SINGAPORE - David Kotyza still remembers the first time he saw Petra Kvitova hit a tennis ball. Kotyza was coaching Lucie Safarova at the time and a then 17-year-old Kvitova, unknown and unheralded even in her own country, was practicing with Safarova at the National Tennis Center in Prostejov.
"I asked who is this girl?" Kotyza told WTA Insider. "I remember we spoke about her flat strokes and I said 'Hey, we can read the side of the ball. It's not rolling at all!' What does it mean? Where are you from? Is it a magic club?" he recounted with a laugh. "She played a different style. That was the first time I really recognized her."
Two years later, Kotyza would become Kvitova's coach, and the two have forged a lasting bond that has lasted the last seven years. Under his tutelage, Kvitova has won Wimbledon twice, been ranked as high as No.2 and pocketed 17 career titles. But for Kotyza, an affable, thoughtful 48-year-old from Pilsen, the most rewarding aspect of their partnership has been watching Kvitova endure adversity and mature from a shy small-town girl to the poised 25-year-old she is now.
In an era in which talent and future stars are identified and cultivated long before the age of 16, Kvitova was a relative unknown in the Czech Republic. She never played outside of the country in her younger days and the small village of Fulnek - population of less than 6,000 people - was a long ways away from Prostejov or Prague, the dual hearts of Czech tennis. Once Kvitova actually started playing real tournaments, her rise was immediate.
"When she started she immediately won a couple of tournaments, she was in the Top 50 as an 18 years old girl," Kotyza said. "This shy, very polite girl jumped into this 'zoo', if I can say it. Totally deep in the water. But she started to swim really well."
The "Zoo" of life on tour became Kvitova's proving ground. The on-court success may have come quickly but she was forced to learn some harsh lessons off the court early. "At the start she trusted everyone," Kotyza said. "And then, oops, a little disappointed. You can find the right people but you don't know immediately. You have to recognize who is who. Who you can trust or not.
"I think that was tough for her because she was a really shy girl and said always yes. But so many 'yes' and then you have such a big hill of 'yes' but you cannot climb it. She had to reduce her 'yes'."
Kotyza was coaching Iveta Benesova in 2008 when he received a coaching offer from Kvitova's manager. He agreed, and took both players into the 2009 season.
"The first tournament for all of us was Hobart and they both played the final," Kotyza said. "It was tricky. I couldn't imagine that could happen. I went out of the club. I just heard the score. I didn't watch that match. Then at the end of 2009 we decided it was not possible to work like this, so since then I've been alone with Petra."
Any coach would have been dazzled by Kvitova's natural weapons, with her flat strokes, big serve, and good hands at the net. But there were also question marks about her fitness, her motivation, and her ambition. As the oft-told story goes, Kotyza drafted a questionnaire for the teenager before agreeing to work with her. He signed on immediately after seeing her answers.
"I asked her what do you think your weapons are, your disadvantages, what is the relationship with your parents, who is supporting you, what about your fitness, what's your strongest mental strength. She answered like a real adult. I recognized her character and her mental strength. With that level she could really achieve something."
"I have it still," Kotyza said. "Sometimes I read it," he said, seemingly lost in thought and nostalgia. "Really interesting. Seven years ago."
Tune into a Kvitova match and you'll see Kotyza jog out for the occasional on-court coaching timeout. He does not kneel before her chasing eye contact. He does not stand over her, physically imposing his authoritative presence. Their exchanges are not one-sided. Kotyza sits down on the bench next to his charge. Unless they're looking at each other they are facing the same way, both looking forward. Occasionally Kvitova has to move her towels and gear and scoot over to make room for him.
The image is of a coach and pupil who are friends, equals, and partners in this journey. That has been a dynamic that has changed over time.
"I think we are kind of on the level where we really have to communicate more than from the beginning," Kvitova said. "I started with him when I was 19, so I was kind of a baby as a tennis player. He had experiences. He almost was kind of the guy who showed me everything.
"Now, of course, it's little bit changed. I'm getting older. I'm adult. I have my things as well. We have to really find a good balance and good communication on the court and off the court, as well. I'm glad because, you know, when the baby is growing, sometimes you have different opinions on lot of things. But we don't, so that's why we are still together probably."
"It's not possible to behave to her like seven years ago," Kotyza said. "She's really an adult. I have to reduce my activity or force to her. Maybe we can more discuss because before it was a one-way ticket. Now we are, not the same level, but same level in our language. We speak like two adults speaking about our business."
To maintain that type of partnership requires a significant level of trust. Petra has to know she can come to David whenever she needs help. And David has to trust Petra will indeed come to him when she needs help.
"I have no problem stepping back behind the curtain waiting for her to knock the door and ask for help. That's better than me always going to her and saying you have to do this, this, and this. She would be sick of it. I recognize it. She can say now to me 'David I need this, I need this'. And that's fine.
"That is a sign of a higher quality of our relationship. So I accept her maturing and this is also work for me. Because it's not possible to change the people around you, you can only change yourself to be a model or inspiration for the people who you want to influence. So I try to work on myself as well to be a real helper for Petra."
This year, being a "real helper for Petra" meant taking a big risk and putting his job on the line. Just a month and a half into the 2015 season, Kvitova abruptly announced she would be taking a break from tennis and pulled out of the BNP Paribas Open and Miami Open. That decision, by an uninjured top player so early in the season, was nearly unheard of. It was Kotyza who suggested the break.
