Ten years ago at Roland Garros, while prepping for a Tennis Channel broadcast, former tennis professional Mary Carillo spoke with Martina Navratilova. The topic: Petra Kvitova.
Carillo took notes. “Big, strong technique, and she really pops it. She’s got a good second [underlined] serve too.
“Technique is also key because bad mechanics cause so many injuries – classically trained servers tend to have longer, better careers.”
Turns out Navratilova had a keen eye. Seven weeks later, Kvitova won Wimbledon for the first time.
“I’ve always been told I can play well on the grass, that I can have a good game because of the lefty and the style of my game,” Kvitova recently said. “After the first matches, suddenly I found a way how to play on it. It was much easier for me to move on it.
“I felt the confidence a little bit more.”
Living up to her potential
Sustained athletic careers typically feature a series of peaks and valleys. Over the past decade, it seems, Kvitova’s have been higher – and lower – than most.
She was born in Bilovec three years before Czechoslovakia gave way to the Czech Republic and came to tennis relatively late. Driven, in part, by the example of fellow Czech Navratilova, she learned the game in Fulnek. Her only Grand Slam appearance as a junior came at the All England Club, where she reached the Round of 16 in 2007.
Although she would lose her first four professional matches on grass, her left-handed game was well-suited to the living, breathing surface.
Kvitova, now 31, had lost her first-round matches in 2008 and 2009, but in 2010 the 20-year-old was a revelation at Wimbledon. She defeated Sorana Cirstea, Zheng Jie, Victoria Azarenka, Caroline Wozniacki and Kaia Kanepi in succession to reach the semifinals. She forced World No.1 and eventual champion Serena Williams to a first-set tiebreaker but lost 7-6(5), 6-2. Kvitova’s ranking improved 32 spots, to No.30.
“It’s that first-strike mentality and ability,” said Tracy Austin, a two-time Grand Slam champion and Tennis Channel analyst. “She has the lefty serve, which is a sliding serve out in the ad court to a righty backhand. She can hit all the spots on her serve. She’s not predictable.
“She has a flat shot on both sides and the grass accentuates that. The ball moves through the court and stays low. She can hit angles, which widens the court. You have to have the mentality that you like playing on grass. Some players, not many, walk into the All England Club and actually get a boost. Petra is definitely one of them.”
You could almost see the successes of 2011 coming. Kvitova won in Brisbane, reached the quarterfinals in Melbourne, won the Paris Indoors and Madrid. On grass, she reached the final in Eastbourne, losing to Marion Bartoli. The next two weeks at Wimbledon, she didn’t lose at all.
Kvitova needed three sets to close out Tsvetana Pironkova in the quarterfinals and Azarenka in the semifinals, then faced three-time major champion Maria Sharapova in the final.
Ask Kvitova what she remembers most vividly about that fortnight and this is her answer: “Definitely when I played the match point with Maria. It was the ball that changed my life, to be honest.”
Up 6-3, 5-4 and 40-love, on the final stroke of the match, she struck her only ace, a 105-mile-per-hour offering down the middle of the ad court.
Kvitova, at 21, was the youngest Wimbledon champion since the 17-year-old Sharapova in 2004. It wasn’t until the trophy ceremony that it hit her. Was it the best match of her life?
“I think so,” Kvitova said through tears, her voice quavering. “Of course. In the final of Wimbledon, yeah.”
A different set of expectations
The run to the semifinals the year before had brought far more scrutiny – from media, sponsors and fans – than she had ever experienced.
After winning, she said, the attention was suffocating.
“Everybody is watching you in the public,” Kvitova said. “I had like a feel that I have to win everything. And it’s impossible, to be honest.
“So, you know, a lot of pressure – on myself, by myself, on the people around me. And from the media I heard, `Yeah, like she will be our new World No.1, she will be the star of it.’”
In her next Grand Slam, the 2011 US Open, Kvitova lost in the first round. And while she made it to the semifinals at the 2012 Australian Open (losing to Sharapova) and Roland Garros, her title defense at Wimbledon ended in the quarters when she fell to Williams. Her best major effort in 2013 was another quarterfinal appearance at Wimbledon, where she lost to Kirsten Flipkens.
Before 2014 Wimbledon, she lost in the first round of the Australian Open and the third at Roland Garros.
“And you are hearing all this and you are trying to put it away,” Kvitova said of the buzz a Grand Slam champion evokes. “But on the other hand, you have it in the mind.
“So it’s changing you at lot, especially the pressure, and it’s changing the players who are playing against you. They have nothing to lose. They have only to gain something.”
That year, Kvitova raced through the Wimbledon fortnight, dropping only a single set – to five-time champion Venus Williams in the third round. Now ranked No.6, she handled Eugenie Bouchard in a 6-3, 6-0 final, her second major championship.
“I know in myself, it was such a more deeper feeling of happiness, of satisfaction, of like, really, joy,” Kvitova said. “It’s really tough to compare those two, of course, but for the second one, it was something a little bit more.
