A year and a half ago, Petra Kvitova didn’t know whether she’d ever be able to properly grip a racket again. Defending herself against a knife-wielding invader at her then-home in Prostejov, Czech Republic, the two-time Wimbledon champion suffered severe injuries to her dominant left hand in December 2016. After four hours of surgery to repair damaged tendons and nerves, Kvitova, 28, set out on a long road of intensive physical therapy — and worked to regain the tenacious mindset that has made her famously tough to beat in three-set matches.
Now the 2012 French Open semifinalist looks to go deep on dirt again when the season’s second Grand Slam begins on May 27. Those clay courts were the venue for her dramatic, unexpectedly early return last spring, when Kvitova walked into her opening match with her fingernails painted a defiant ruby red. Since then, she has captured five tournament titles and roared back into the top 10. The attacker remains unidentified, and Kvitova still lacks full strength and feeling in her left hand. But in a recent conversation with The Mag, an upbeat Kvitova said she’s grateful for how far she has come. This is the story of her journey back, in her own words:
At the beginning, it was very tough. I was still looking around me [for the attacker], if he’s there, maybe, somewhere. It was a very weird feeling. I do have flashbacks and thoughts on it, but it’s better. The authorities still want to catch him, and hopefully someday they will.
When the attack happened, obviously it was big. It was on TV and in newspapers everywhere, and it’s like a movie from Hollywood, it’s not me. Lying in the bed in the hospital and seeing it in the news felt pretty weird. As time went on, I heard a lot of rumors about how everything happened. I couldn’t say anything because I didn’t know how everything would end up — if I was going to play again or not. I didn’t want to put any false things to the fans. That’s why my doctor said a lot at that time. I put out [before-and-after photographs of my hand]. At the end of the day, it helped me.
The physical part of recovery was a little bit easier and went a little bit better than the mental side. I put a lot of work into rehab. As an athlete, you always want to do more. I think I did a little bit more than I was supposed to, to be honest. [Laughs] I think my doctor knows that as well.
When I had the hand in a splint, I couldn’t do much. At the beginning, it was passive movement. With my right hand, I moved my fingers, very carefully, into one position. The fingers were very stiff, and it was very painful. I was just trying to get more and more motion. I had electrodes on my hand, on the nerves and the ligaments. The machine was moving my fingers because I couldn’t do it by myself. That was the hardest. It was painful and it was boring, to be honest.
From the time I started to play tennis again and hold the racket, my doctor said I don’t need any more exercises. It’s too much for the ligaments. As he said, playing tennis is the best rehab. My hand was still pretty swollen and painful, because the scars are inside, so holding the racket and pushing the ball wasn’t really easy. I still remember the feeling, actually.
Even when I was away, I felt a lot from the fans and from the players and the WTA. I still remember when I came back in Paris last year and I saw all the people looking to me with a happy face. I really felt like it’s pretty honest from them, wishing me well and seeing me back. I think some just couldn’t talk with me, they didn’t know how to behave toward me. What do they say? I would be the same if anything happened to other people. I just wanted to be normal. I’m pretty happy that I think those people are already looking to me as Petra, as a tennis player.
In Doha [in February], when they told me if I won tomorrow, I was going to be in the top 10 again, I was like, ‘Oh, really?’ When I look back at what I was doing a year ago, I could not imagine to be there again. What I learned from rehab is that tennis should really be just now. I couldn’t really look too much ahead. You really don’t know what’s going to happen, how you’re going to wake up. I can improve the level of the game, but I will still have good days and bad days, good tournaments and first-round losses. That’s how it is.
I will never be a player who loves playing on clay. I don’t have great topspin or great movement on the court. But on the other hand, I think clay is good for me because I have time to play my shots because it’s a little bit slower. If I’m really pushing it very aggressively to the opponent, they still don’t have time. That’s the advantage. It’s different tactics as well. Physically, I have to be ready for longer rallies and for slides.
I have a nickname: Instead of Petra, it’s P3tra, where the E is a 3. I always find something inside of me in the third set. For the confidence and the mental side, it’s nice to have. Sometimes when I’ve lost a set, I know I’m still able to win it.
The scars are still pretty hard. My doctor thinks it will get better. It will never be like before, but we’ll see how many percent I can reach. It was the best moment when I had my manicure for the first time. I love jewelry. When the hand was too swollen, I just couldn’t put it on. So I was waiting for a long time to put on my ring again. It’s still a bigger size than I used to have, but I’m not complaining.