By Martyn Herman
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Petra Kvitova provided further proof that she is the rising force in women's tennis by beating Victoria Azarenka 7-5 4-6 6-3 to win the WTA Championships Sunday.
The 21-year-old Czech, who shot to fame by winning Wimbledon this year, produced a display of power and skill to overpower the gritty Azarenka and claim the $1.75 million jackpot after remaining undefeated at the year-ending event featuring the world's top eight players.
Victory also confirmed Kvitova at a career-high second in the WTA rankings after ending 2010 in 34th spot and she will enter the new year with No.1 Caroline Wozniacki in her sights.
Left-handed Kvitova's free-flowing game took her into a 5-0 lead in the opening set inside the Sinan Erdem Dome but she lost the next five games as the errors began to stack up.
She finally edged the opening set on a fifth set point but Azarenka, who could also have taken the number two ranking with victory, refused to be cowed by her opponent's superior firepower and kept her nose front to win the second set.
She is the first Czech to win the Championships since Jana Novotna in 1997 and can still put the icing on the cake of a dream season when she leads her country in the Fed Cup final against Russia next week.
"When I started the season I was 34, and I didn't expect that I will be sitting here as champion and I have grand slam already," Kvitova told reporters.
"Really it's unbelievable. It's really a big step for me."
Just as was the case against Australia's Samantha Stosur in the semi-finals when she lost the first set, Kvitova's play veered between unplayable and erratic but her high-risk style proved to the liking of the 13,600 crowd who produced a great atmosphere to cap a fine start for Istanbul as host city.
She has won her last 19 matches indoors and during an explosive start it was easy to see why as the pace of her forehand and serving accuracy caught Azarenka cold.
"Petra really started well, caught me a little bit off-guard, she was so aggressive," Azarenka told reporters. "I'm glad I could fight my way back and try to stay in the match. I really gave it all today."
After opening the match with a confident service game, Kvitova broke the Azarenka serve straight away with the help of one of the numerous drops shots she employed throughout the match to great effect.
A searing forehand sealed the early break and she struck again two games later when a flustered Azarenka missed the line with a straightforward forehand at 30-30.
Some meaty Kvitova serving made it 5-0 but Azarenka finally got on the scoreboard in the next game with a rolled forehand winner that signaled a complete shift in momentum.
Suddenly she began to miss the lines by inches and Azarenka chipped away at the lead, saving two set points on serve in the eighth game and twice breaking Kvitova to love.
Kvitova steadied herself to hold serve at 5-5 and all Azarenka's hard work proved in vain as she dropped serve in the next game to put Kvitova a set to the good.
However, it was Azarenka who emerged from a flurry of early service breaks with the advantage in the second set and she kept her nose in front to level the match with a forehand that landed flush on the sideline.
Kvitova called her coach David Kotyza on to court for a chat before the start of the decider but the Czech found herself under more pressure as Azarenka engineered three break points but failed to take any of them.
It was to prove a pivotal moment as Kvitova, who celebrates important points with a gut-wrenching screech, took command when Azarenka blazed a forehand long to drop serve.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)