Holding Her Own

Holding Her Own

The first question Czech tennis ace Petra Kvitova asked after her hand was slashed in a violent attack was: Will I play at Wimbledon again? Now, 18 months later, she's aiming for her third Grand Slam title.

Warning: This story contains a graphic image.

Consider her grip. It is the most unseen element of her skill set, yet the essence of her game flows from its control and precision. The shifting configuration of her palm and fingers on the rounded octagonal handle determines the angle of the racket face, which in turn dictates the pace, spin and trajectory of a shot. The fan's eye naturally tracks elsewhere: the ball, her feet, her outstretched arm, her expression. But Petra Kvitova's dominant hand, armored with calluses and trained like a trellised vine around the same shape since childhood, is at the root of her strength.

And now imagine that grip closing over the cutting edge of a knife with all the adrenaline of self-defense and the force of a two-time Wimbledon champion and yanking it away from her throat, where an intruder had held it. The blade bit deeply into the fingers of Kvitova's left hand.

She flexes the hand in late April, almost a year-and-a-half later, to demonstrate that she can't clench her fist in celebration quite as tightly as before. Her long fingers curl into her palm, leaving a small space at the center, as if she's cupping something fragile. The scars are thin and faint, but residual clumsiness still causes her to fumble with objects sometimes.

"I'm happy that I have all my fingers, at the end of the day,'' Kvitova says.

She's feeling light and grateful on the day before her opening match at the WTA tournament in Prague, an event she watched from the stands last year, not yet ready to test her hand in a match. A jazz recording croons softly in the lounge of the downtown InterContinental Hotel, where Kvitova has permitted herself a slice of chocolate cake and a cappuccino with soy milk.

"Being in the top 10, it's a little bit weird for me," says Kvitova, 28. "In a year? I couldn't really expect that. But when the last season finished, I was already feeling more normal. To have the same start of the season as the other girls, same offseason preparation, everything. So, I feel normal."

At the behest of investigators, Kvitova has never divulged the details of what happened in her apartment on Dec. 20, 2016. She would rather not return to that moment anyway. It's what she did with it that matters and explains how she has created an extraordinary new normal.

Kvitova wins her opening match in Prague the next morning before a full house as fans who were turned away peer through a hedge and a windscreen in hopes of catching a glimpse of her on the tidy center court. She wins the next four matches and the tournament. She moves on to Madrid and runs the table, then travels to Paris and wins her first two French Open matches before finally yielding after 13 straight victories on clay.

Three weeks later, she defends her 2017 title on grass in Birmingham, England. It is Kvitova's sixth tournament win since her comeback from the attack and her fifth this season. Now ranked seventh in the world, she has vaulted firmly into contention for a third Wimbledon championship.

The rectangular green jewel box of Centre Court is never far from her mind. The first thing she asks Radek Kebrle, the surgeon who operated on her hand, when he visits her bedside the day after her four-hour surgery, is: Pane Doktore, pojedu na Wimbledon?

Doctor, will I go to Wimbledon?

"At the moment, I thought, 'You are crazy,'" Kebrle says later, almost whispering the word. "Your injury is so difficult. We're talking about if I will be able to brush my teeth and do all my things and use my hand, and you want to ask ... of course, I understood the question. And I told her, 'We'll do everything to get you there.'"

But Kebrle doesn't sugarcoat it. Ten percent, he tells her: that is his estimate of her chances to come back at the elite level. Rehab will be slow and hard, and he will need her full concentration and cooperation.

She waits until he leaves before she allows herself to cry. And then she grabs the slim lifeline he has cast in her direction and refuses to let go.

Kvitova, who is left-handed, is known for her serve and powerful forehand.

Kvitova seems to have emerged from nowhere, fully formed, when she is named WTA Newcomer of the Year in 2010. Mere months later, she upsets Maria Sharapova to win the 2011 Wimbledon championship as her childhood idol, Czech-born icon and fellow lefty Martina Navratilova, applauds from the stands.

In fact, Kvitova's early career is less observed than many. Western reporters wrestle with the consonants in her last name -- pronounced KFIT-oh-VAH, three syllables, please, not Kah-VIH-toe-vah -- and her unlikely, uncommonly quiet backstory.

It takes more than three hours to get from Prague to Kvitova's hometown of Fulnek (pop. 6,000) on the country's perpetually congested highway system. A castle perches in the hills above a small commercial district that includes a household appliance company where her mother, Pavla, once worked in the purchasing department. Her father, Jiri, a retired teacher, spent his spare time hitting with his sons, Jiri and Libor, and their much younger sister on the town's clay tennis courts.

