Petra Kvitova: The knife attack nobody expected, the comeback no-one thought possible

By Sonia OxleyBBC Sport in Moravia, Czech Republic
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"She was crying and said she had been badly cut, that someone had attacked her, she's covered in blood and what should she do."

Miroslav Cernosek is recounting a phone call he took on the morning of 20 December 2016. On the other end of the line was two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova.

She had let somebody posing as a boiler repair man into her flat and, while her back was turned, he held a knife to her throat. In fighting him off, the nerves in the thumb and index finger on her left, tennis-playing hand were severed, and the rest of her fingers were badly cut. The index finger was left barely hanging by its skin.

Kvitova says she is fortunate to be alive. Doctors gave her a less-than-10% chance of playing tennis again.

She defied the odds and returned to competition just five months later, and has since won eight tournaments as well as reaching the Australian Open final in January.

"I always knew I am a fighter on the court but I never really knew that I am an even bigger fighter off the court," the Czech tells BBC Sport.

The 29-year-old is among the favourites for Wimbledon, which starts on Monday, and has been close to taking the world number one ranking this year.

Radim Zondra, 33, was sentenced in March to eight years in jail for the attack on Kvitova but denies any involvement and has lodged an appeal.

From the sleepy Moravian town of Fulnek in the eastern Czech Republic, where people remember 'the little girl cycling with racquets on her back', to the town of Prostejov, where the attack happened, we visit the places and meet the people who have shaped the player with a reputation as one of the nicest on the women's tennis tour.

And she tells us how her life changed forever in a few seconds.

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Rush hour in the small town of Prostejov - about 35 miles from Brno, the Czech Republic's second largest city - is like any other time of day.

Perhaps the 32-degree heat has slowed things down but no-one's in a hurry, there's a queue at the ice cream hatch, people are enjoying beers under parasols, and the traffic is moving.

It feels quiet and safe.

That probably goes some way to explaining why Kvitova was living in an ordinary flat here, and not in a guarded VIP complex.

The gates at the red-and-cream block where she had a ground-floor apartment are open and the only obvious security is a picture indicating a video intercom system.

The word "psychopath" is graffitied on the surrounding concrete wall, and an old grey fluff-less tennis ball lies on the ground a couple of metres from the front door.

The grey concrete building next door is home to a mattress shop, a pub and a beauty salon, and the rest of the neighbourhood is a mix of blocks of Communist-era flats and low-rise colourful houses.

"It's not an area of rich people, not a place where you'd would expect someone like Kvitova to live," says Michal Cagala, a television presenter from Prostejov who reported on the court case.

"It is a normal neighbourhood with average buildings. I always felt that Prostejov was a very safe town and it was surprising that something could happen in such a calm, small town in the middle of nowhere. Nobody expected it."

No-one really expects it in the country as a whole - Czech crime figures for 2016 show a total of 5,050 cases of violent crime reported - that includes anything from pub brawls to the most serious assaults - and there were 1,630 reported robberies.

Compare that to the more than one million violent crimes reported in England and Wales during a similar period.

"Petra Kvitova was in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Cernosek, the manager of the Prostejov tennis club who financed the start of her career and remains close to her.

And she was not even supposed to be there.

Map showing cities in Czech Republic

A last-minute change of plan meant that instead of travelling with Cernosek to an event in Brno, she had decided to make her own way there.

While she was getting ready to leave, the doorbell rang and the man said he had come to look at the boiler. She later told the court she let him in because she was expecting a doping test.

"He asked me to turn on the hot water tap and at that moment I had a knife against my neck. I grabbed it with both hands," she said in the testimony she gave via video link in a side room in the Brno court so she did not have to look at the accused.

"I held the blade with my left hand. I snatched it away, I fell on the floor and there was blood everywhere."

Kvitova told her attacker she needed to go to hospital and asked if he wanted money. She says he left after she gave him 10,000 crowns (£350) - about half the average Czech monthly wage after tax.

She then phoned Cernosek, who was in the car making his way to Brno.

"It was a shock," the 71-year-old says. "When Petra rang, I thought she must be having a problem with her car.

"I rang an ambulance, I rang the police, I rang the head of A&E," he says.

Cernosek then called leading physiotherapy professor Pavel Kolar, who suggested he speak to specialist hand surgeon Radek Kebrle. Cernosek's driver then took Kvitova the 145 miles to Kebrle's surgery in Vysoke nad Jizerou.

