Petra Kvitova had just finished a three-hour 17-minute battle with Yulia Putintseva in the California desert heat and had a big smile on her face as she sat across from me in the players’ lounge at Indian Wells last month.
Kvitova’s brutal back and forth with the feisty Kazakh saw her extend her winning streak to 14 consecutive matches and equal the longest unbeaten run of her career.
No stranger to fighting through three-setters – her nickname is P3tra after all – Kvitova is 9-1 in deciding-set matches this season, but that clash with Putintseva was particularly gruelling.
She jokes that it made for some tough viewing for her father.
“Sorry for him to watch me play for more than three hours today, but he said they’re all still alive so that’s good,” assured the Czech two-time Wimbledon champion.
Like all good things, Kvitova’s winning streak ended in her next match at the hands of 16-year-old Amanda Anisimova.
But that magical run that saw her defeat six top-10 players in her title wins in St. Petersburg and Doha will surely be remembered as a highlight when this season comes to a close.
Just 15 months earlier, Kvitova was attacked by a knife-wielding intruder in her apartment in the Czech Republic. All five fingers of her left playing hand were damaged and until now, the feeling in her hand is not exactly as it was before the attack.
Kvitova had surgery, did rehab, recovered and returned to the competition court at Roland Garros in May last year. In just her second tournament back, she won the title in Eastbourne on her beloved grass.
Fast-forward to February 2018, and Kvitova has taken her level up a notch to go undefeated for 14 matches and return to the world’s top-10 for the first time since June 2016.
Did she stop herself for a second to think why she’s been able to elevate her game and win all these matches recently?
“Not really,” she says with a laugh.
“I think in St. Petersburg I really played great tennis. In Doha, I didn’t play that good, but I still won it. Which actually for me, it’s kind of, not surprise, but I didn’t really expect it.
“I wasn’t really serving that well against (Garbine) Muguruza or Caroline (Wozniacki), it wasn’t great but I was still able to win it somehow. Why did I win it? And I don’t know.”
Courage. Belief. Pojd. Those were the words printed on the t-shirts worn by Kvitova’s team during her comeback tournament at Roland Garros last year.
Through incredibly difficult and traumatic circumstances, Kvitova has shown strength. Where does she draw it from?
“I think it’s from the heart. The fighter inside me, I never give up anything, I think that’s probably the thing where I’m the strongest,” says the 28-year-old.
“When I was practicing with my father, he taught me as well how to be a fighter. It’s tough to explain how but for example when I played tournaments as a kid, he never really said that I played badly or something, but he always was focusing on how I was behaving on the court and if I gave up like one ball or something, he would get really angry. I didn’t want him to get angry, so probably he taught me how to be strong somehow.”
A peak Petra Kvitova is a force of nature. On a good day, she can blow anyone off the court, and recently there have been more good days than bad. She singles out her wins over Elena Vesnina and Julia Goerges in St. Petersburg as two matches this season where everything clicked for her.
I ask her if the satisfaction she gets from the sport these days is different compared to how it made her feel in the past.
“I don’t think so. If you ask this question before the attack I would probably say the same,” she asserts.
“I love the game itself. You’re out there alone and it’s all on you. You decide if you’ll go down-the-line, or cross-court, what you’re going to do, reading your opponent, it’s like chess a little bit, that’s what I love.”
She once told WTA Insider that her game plan entering a match is usually as simple as: hit aces, hit winners.
Does she really view tennis as that simple?
“I was joking at the time but at the end of the day yes. I do see the game is simple when I’m playing well. When I’m not, when I’m really struggling, it’s not simple at all,” she says with a smile.
Kvitova is the No. 2 seed in Charleston this week. Clay is far from being her favourite surface but she has had solid results on it, including two title triumphs in Madrid in 2011 and 2015.
When she won Madrid seven years ago, besting Victoria Azarenka in the final, she entered the top-10 for the first time.
Her return to the top-10 last February probably has different meaning behind it after everything she has been through.
“It’s tough to say. I think the first time when I got there it was something special for sure. I was young, playing well, it was in Madrid, I remember that match. This time for sure it’s totally different,” she explained.
“When I came back I wanted to play well and I’m really happy it’s happening and it’s showing in the rankings as well which is great.”
Kvitova’s career-high ranking is No. 2, which she first reached at the end of 2011. The top spot is in play almost every week on the women’s tour at the moment. Is getting to No. 1 on her bucket list?
“I still do have the goal to be there, I think somewhere inside me it’s still there but on the other hand I’m not really focusing on anything like that. It’s changed a little bit,” said Kvitova.
She prefers to focus on improving her tennis and her numbers show that her level is getting better and better. She is in the top-10 in multiple stats categories for the season including aces struck (she’s third behind Goerges and Karolina Pliskova), first serve points won (sixth on the list), service points won (eighth), service games won (eighth) and break point conversion (sixth).
But beyond the victories, the Slam wins, the aces, the forehands and everything she does on the court, Kvitova is clear in how she hopes to be remembered on tour.
“I would be very happy if they remember me as a good person probably. Saying hi, being normal, chatting in the locker room, having – not like grace – but behaving well on the court and off the court,” she says.
In that regard, it’s mission accomplished, Petra!
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