It's easy to see how her father's passion and her mother's composure merged in Kvitova as her parents sit in the kitchen area of a new, two-story clubhouse completed last year, overlooking four clay tennis courts. Petra donated the money to build the clubhouse, and her junior trophies sit atop the cabinet that holds cups and saucers.

Petra sprouts early and slender and gifted, but her parents don't have the money or the inclination to send her away to hone her talent. School is the priority, and there are days when she has time to play for only an hour. By age 16, she stands out enough to be spotted by a scout from the regional tennis center in Prostejov, about an hour away.

Jiri Kvita, a big-framed man with salt-and-pepper hair who shares his daughter's penchant for self-deprecating humor, does most of the talking through an interpreter while his wife takes in the scene with her steady, brown eyes and adds an occasional detail.

"It's hard when your child leaves,'' Jiri says. "It wasn't until she was 16 that she went [to Prostejov] occasionally, and it wasn't until she was 17 that she stayed.'' They insist that she finish her last year of high school via independent study even as she begins to travel. Years later, at the most uncertain point of her post-attack recovery, she taps into an old habit and enrolls in a university course.

Kvitova thrives in Prostejov, where many prominent Czech players have come of age. The complex includes a stadium with a retractable roof, multiple outdoor courts, a gym, dorms and a restaurant. It is one of many arms of the Czech tennis industry presided over by Kvitova's early patron and Czech business manager, Miroslav Cernosek, whose company also owns the Prague tournament.

“I'm happy that I have all my fingers, at the end of the day.”

Petra Kvitova

At age 21, after uncorking an ace to put away Sharapova at Wimbledon, Kvitova is still unaccustomed to the spotlight, especially when it includes a microphone. Her voice shakes as she speaks on court during the trophy ceremony. At the champions' ball, pressed to say a few words, she tries to describe her thoughts on match point: "I have a chance now, and you never know if it will be more or no. OK, you have to do it, and I did it.''

Katie Spellman, then working in communications for the WTA, watches and listens. She has seen Kvitova interact with the Czech press and knows she loves to banter. Once she becomes Kvitova's public relations manager in 2012, they work at bridging the language gap. Spellman gives Kvitova a copy of the children's book "The Secret Garden" to broaden her vocabulary and shows her transcripts of postmatch interviews by Sharapova and Roger Federer.

By the time Kvitova wins Wimbledon again in 2014, she is able to speak with far more fluidity and nuance. She now routinely laces answers with idiomatic English. "What is the key to playing well on clay?'' she repeats in response to a question this spring. "Tough to say. If I know the key, I would already use it."

She wears her fame more easily now as she walks through public spaces, unmistakable at 6 feet tall, with stylishly tousled blonde hair that she pulls back into a thick braid when she plays and a pale, blue-eyed gaze that can be almost disconcertingly direct.

Her father asks the reporters who have come to Fulnek to let the world know that he and his wife are "not haughty, greater-than-thou types." He is the one who cannot contain his tears when Petra wins Wimbledon for the first time, his face working with failed effort, while Pavla smiles serenely at her daughter.

His face crumples briefly with a different emotion at the memory of the morning they learned Petra had been attacked. "Horrible,'' he says hoarsely. "When we say, 'Happy Birthday -- I wish you a lot of luck and a lot of health,' it's no longer a cliché for us."

Her family's small-town humility remains at Kvitova's core. As the coffee break at the InterContinental winds down, she offers to pay (and is rebuffed), then won't leave the table until the check is signed, not wanting to strand the interviewer by herself.

Following the attack, Kvitova's fellow WTA players -- who voted her winner of the circuit's sportsmanship award for grace on and off the court six out of the past seven years -- fill Twitter with paeans and blow up her phone with supportive messages. When world No. 1 Simona Halep breaks through to win in June at Roland Garros after falling short in three previous major finals, she reveals that Kvitova had sent her private notes of encouragement: "She said it's gonna come. I just have to keep working."

The goodwill that envelops Kvitova makes the events of 18 months ago even more unfathomable.

"Being in the top 10, it's a little bit weird for me. In a year? I couldn't really expect that," Kvitova (right) says in the midst of a 38-7 season that sees her poised to make a run at a third Wimbledon title.

Alone in the backseat of a hired car on that December morning, facing a tedious, 145-mile ride to a specialized hospital north of Prague where Kebrle, one of the foremost hand surgeons in the country, is expecting her, Kvitova doesn't dwell on "why me?" There is only "what now?"

Her wounds have been disinfected and swaddled in a cooling wrap at a local hospital in Prostejov. She and her brother Jiri have gone back to the flat where she was attacked to gather a few personal items and the Christmas gifts she bought for her family. When they close the door, she is resolved never to return.