"She was weakened because of the bleeding but because she was being so brave no-one knew how bad it was until she got to hospital," says Cernosek. "We thought it would be the end of her tennis.

"If she had come with me, it wouldn't have happened," he added ruefully.

Kvitova revealed soon after her operation that she was able to move her hand

Kvitova had a four-hour operation, with doctors warning her that her tennis career could be over and she might even lose her fingers.

"When we saw the pictures, one finger was just hanging on skin. I said it just wasn't possible that this girl can return," Cernosek says.

"She showed such mental strength but also she is so talented - if she didn't have that much talent in her then she would never have come back. The injury was so bad some people would never have even held a pen in that hand again, but she had to pick up a tennis racquet."

Kvitova gave a news conference just three days after the attack - with a huge bandage nearly up to her elbow - and was already talking about doing everything she could to come back.

She had been told she would need to rest for a minimum of six months, but five months later she was playing at the French Open.

Efforts to rehabilitate did not even stop at meal times.

"During dinner someone from her team would hold her hand and massage it. For that first six months, year, every dinner - she'd take a bite of pasta and then have her hand massaged," Cernosek says.

She still does not have 100% mobility in her hand and there is no sensitivity in the tip of her index finger and thumb, but her determination to win has never faded.

Kvitova has always been determined. Ever since the start.

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In Fulnek, Marie Valova points to some ordinary, concrete, blocks of flats - pre-fab housing from the Communist era known as 'panelaky' that are low in both cost and character. From there, she says, a young Kvitova used to ride her bike to the tennis courts every day.

It's a one kilometre route, taking in plenty of cobbles and pretty-coloured buildings and crosses the town square, where several years later she would show off her Wimbledon trophies.

Back then, when her father trained her up to the age of 15, there were only two tennis courts. Now there are four plus a clubhouse Kvitova funded and a shiny sign branding it the Petra Kvitova tennis club.

"Other sports weren't possible in Fulnek - she would have had to travel," her dad Jiri tells BBC Sport. "We just wanted her to do some sort of sport so we picked tennis.

"She never once said she didn't want to go - we never argued about it. She was an obedient child.

"We never had any big aims for her and we never thought she would be so famous. She is just an incredible fighter and does not give up. It is through her hard work and tenacity that she has achieved all she has."

Despite their daughter's huge success, Kvitova's parents still live in the same flat and their friends speak of modest and unassuming people - in rather the same way those on the tennis tour view Kvitova herself.

The enduring memory of Kvitova for many is of a determined child heading for the town's clay courts.

"I remember her riding on her bike through the town with six racquets on her back with her dad," says local resident Gabriela Klabackova. "You could tell she had the makings of a winner."

Valova is pretty sure where she gets it from.

"I used to play mixed doubles with her father, Jiri," she says. "We didn't lose very often! He doesn't take defeat well."

She says the town was shocked by the attack on Kvitova, which was a frequent topic of conversation in the pub at the time, but that her comeback was no surprise because "she is a Czech lion" - the animal features on the country's coat of arms.

Kvitova is a hero of Fulnek - where children have taken a fistful of clay from the court just to say they have 'something that Petra played on' - and is only one of two people to be awarded the freedom of the town.

The other is John Comenius, the 17th century philosopher and educator whose face adorns the country's 200-crown bank note.

When Kvitova is in a big final, residents gather to watch her on a big screen - cheers and tears often washed down with a good Czech beer.

When she won her first Wimbledon title in 2011 there were 150 people crammed into the town's Cultural Centre, and fans gathered in the tennis clubhouse to watch January's Australian Open final.

Despite defeat by Osaka in that match she rose to second in the world rankings - but since then an arm injury has forced her out of the French Open and the pre-Wimbledon grass season. She is currently ranked sixth in the world.

Valova, who runs the local museum, is an enthusiastic member of the Petra Kvitova fan club. She and about 12 others from Fulnek travel to Fed Cup matches with flags painted on their faces and waving a big flag that says 'Pojd!' ('Come on') - the phrase Kvitova shouts to herself during matches.

She says she gets the occasional tourist asking her about Kvitova if they visit the church that houses the museum, and she sometimes gives them one of the player's signed photographs.

If you visit St Joseph's church, you might even be asked to stand still and feel the positive energy - those who work there say experts who have measured it say it has twice the positive energy of Lourdes, the pilgrimage site in France that many people claim is a place of miracles and healing.

