Petra Kvitova exceeds all expectations in emotional French Open win

PARIS -- It didn't matter that Philippe Chatrier stadium was barely a quarter full at the stroke of 11 a.m. Sunday, under weak sunshine that bore the promise of stifling heat later in the day. Petra Kvitova lofted the first ball of the first match of the French Open and notched a win while the scoreboard was still blank.

Kvitova was a surprise late arrival at Roland Garros, sparing herself a lengthy buildup of hype and speculation. She'd been expected no earlier than the grass-court season, but parachuted into Paris last week and announced she would test her surgically repaired left hand, damaged when she fended off a knife-wielding attacker in her home last December.

Both her hand and her buoyant psyche held up well in the Czech star's opening match against American Julia Boserup, who was making her French Open main-draw debut. Relief washed over Kvitova's face as she walked to the net after her 6-3, 6-2 victory, which came relatively easily, in an hour and 13 minutes, with the briefest of rain delays and no service breaks.

"Yesterday I was thinking how everything will be, and I couldn't really imagine how that's going to be,'' Kvitova said afterward. "I maybe thought that I would cry when I step on the court, but I didn't today. ... I was happy, because normally I can control my emotion on the court.

"[Just a] few tears after the match point.''

Kvitova blew kisses to the crowd and warmly acknowledged her entourage, who wore shirts emblazoned with the words "Courage,'' "Belief'' and her signature, self-motivating "Pojd!" -- with a heart replacing the letter "o." That Czech exclamation (pronounced poydg) translates to "Come on!" and is normally accompanied with a fist pump.

Front and center amid the courtside crew was former pro Jiri Vanek, who began working with Kvitova before the attack. It was a peculiar and charged situation for a coaching debut, and Vanek said he asked for counsel from her fitness trainer, David Vydra, on how to handle the lead-up.

"She was nervous but focused with tunnel vision,'' Vanek said, answering through Kvitova's publicist, Katie Spellman. "I kept it very simple. I told her about [her] opponent briefly, but the most important message was just stay positive and focus on first point, first game. I told her to enjoy playing tennis again, but also to go out there like you want to win the match.

"We have already exceeded our expectations, so it's easy to manage that."

The 27-year-old two-time Wimbledon champion entered the tournament with a protected ranking of No. 16 (she is seeded 15th here) because of her injury, but with no official closure on the incident that violently interrupted her career.

Based on Kvitova's detailed description of her assailant, who posed as a worker checking a utility meter, authorities were able to circulate a drawing within days of the attack in her apartment in Prostejov. In January, Czech media reported that police considered the case part of a blackmail scheme, but furnished no details. There have been no further updates and no arrest. When Kvitova met the press here last week, reporters were told questions about the case were off limits because of the continuing investigation.

It was hard not to stare at Kvitova's left hand and think about the slashing wound that severed tendons in all five fingers. The marbled scars that bear witness to the attack aren't visible when she grips the racket. There were a couple of moments when she said it didn't feel quite right, but she was pain-free, the most important indicator of her progress. She has promised to tell her doctor if that changes.

As one reporter pointed out in Kvitova's postmatch news conference, this is just the first of many tournaments in which Kvitova will be welcomed and questioned about her comeback. That could get old fast. For now, she's finding normalcy within the sphere she can control.

Kvitova always kept her hands impeccably manicured. Months ago, when she saw her swollen, blackened fingers peeking out of a cast, she visualized getting her nails done again. They were painted bold, bright red Sunday: the color of back to work.