Kvitova's mind tunnels into a place where she is in control. She has obligations. She has already contacted Cernosek, whom she was supposed to join at a charity event that day. He arranges for the car she is in now and the security guard who will be posted by her room after the surgery. There are other people who need to know. She is a celebrity, and the news will leak fast. One-handed, she hits contacts on her phone, taps out texts and records voice messages. A part of her is in shreds, but her mind is clear.

She reaches Marijn Bal, her agent at IMG, at 4:59 a.m. ET and tells him, through tears, that she is not going to be able to play in the Australian Open next month. Bal thinks she is referring to a previously diagnosed stress fracture in her right foot. It's OK, he says, let's get healthy. No, she says, something just happened.

She confers with Bal in Florida, Spellman in Toronto and Czech tennis press officer Karel Tejkal in Prague. She tells them what she wants. They will post statements she helps shape, saying she is "shaken" but determined. She wants to speak to the media as soon as she's released so she can spend the holiday in peace with her family. Her fitness trainer, David Vydra, will meet her at the hospital, along with her good friend, doubles specialist Lucie Hradecka. She tells everyone else to stay home, that she will be fine.

"I've seen Petra cope with nerves that would put anyone else in a dark room trembling in a corner,'' Spellman says. "She was so nervous before the 2014 [Wimbledon] final with Genie Bouchard, and then she won in two sets, and everyone saw what she did with those nerves.

"I guess when you're a champion, and you're able to cope with all those emotions on the court and stick to your processes -- that's a big part of what players are taught to do -- she was able to apply that. She was the protagonist, and everyone else followed her lead.''

Twenty minutes after Kvitova arrives, Kebrle surveys the damage in the operating room. The knife has done its worst on her left index finger, which is slashed to the bone and hanging loose at the last knuckle. Seven flexor tendons, which give the hand its prehensile grasping ability, are severed in her fingers and thumb, their ends separated like snapped rubber bands. The ulnar digital nerves of her thumb and index finger will have to be repaired. There is no guarantee that she will ever regain feeling there.

Kebrle takes his time with the multiple incisions and uses suturing material that will dissolve. He inserts a pin in the finger that was nearly amputated. Because Kebrle treats other tennis players for various hand and wrist ailments, he is hyperaware of where they develop blisters and calluses and where scar tissue will be most problematic. He tries not to leave any more than he has to.

He does not sleep well that night.

"I knew who I am treating, I knew her needs, and I knew she is in a very big danger of not coming back,'' says the shaggy-haired Kebrle, a 20-year veteran in his field with a kindly face and a frank manner. "I said I was afraid of my own ass because at the end if she does not come back, everybody will connect me: I was the one who finished the career of Petra Kvitova.

"The trouble with this injury is you have to treat it, and then you have to mobilize it from day two, day three. You have to try to move the tendon, but you cannot pull on it, so it doesn't rupture. And the wound -- it wants to have rest for healing, but you must mobilize it. So it's a kind of slalom in between."

On the second day after her surgery, Kvitova places her right fingertips on her left fingers and gently, incrementally, begins to press.

Kvitova hugs her father, Jiri Kvita, after winning her second Wimbledon title in 2014. Kvita, a retired schoolteacher, spent his spare time hitting balls with his daughter and two sons. Susan Mullane/USA TODAY Sports

The physical aspect of rehabilitation comes easily to Kvitova, even when it's painful. She amasses a collection of splints, some to extend her damaged fingers, others to help them bend. She has a ravenous desire to hold a racket again, even if she can't fully feel it, even though she will have to start out by hitting foam balls, like a kid in a beginner's class.

Intermittent flashbacks and anxiety are more problematic. She works with a mental coach who urges her to channel her mind toward the small accomplishments of each day and week, to steer her mind's eye toward cheerful images of her nieces and nephew.

But there are some situations she has to confront by herself. Three weeks after surgery, she walks into an empty shower stall at the Sparta Prague club after working out on a stationary bike, hyperaware of her surroundings. "I didn't think too much about the past,'' she says with remembered enthusiasm. "I was very happy about that.'' It will be a couple of months before she's willing to rent her own flat in Prague.

It isn't the reboot Kvitova once envisioned for the 2017 season, when she'd intended to rebuild momentum and mount a campaign for another major.

Kvitova's serve, powerful forehand, variety and timing are among the best in tennis, but her high-risk game requires an intensity that she has sometimes struggled to maintain in the seasons following her second Wimbledon title. Her nickname of "P3tra,'' referring to her tendency to play three-set matches, encapsulates her ability to dig herself out of competitive trouble she would rather avoid.