Before Kvitova's own healing, the church housed an exhibition of her trophies in 2015, drawing just over 1,000 people in a week - not bad for a town whose population is 3,000.

The player herself attended, and indeed is still seen around when she visits her parents or one of her older brothers, Libor, who is the deputy head of Kvitova's old school and also coaches at the tennis club.

Jiri Sindler, who works at the hotel next to the tennis club, says she orders a traditional dish when she eats there: "Something fried - a schnitzel or fried cheese, things she can't get anywhere else."

While Kvitova has said it is important for her to always remain 'Petra from Fulnek', there came a time when her tennis grew too big for her town.

Playing on the junior circuit in the Czech Repubic, Kvitova's talent was soon spotted by Prostejov scout Jaroslav Balaz and it was time to move on.

"It was a difficult time when I was around 15. I was in puberty, I played just with my father in Fulnek - it was probably just too much being with my father 24 hours and also still together at home, on the tennis court," Kvitova tells BBC Sport from Prague, where she now trains.

At first she just went to Prostejov for a couple of days a week but then, at the age of 16, she took up the club's offer of a private coach, accommodation, on-site gym, physios, access to 17 courts and different surfaces to the clay she had grown up with.

"Of course for my father it was not easy," she says. "Suddenly he found out that he is not any more the coach of me, but he has still had an impact on me and on my game and everything but just not really as a coach. It was a pretty difficult time for us but luckily we have been through it and we did a good job."

Cernosek says the way she handled the transition was a key part of her success.

"She showed her maturity by saying: 'Dad, stop meddling, I trust my coaches and I'm going to do it the way my coach is telling me to.' That doesn't always happen that a 16-year-old girl stands up to her father," he says.

She, meanwhile, credits Cernosek for launching her career, saying he gave her money to travel to tournaments and without him she would not have been able to play tennis.

The wall behind where Cernosek sits in his office is bursting with photos of him and various sporting successes - hosting Usain Bolt many times at the Ostrava athletics meet, Roger Federer at the Davis Cup. A Fed Cup and Davis Cup trophy sit on the shelf below.

But it is clear whose success he enjoys the most.

Petra Kvitova and Miroslav Cernosek meet then president Klaus
Cernosek (right) and Kvitova flew in a private plane to meet then Czech President Vaclav Klaus (left) after her 2011 Wimbledon triumph

"I'm a fan of every Czech player, but Petra is the one I am the biggest fan of," he says.

He drank champagne with her in the locker room after one Wimbledon triumph, and took her to meet the Czech president after another.

But he has also cried - none more so than after January's Australian Open final, when she lost to Naomi Osaka. He saw what the loss - in her first Grand Slam final since the attack - did to her.

"Australia was the most I've ever seen her cry, she was so upset. She had the potential to win that," he says. "I never saw her cry the way she did after that final."

On the court and off the court, the attack has changed her.

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Petra Kvitova's hand, after healing
Petra Kvitova's left hand, photographed in August 2017

While Kvitova's hand has healed and her tennis is back on track, her outlook has altered.

"I'm really appreciating small things even more than I was before - I always tried to enjoy life but I don't think I was able to enjoy it as now," she says.

"I'm probably more relaxed, maybe on the court as well. But off the court I am more appreciating if just the sun is coming out, or if I see my family or my friends or whatever. I'm not really caring about the small things or the small problems."

Her friends say she has grown warier - she now wants to approve every name using her player guest tickets at events and has learnt to say 'no', including to lucrative sponsorship deals if she is not comfortable with them.

"The bad thing of course is my trust in people, especially men, has got worse," she says. "Sometimes I do have those flashbacks when I am somewhere alone or something is happening around me.

"Sometimes I'm scared of course about the people around, still looking back behind me what is happening there and sometimes I'm walking too fast to be in a safe place.

"It's changed my perspective - sometimes I'm just really appreciating that I'm alive.

"It's something which I couldn't really imagine that could happen but in a few seconds your life is in a totally different place - I didn't really realise that before but now I really do. I'm just trying to live for 100% right now."

Whether that will bring more Grand Slam titles, no-one can say, but she knows she has achieved so much more than that.

BBC Sport has launched #ChangeTheGame this summer to showcase female athletes in a way they never have been before. Through more live women's sport available to watch across the BBC this summer, complemented by our journalism, we are aiming to turn up the volume on women's sport and alter perceptions. Find out more here.


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