It has long been accepted that differential radial thickening of guard cells plays an important role in the turgor-driven shape changes required for stomatal pore opening to occur [1-4]. This textbook description derives from an original interpretation of structure rather than measurement of mechanical properties. Here we show, using atomic force microscopy, that although mature guard cells display a radial gradient of stiffness, this is not present in immature guard cells, yet young stomata show a normal opening response. Finite element modeling supports the experimental observation that radial stiffening plays a very limited role in stomatal opening. In addition, our analysis reveals an unexpected stiffening of the polar regions of the stomata complexes, both in Arabidopsis and other plants, suggesting a widespread occurrence. Combined experimental data (analysis of guard cell wall epitopes and treatment of tissue with cell wall digesting enzymes, coupled with bioassay of guard cell function) plus modeling lead us to propose that polar stiffening reflects a mechanical, pectin-based pinning down of the guard cell ends, which restricts increase of stomatal complex length during opening. This is predicted to lead to an improved response sensitivity of stomatal aperture movement with respect to change of turgor pressure. Our results provide new insight into the mechanics of stomatal function, both negating an established view of the importance of radial thickening and providing evidence for a significant role for polar stiffening. Improved stomatal performance via altered cell-wall-mediated mechanics is likely to be of evolutionary and agronomic significance.