French Open 2018: Petra Kvitova living the ‘dream’ after knife attack

As she prepared to make her tennis comeback last year at the French Open, Petra Kvitova was unsure whether she could ever be the player she once was.

But now, remarkably, Kvitova is one of the favorites at this year’s French Open, which starts Sunday.

“The last 12 months have been great and unreal so I’m enjoying every moment because I couldn’t imagine the way I’m playing,” she told CNN Sport. “It’s great to have this dream.”

The two-time Wimbledon champion from the Czech Republic indeed made an emotional return at Roland Garros in 2017 after a knife-wielding intruder had attacked her in her apartment in Prostejov five months earlier, leaving her with horrendous injuries.

Czech police disclosed this week they finally had a male suspect in custody, which Kvitova said was “great.”

“But probably the happiest I will be when the story will end, when everything will be done and finished,” she told reporters in Paris.

Tendons and nerves in her dominant left hand were damaged. There were psychological ramifications, too. Her life had been turned upside down.

Her surgeon had said from the outset that her chances of playing seriously again were “very low,” but her mental strength pulled her through, earlier than many had expected, and at last year’s French Open she progressed to the second round having barely practiced.

By making it to the tournament in the first place, she had “already won my biggest fight.”

Fellow pros rooted for her

A popular character on the tennis tour — where friendships are sometimes hard to come by — she was rooted on by her fellow pros.

A year on and much has changed again for the world No. 8. Her fitness enhanced and belief boosted, the Czech is on a roll. This despite saying her hand will never be 100 percent.

Though regarded as more dangerous on faster surfaces, half of the 28-year-old’s four titles this year have come on clay.

She hopes that the form which has seen her enjoy an 11-match winning streak, bringing her titles on the red dirt in Madrid and Prague, will continue.

The triumph on home turf was particularly “special” and left her in tears during her speech to the crowd.

It was her first tournament appearance in the Czech Republic since 2011 and fans lined up early to get tickets to watch her play all week. They also flocked to her practices.

“Overall I feel good on the clay so far and in the past few weeks I’m enjoying time on the practice court, and match court as well,” said Kvitova.

‘Clay has always been a difficult surface for me’

The eighth seed attributes her fine form to a “great” off-season where the 6-foot champion especially worked on improving her fitness so that now, she says, she is fitter than she has ever been.

She outlasted 2016 French Open semifinalist Kiki Bertens in a three-hour final in Madrid and in doing so, improved to a staggering 24-7 in title matches.

Her winning percentage in finals is better than the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Venus Williams, though she trails Serena Williams.

“I was working pretty hard to be back to where I want to be and practicing,” says Kvitova, whose best showing in Paris so far was reaching the semifinals in 2012.

“I improved my movement, it’s better on the court. That means I have time for my shots, and I’m reading the game better. It’s taken me a lot of practice to get where I am right now.

“I do feel like the best in my movement and my physical part of tennis.”

Kvitova’s idol, Martina Navratilova, has been amazed by her fellow left-hander’s recovery. She credited Kvitova’s “champions” mindset.

“I can’t imagine being in Petra Kvitova’s position and playing tennis without full feeling in my racket hand,” Navratilova told the WTA. “All I can think is that it must be like gripping a racket while wearing a glove or trying to ski when you have frozen feet and can’t feel the snow at all.

“Kvitova has adapted because, as Billie Jean King’s old saying goes, champions adjust. And those adjustments have allowed her to go back to playing in much the same way she had been before the attack.”

Despite the 11-match winning streak and an earlier 14-match winning streak, the Czech does not believe she is favorite for the Roland Garros title.

“The clay, it’s been always the difficult surface to play for me on, especially probably here in the French Open,” she told reporters Friday.

“I know I played a semifinal and lost to Maria one year, but overall it’s not the great surface for me,” she said, referring to Maria Sharapova, who she defeated for her first Wimbledon title in 2011.

“Now I think there is probably bigger favorites of the Roland Garros than me. And just for me to play my first match, we will see how it will go, but of course I will do my best, as always.”

A perspective changed

Kvitova has said she will never forget the events of 2016. She suffered deep cuts to her left hand after fighting off her assailant, who had held a knife to her throat. She still occasionally has flashbacks, but now she has a new appreciation for life and her sport.

The player who has previously said she sometimes feels it is impossible to handle the pressure she puts on herself is now more at ease as she attempts to win her third grand slam.

“No pressure, none at all,” she tells CNN.

“It’s a much better situation than the last year. I’m enjoying it.

“We’ll see what will happen. I do have a different perspective on life, not only on tennis but off the court as well. For sure it changed my person a bit. Something happened in your life and you have to go on and be focusing on what’s important for you.”

Her first-round opponent on the Parisian clay will be tricky — Paraguayan Veronica Cepede Royg, a clay-court specialist who made the fourth round last year.

“I’m not really setting this kind of goal,” says Kvitova when asked about her ambitions for the next fortnight.

“It’ll be great if I can enjoy myself in the first round. It’s always difficult to play in the first round because everyone is ready and focused and with a lot of expectation sometimes from the outside, it’s just not that easy to play.”