Six months ago, as she recovered following a terrifying knife attack that could easily have cost her her life, Petra Kvitova set herself a target.
At the time the 2011 and 2014 Wimbledon champion’s doctors considered her chances of even playing tennis again to be “very low” because of horrific injuries to her left hand, but Kvitova was positive from the start. She would do everything in her power to return to the sport she loved.
More than that, she wanted to play at Wimbledon this summer.
Next week, to the delight of everyone in tennis, the 27-year-old Czech will be back at the All England Club.
Even more remarkably, Kvitova will go into the tournament as the favourite to win it, thanks to both her own remarkable comeback, which has already seen her win the grass-court title at Edgbaston, and to the struggles or absences of so many of her rivals.
“It will be amazing,” Kvitova said. “It doesn’t matter if I win or lose or whatever, but the dream which I set when [the attack] happened, that I wanted to play Wimbledon this year, will come true. I think I will be very, very emotional.”
As she chats in the corner of a restaurant at Eastbourne’s Devonshire Park, having pulled out of this week’s Aegon International because of a slight abdominal injury, it is impossible not to be struck by Kvitova’s courage over the last six months.
Having shown great bravery during the attack in her apartment in Prostejov, when her assailant (who has never been caught) held a knife to her throat before fleeing after she fought him off, Kvitova has gone about her rehabilitation with unswerving dedication.
All five fingers of her left hand were badly damaged in the attack and she underwent an operation lasting nearly four hours the same evening. She had the hand in a protective splint for eight weeks, began light physical work after a month and did not pick up a tennis racket until March. She still cannot make a fist of her left hand, though she has not had to change her technique or grip.
“The doctor said my hand will never be the same because of the scars and we don’t know how everything will work out, but I am happy that I am playing tennis and not badminton, for which you need a small grip,” she said.
Kvitova believed from the start that she could come back and play Wimbledon. “Even though I had a splint on my hand and didn’t know if I would be able to move my fingers properly, I was like: ‘OK, Wimbledon would be very, very nice to play this time’.”
Stepping out again into the public spotlight has barely seemed to trouble her. There might have been a tear in her eye when she faced the world’s media again for the first time before her return at the French Open last month, but there were no signs of nerves when she played, though she now admits her first-round match at Roland Garros was particularly testing.
“I went out there, stepped on the court and felt the emotions that I felt when I had played there before,” she recalled. “But through the match, during the changeovers sometimes, the thoughts from the [attack] were there, just for a quick while. Then I started to think about the tennis again. It was on and off.”
During her rehabilitation Kvitova enrolled on a communications and social media course at university. “There was the thought in my mind that there was a chance that I would never play again, so I would need to have something else to do in my life,” she said.
“I’m not the sort of person who would want to just lie on the sofa watching TV. That’s not me. I need to have some motivation and something to do. It was also about keeping my mind busy by starting my studies, so I wouldn’t be thinking all the time about my hand, about tennis, about whether I was going to come back or not, but had something else in my life as well.”
How had she dealt with the thought that she might never play again? “It was difficult because it was something that I hadn’t decided. If I sit down with myself and say ‘OK, that’s enough’, then that’s a different story. But suddenly I couldn’t play – and it wasn’t my decision. But I wasn’t that down. For sure some days it was really bad, but I was still positive and still trying to think about coming back.”
The experience showed how much her fellow players cared for her. Simona Halep was one of those who kept in touch with her during the Australian Open. At the French Open it was Kvitova who tried to help Halep, texting the Romanian after her devastating loss in the final.
“Inside the locker room I now look at the girls a little bit differently because many of them surprised me in the way they showed how much they cared about me, how happy they are that I’m back,” Kvitova said.
Philip Brook, the chairman of Wimbledon, also kept in regular contact with Kvitova, while the BBC offered her the chance to join their commentary team in the event that she would be unable to play, though the world No 12 doubts whether she would have taken up the offer.
“I like to play more than commentate,” she said. “If I had not been able to play I would have been focusing on getting myself back. That’s probably why I turned off my social media and stopped connecting with the world around because I wanted to focus on my work, on my rehabilitation, I didn’t want to raise any false hopes or anything like that.”
Kvitova believes the whole experience has made her hungrier than ever for success. “It was very difficult to sit on the sofa and watch the Australian Open on the TV with my hand in the splint while they were playing and I couldn’t,” she said. “Maybe that makes me stronger.”
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