“When I was 21 and winning my first one, I didn’t expect it, didn’t think it could happen. And, suddenly it was a surprise and I was like everything’s flying, and I didn’t really know how to handle it. Three more years, definitely made me more mature.”
December 16, 2016: Prostejov, a small city about 160 miles from Prague. Someone posing as a workman asked to check the boiler in Kvitova’s apartment at 8:30 a.m. She turned on the hot water and suddenly felt a 10-inch knife pressed against her neck.
Kvitova gave him all she had – 10,000 Czech crowns (about $440 U.S. dollars) – before he left. The damage was much, much more.
All five of the digits on her left hand were cut, and the nerves of the thumb and index finger – the two most important in gripping a tennis racquet – were completely severed. Ligaments and tendons, the invaluable connective tissues that allow us to function routinely in everyday life, were in tatters.
“It never will be fine, I will say,” Kvitova says today of what she calls `the accident.’ “Yeah, I mean, it’s still in me.”
The surgery, performed by Dr. Radek Kebrle, required 3 hours and 45 minutes.
“It’s a serious injury, and we have to deal with that accordingly,” Kebrle said afterward, using the word horrific. “The chances of Petra's hand healing well enough for her to be able to play tennis again are very low for multiple reasons.”
To her infinite credit, Kvitova freely, almost nonchalantly, speaks of the events of 2016. But once the initial fear for her life had passed, did she seriously wonder if she’d play tennis again?
“I mean, I didn’t have doubts about it," Kvitova said last week. "But, of course, I did. In some moments, it was, like, `Yeah, it will be pretty tough when I hold the racket for the first time.’”
Three months later, in March, her cast and bandages came off.
“It was a disaster,” Kvitova said. “I didn’t feel anything. And I was like, `This will not be good.’
“Overall, when everything was progressing, a little bit at a time, I had a belief. That was really important that moment.”
She had hoped to make her return at Wimbledon, but practice was encouraging and she decided to try a month earlier at Roland Garros.
“Now I know what big percentage was against me to play again,” Kvitova said. “I’m really glad that my doctor didn’t tell me. It was just five percent. So … I’m very happy that I turned that five percent into, really, a life and playing.”
Her first public discussion of the stabbing came in a dramatic introductory press conference in Paris in 2017.
“I’m here in the draw and I’m here playing tennis again,” she said. “It was a difficult time for me, of course. I know that my hand is still not 100 percent ready, so we will see how everything goes.
“But I’m happy that I’m able to play again."
At this year’s French Open, Kvitova revealed the small secret behind the poise she showed there. It was a shot of slivovica, a plum brandy.
Today, Kvitova says she’s proud she opened up.
“I thought it would be probably just once to talk about it,” Kvitova said, “but of course many times I did afterwards, but with the time it’s much better. But the first time really was really tough one.”
Five months after the attack, Kvitova won her comeback match, 6-3, 6-2 over Julie Boserup. That she fell to qualifier Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the second was of little consequence.
A few weeks later, back on the grass at Birmingham, Kvitova ran the table and won her only tournament of 2017. She finished the year at No.11, the first time since 2010 she was outside the Top 10.
In 2018, Kvitova won in St. Petersburg, Doha, Prague, Madrid and again in Birmingham. She was back in the Top 10.
Five years is `flying’
Amanda Anisimova, who reached the semifinals at Roland Garros as a 17-year-old, finds inspiration in Kvitova’s story.
“That was really tragic for Petra,” Anisimova said recently, “but it shows the mental strength that she has to come back after such a terrible thing. She’s been doing very well and yeah, I think it shows a message that you can overcome things that happen to you. And return to the things you love.”
Although it will be five years in December, somehow it feels longer.
“Yeah,” Kvitova said, “you are right. I feel the same way. I mean, five years is really flying. And I’m really glad it’s already five years.”
What has Kvitova learned about herself in the process?
“Well, I found something out that I didn’t know before,” she said. “I knew that I’m kind of a fighter on the court, but I didn’t know how big a fighter I was off the court.
“The first thing that I always admired in myself was that I had to motivation to play tennis. I was working really hard on the rehab, more than I used to as a tennis player. I would say I grew more on the mental side, because it was really hard.
“I’m proud of that.”
Pam Shriver, a 22-time Grand Slam doubles titlist and ESPN analyst, is among those who are amazed at how far Kvitova has come back
“However it was that she went about it, in her private time to mend physically, emotionally, mentally, to come back the way she did, I only have more respect for her,” Shriver said.
If healthy, she remains a threat this year
On Monday, in Bad Homburg Kvitova rallied to beat Katarzyna Piter 4-6, 6-1, 6-4.
But she is not at 100 percent entering this year’s Wimbledon.
Kvitova, who sustained a nasty ankle injury when she fell during media commitments following a first-round victory at the French Open, was forced to pull out of Roland Garros. But overcoming adversity is something Kvitova does well. And if healthy, she could have herself another strong run.
“When I close my eyes, I see Petra Kvitova being a lefty on a grass court with her weapon, the serve, and her power,” Shriver said. “When she’s on her game, on a grass court in this current generation, she is as good as it gets.”