She changes coaches early in the 2016 season and splits up with her fiancé, pro hockey player Radek Meidl, the latest in a string of high-profile companions including fellow tennis players Adam Pavlasek and Radek Stepanek. Weeks before the attack, she makes another shift, hiring former ATP pro Jiri Vanek and telling him, "I want to be No. 1, I want to win one more Grand Slam, I want to do it, I feel it inside," Vanek recalls. He is impressed by her ambition, but then a stress fracture sidelines her. The violent knife attack catapults them into crisis before they've had a single formal practice together.

"I couldn't stay by myself,'' Kvitova says. Her voice wobbles slightly. "I needed help, to be honest. I am independent, and suddenly I couldn't do anything.''

Kvitova is afraid to go out alone. She can't drive with her hand immobilized, and she doesn't want to hire a bodyguard. "I'm a private, quiet person,'' she says. "It would be terrible to ask someone to go with me to the dinner and stay three tables away." Instead, her coaches become her de facto security detail. She moves in with Vanek and his family in Prague. Her coach and fitness trainer take turns ferrying her to Kebrle's office.

The muscular, animated Vydra, a former pro triathlete, chokes up when he talks about that time. "The first question was, will she ever play tennis again?" he says through an interpreter. "I said I am 100 percent sure that she will. She trusted me, so she then put all into it, that she would return." He tells her he spoke from authority, having survived a brain aneurysm: "I know even if you are totally dead and you are feeling like you can't do this, if you have a strong head, you can force yourself to get up and to do it."

After three months, Kvitova is allowed to pick up a racket. Her grip closes around its familiar contours over the next few weeks in a gradual handshake, reacquainting itself.

A French hand specialist, Dominique Thomas, treats her twice at his clinic in Grenoble with aggressive electro-stimulation therapy. It accelerates her healing, and as Kvitova's optimism grows, she is diligent to a fault. She overworks the hand, and it swells up again. Kebrle is concerned about the index finger. If it remains inflexible because of scar tissue, he might have to perform another surgery that will set her back weeks.

One day, she hears the finger click and finds she can bend it. Kebrle tells her the worst of the adhesions has freed up at last, confirming that holding the racket is actually the best therapy of all. "Once she started playing tennis, you could see it from week to week, that her function has increased, and it started to work as a normal hand,'' he says.

Her progress is kept strictly under wraps as she trains in the Canary Islands and Monaco. She sends video clips of practice to her doctors and her agents, and one day, she sends a photo with a caption noting a small off-court victory: "I'm holding a wine glass.''

"All the way through, she was saying, 'This is gonna be a challenge, but I love challenges,'" Spellman says. "Maybe nothing else would have given her that motivation -- if it had just been an injury. It gave her the inner strength to want to prove she could do it.''

By mid-April 2017, Kvitova decides she will try to play at Roland Garros, a month before the doctors initially thought was possible. Her public comeback begins in the interview room in Paris, a session she rehearses with Spellman, trying to anticipate the questions reporters will ask, strategizing what to do if she cries. The lights over the dais make her sweat, but she doesn't wilt or break down. "I felt like the tennis was taken away from me, and it wasn't my decision,'' she says. "Suddenly I couldn't do what I love. I see a little bit from the different angle. So I'm happy that I'm here."

Tennis people are welcoming and kind, but they are also unsure how to react, casting covert glances at her hand. She understands why. "I saw people very happy to see me back,'' she says. "Then I felt sometimes they were curious how my hand was, but they didn't ask. Uncomfortable. But I think I will be the same as they were.''

Only Boris Becker, on site as a Eurosport television analyst, asks her about it directly. Kvitova does a credible impersonation of his voice: "Petra, show me your hand.'' She turns it over to display her palm. He exhales and says, "OK." She walks onto center court with her fingernails painted bright red and wins her first match. She loses in the next round, but she has cleared the most important hurdle.

Kvitova defies the odds again the next month, knitting together a week's worth of matches on grass to win the Birmingham title in late June. She doesn't even look surprised when she beats Ashleigh Barty in the final, though she will later say she was awash in disbelief. She turns to Vanek and Vydra in the stands after receiving the trophy and says, in Czech, "Is this normal?'' It's an inside joke in her camp, an acknowledgement that they are on uncharted ground.

She loses in the second round at Wimbledon but feels encouraged when she reaches the U.S. Open quarterfinals and plays Venus Williams toe-to-toe through three sets.