"We spoke in Sydney, which is funny because she won the tournament," Kotyza said. "We spoke after the quarterfinals after she beat Jarmila Gajdosova. She won without any fun. Like, 'Sorry I won, I have to play tomorrow as well. What a shame.' I recognized that something was wrong and I don't know what, so maybe Petra we can talk tomorrow. She said I need to talk to you as well.
"We sat at breakfast and I saw the tears in her eyes. I said Petra, when I see you on the court I don't see it's January, it's like it's October. You look like you were in Singapore last year. And she said 'Yeah, but I feel like this'. So we spoke about the hard times she's overcome. She's done well in tough times before so I tried to motivate her. So she won the tournament. Then she lost third round at the Australian Open, but the problem was still there. Maybe not on the surface but down under, deeply. I knew that and I felt something in my stomach. Like intuition.
"So we came to Doha and Dubai. Dubai was terrible. I went home because I had vacation with my wife and kids. She wrote me messages with the same feelings, that she felt kind of empty and without joy and without passion. And I know that's the most important thing for her to play. Not like 'I have pain in my leg' or 'I can't hit my serve.' That's not important. But dealing with this was really tough. So I had a couple of sleepless nights and I didn't find any other solution but to take a break.
"We never did it. Especially at the start of the year, important tournaments for Top 10 players, almost impossible not to attend. But I felt I had to say it and suggest it.
"I sent a message to her: 'Petra, I'm your coach. Maybe I will not have now my job but I don't care. I think for you, because I have to tell you what I think is the best thing for you in this moment, the best option for you is to take a rest. Doesn't matter how long. Until you find the passion, until you wake up and you miss the tennis, stay back. Stay somewhere else, far away, don't write me, don't contact anyone involved in tennis. Find yourself and find your passion and we will see.'
"She was really in shock. She thought I would force her to play like a typical coach. Her fitness coach at the time was really very strict and totally opposite to me. He said it's stupid. She thought about it a couple of days and she wrote me and said I decided to stop after this tournament. So she won against Jankovic in Doha. Her fitness coach said she's fighting! She's perfect! I said no. She's fighting because she knows there is a line. She knows there's a line and then she's free as a bird.
"So she decided to stop. Five, six weeks and nothing. After a couple of weeks we started to talk a little bit. I told her the best time to start would be at Fed Cup. In front of the home crowd, she's always doing well. Like a kickstart. She started a couple days before with practice and she played unbelievable. She won both her matches, she lost in Stuttgart, and then won Madrid. And I think she won Madrid only because she stopped in March."
At the Mutua Madrid Open, just weeks after returning to action, Kvitova handed World No.1 Serena Williams her first loss of the year en route to her second Mutua Madrid Open title. She went on to make the quarterfinals in Rome and the fourth round of the French Open. An early loss at Wimbledon was undoubtedly disappointing, but things were looking right again. Then she was diagnosed with mononucleosis.
Team Kvitova didn't react by feeling sorry for itself. They huddled, rallied, and pressed on. "Somebody says, Okay that's a big problem. And somebody else says Okay, that's a challenge. It's an opportunity to show who you are. It's like the difference between an optimist and pessimist. The pessimist sees in every occasion sees the problem. The optimist sees in every problem and opportunity. I can deal with this and I can become someone better."
"My mom is very optimistic, so I think that's from her," Kvitova said. "I know I can't do anything with this situation, so I'm just taking like how it is right now. The tests are showing it's on the good way, so I should be optimistic on that one."
"That's also signs of her character and she's dealing with this," Kotyza said. "For me, I like to work with her with these difficult situations because that's the opportunity to help her.
"Because they don't need us when they're doing well. You just sit and clap. If they're struggling they come to ask and somebody might say 'No, I'm not responsible now. You played bad.' But I think we have to help her in these difficulties. That's why we are here. I call it responsibility. I try to be responsible and I'm trying to help her in these difficulties."
Which is why it's no surprise that when Kotyza recalls his proudest moment as a coach, he zeroes in not on her Wimbledon titles, or big wins, but on how she's learned to deal with her toughest losses. One of those losses came at her beloved Wimbledon, when she went out to Kirsten Flipkens in the quarterfinals in 2013.
"We sat down in the house, we drank a couple of beers and wine, we were very disappointed. Everybody was sad.
"And she said, 'Okay guys, let's drink for next year. I promise I'll do it next year.' Maybe it's only words. You can take it seriously or not. But I thought, we will see. And we saw." Sure enough, she marched her way to the title the following year.
"The same thing after Wimbledon this year. We were together in Prostejov. Very openly, I spoke to her and I said I think something is going wrong. I don't know what exactly is wrong but for me you are a little bit softer than before. Maybe your relationship is so strong that you [don't have the] passion you had before, maybe you don't work as hard. That's my feeling. Maybe I can lose my job now. I put my job on the table. Maybe you can change the coach because we are so long together. But I think you have to change your attitude and maybe you can sit and think for yourself about what your future will be.
"She said no, I want to continue. She decided to stop with her mental coach and I think since then she's started to work again. And then we saw the result despite the mono and the losses in Toronto and Cincinnati, she did well in New Haven and the US Open.
"So I'm proud of her not because of wins, but how she deals with her losses. That's for me the sign of character. Because when somebody wins, everyone is looking so happy and everyone is so proud. I'm not like this. It's too easy."