shuai 6-4, 6-2 in the fourth.
Her quarterfinal opponent, No. 24 Dominika Cibulkova, looked to pose a considerably larger challenge, despite her diminutive size. Cibulkova had beaten Sharapova 6-0, 6-2 at the 2009 French Open, and beat her in straight sets Madrid in April of 2011. Cibulkova had also pulled off the largest upset of the tournament the round before, beating No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki. But Sharapova blasted Cibulkova off the court, bringing Cibulkova down to size by the score of 6-1, 6-1.
Sharapova was nowhere near at her best in her semifinal match against wild card Sabine Lisicki, hitting thirteen double faults and making only 48% of her first serves. But Sharapova's grit and fight are never below 100%, and they pulled her through from a 1-4 deficit to a 6-4, 6-3 win.
What winning Wimbledon 2011 would mean for Maria Sharapova:
If she were to win on Saturday, Wimbledon 2011 would be Sharapova's fourth grand slam title, cementing her place in the pantheon of tennis greats even further.
But to return to the top of the game after so many set backs would mean so much more than just another notch in her slam count to Sharapova, a belief she articulated before the tournament began:
I've said it since I came back from my injury. I said that if I could win another Grand Slam, it would mean more than the previous ones that I have, you know, just because before the injury everything was, you know, kind of moving up and everything was on a ‑‑ you just naturally woke up, you went to practice, and then all of a sudden one day it was kind of taken away from you.
You kind of have to step back and look at things from a different angle. And then when you get back there, you basically start from zero. You know, you try to get yourself to a level where you can compete with the top players, beating them day in, day out. Yeah, it's a long process.
If I do achieve that, if it's here, if it's somewhere else, I think it would be my biggest achievement in my career.
Petra Kvitova vs. Maria Sharapova:
With how Sharapova struggled in her match against Lisicki, its probably fair to say that Kvitova comes into this match playing the sharper tennis. Her serve has proved more reliable, and her less flat shots give her a greater margin of error. Kvitova has also proven to be fearless on every previous big occasion in her career, though a grand slam final will be a completely new experience for her. Kvitova can match and possibly exceed Sharapova' power, and if this match were being played on paper it would be tough not to pick her.
But since the intangibles are almost more important than the tennis by the time a grand slam tournament reaches the final, this seems like Sharapova's to lose. Her experience on this stage, her awareness of how rare these opportunities are, and, of course, fiance Sasha Vujacic, should be enough to see her through in three sets. Prediction: Sharapova in 3.