In December 2017, a year after the attack, a Czech publication includes Kvitova and her surgeon in an annual "Czechs of the Year'' photo spread. She is resplendent in a red dress; he is gallantly kissing the left hand he repaired. The image reflects a story moving toward a happy ending, but there's still one critical piece missing.

To dispel rumors about how she incurred her injuries, Kvitova shared these graphic before-and-after photos of her hand. Courtesy Petra Kvitova

Based on Kvitova's description, police quickly release a sketch of a suspect in his 30s. A few confirmed details make their way into Czech media reports. Kvitova's name was not on the exterior buzzer panel of the five-story building, whose modest appearance betrayed no hint of a millionaire tennis player in residence. The intruder gained access by posing as a utility worker. She was attacked in her bathroom. He made off with a few hundred dollars.

The authorities characterize the crime as random, but a month later, a police spokesperson uses the term vydírání -- translated as "extortion" or "blackmail'' in English-language reports. Under the Czech penal code, the word can simply mean a forcible, violent act, and it carries a higher possible sentence when grievous bodily harm is inflicted.

In the semantic swirl and the absence of hard information, theories flourish, some fueled by Kvitova's early and successful comeback. Was it really possible that one of the most celebrated athletes in the country could have been an arbitrary target? Were her wounds really that serious? Did police bungle the investigation?

Kebrle gets calls from colleagues asking if the whole thing is an insurance scam. He is unequivocal about the nature of her wounds: "The way it's done, it shows it was a defens[ive] injury. That's the biological reaction of the body. Less for more. I lose my hand, but I will save my life.'' In August 2017, a frustrated Kvitova decides to release the surgeon's graphic before-and-after photos of her hand, shortly before the U.S. Open.

Radio silence persists until November, when another police briefing is held to announce that despite hundreds of interviews, tips and a sizable reward for information, there are no new leads, and the case has been shelved.

Police spokesmen stonewall ESPN's inquiries this spring. A harried but polite receptionist at the Prostejov police station makes phone calls, comes out from behind her desk and explains there is an embargo. Emailed requests to regional authorities in nearby Olomouc get the same answer.

But there is movement behind the scenes. According to recent Czech media accounts, a cold-case unit tackles the case early in the year. On the eve of Roland Garros in late May, an unidentified man is taken into custody. News outlets in the Czech Republic report that he had a criminal past, including being a member of a gang that preyed on elderly people. Kvitova initially identifies him through a photo, and then, after she's finished playing in Paris, returns home and picks him out of a lineup.

"I think I [will] feel relief when everything is done,'' she says after the arrest becomes public knowledge. "Obviously, it's great news so far, but -- when you play, and for example, you have one game to serve for the match, or you have match point -- it's close, but it's still far away. So that's how I feel it.''

Czech law gives authorities wide latitude in holding suspects during investigations, closing hearings and withholding information. Specific charges could come in late July, according to the latest police statement.

Kvitova, who continues to refrain from detailing specifics of the attack or discussing legal aspects of the case, says she will not be afraid if and when the time comes to open up. "I think I will, I can, but I just can't now because of the police,'' she says in Prague this spring. "But I think I am OK to tell it. I don't have anything to hide.''

As Kvitova's career has progressed, she has become much more comfortable expressing her thoughts to the English-speaking press.

The numbness the knife left might never completely dissipate. Kvitova has learned to make a celebratory fist with her other hand. She sometimes kneads the fingers of her left hand with her right while she's at rest, trying to coax a little bit more flexibility from them.

"From my view, it's not really improving much, but I think I'm pretty happy with the way it is anyway,'' she says after one of her matches at Roland Garros in May. This is Kvitova's new ordinary. It can be traced back to that long car ride when, with her career in limbo, she seized on what she could do rather than what might be lost.

Wimbledon is almost upon her again. Simply making the trip will not suffice this year, not after a 38-7 season that includes titles on hardcourts, clay and grass, raising her own expectations as high as they've ever been.

"I'm kind of surprised how I handled everything,'' she says. "Obviously, I'm a pretty positive person, but to be positive in this kind of case was just so different. When you lose the match, you can be positive that you have a chance next week. But when I'm going to the hospital without knowing if I can ever have all my fingers back -- of course, I didn't want to think too much how bad it can be.''

Kvitova would not wish what happened to her on anyone, yet the scar tissue that temporarily bound her also led to a profound discovery. The surgeon's skill salvaged her grip, but it was her own handiwork that mattered most in loosening the physical adhesions and conquering the fears that could have held her back. Consider the strength that led her to fight with her dominant hand and then fight for that hand, in the service of an obstinate and ardent notion: No one was going to pry her away from what she loves.

Additional reporting by Max Munson.

Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.