Petra Kvitova has tried to put her recent traumatic past behind her but the tears flowed here at the Australian Open on Tuesday as the two-times Wimbledon champion reached her first Grand Slam semi-final since the horrific knife attack that almost ended her career more than two years ago.
After dashing Ashleigh Barty’s hopes of ending the long wait for a home-grown champion by winning 6-1, 6-4 in Rod Laver Arena, Kvitova was asked in an on-court interview if she had believed she could compete at such a level again.
With tears welling up in her eyes and the crowd rising to applaud her, Kvitova said softly: “No I couldn’t have imagined being back in this stadium and playing with the best.”
Having had time to collect her thoughts, Kvitova told a later press conference: “I’ve been through a mix of emotions. Sometimes I don’t really recognise anything from the past, but when Jim [Courier] asked that, it wasn't really easy for me to see myself being in a semi-final again after everything.
“I always wanted to come back and play at the highest level I can, to compete with the best, to play the Grand Slams and to actually go very deep in them, which is what is happening now. Yes, it brought out tears, but they were happy tears for sure.”
Kvitova, who will meet Danielle Collins in the semi-finals after the 25-year-old American beat Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 2-6, 7-5, 6-1, suffered severe hand injuries in December 2016 after an intruder into her home held a knife to her throat.
For months there were doubts as to whether she would ever play again, but she returned to competition at the French Open in 2017, won five titles last year and is now back up to No 6 in the world rankings. She will go to the top of the world rankings for the first time in her career if she wins the title here or finishes runner-up to Serena Williams.
Kvitova last played in a Grand Slam semi-final at Wimbledon five years ago, when she went on to win the second of her All England Club titles. However, she has regularly suffered with nerves at Grand Slam tournaments in recent years and joked after her first-round loss at Wimbledon last summer that she might play only in minor tournaments in future.
The Czech said she had still been nervous here, but you would not have guessed it from the way she took the game to Barty from the start, driving the 22-year-old Australian back with her huge ground strokes.
Barty, who had lost to Kvitova in a much closer final at the Sydney International 10 days earlier, rarely found her best form in front of home fans who are desperate for success.
The 22-year-old Australian improved in the second set, but at 4-4 a loose forehand gave Kvitova her third break of the match. The Czech converted her first match point in the following game when Barty netted a return.
Barty insisted afterwards that she had not been nervous. “I was excited,” she said. “I don't think it was a slow start. It was more of a Petra start. She took the match away from me. It was very much out of my control. I know that I did everything possible to try and get myself back into that match, but she was too good.”
In her interview on the court Kvitova apologised to the crowd for beating the home favourite. “She’s such a nice person and you should be very proud of her,” she said.
Kvitova said later that her experiences of recent years had given her a different perspective. “I know this is just sport, just tennis,” she said. “But you always want to do your best when you’re doing something and losing hurts a lot because you are doing everything to win.”
Collins, who lost to Kvitova in a tight match in Brisbane in the first week of this season, is playing in her first Australian Open. The American was a late starter on the professional tour, having enjoyed a highly successful college career at the University of Virginia, where she became only the seventh woman to win two NCAA singles titles.
Her progress over the last 12 months has been remarkable. She started 2018 ranked No 167 in the world, having never won a match on the main women’s tour, but climbed 131 places in the course of the year. Until this month she had never played in the main draw of a tournament in Australia. This time last year she was playing in a Challenger tournament in California.
Despite the major steps which she took forward in 2018, Collins had never won a match at a Grand Slam tournament until last week, having lost in the first round on all five of her previous appearances. It was only at last year’s French Open that she earned a place in the main draw of a Grand Slam tournament by dint of her world ranking for the first time.
Collins had already beaten three seeds in Angelique Kerber, Julia Goerges and Caroline Garcia to make the quarter-finals and claimed the scalp of a fourth when she beat Pavlyuchenkova, who has now lost in all five of her appearances in Grand Slam quarter-finals.
“I think I'm playing really good tennis,” Collins said. “I think I've gained more experience in the last year, which is great.”
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