“Sometimes I'm too hard on myself,” Kvitova, now 30, told Olympic Channel in an exclusive interview. “I try to tell myself, ‘Be just happy that you are playing tonight.’ I look at it (like that) now. And of course, I want more – I don't want to lose – (but that’s) why I’m fighting. I have it in me, as well. I'm glad I have this in me from my parents.”
Perhaps the most lauded member of a present-era renaissance for Czech females in the sport, Kvitova is a two-time Wimbledon winner, the bronze medallist at Rio 2016 and has helped her country to six team titles in the last decade in the Billie Jean King Cup (re-named this year from Fed Cup).
Four years ago, just months after her Olympic success in South America, she was attacked by a home intruder in Prague, defending herself and suffering severe lacerations to her left hand from the intruder’s knife that required hours-long surgery.
She would be back at the French Open less than six months later.
“To be be very honest, I didn't know what will happen in my life,” Kvitova recalled. “I was (fighting to) survive, first of all, to be still alive. (But) I will never forget what happened. I know how I changed (because of it).
I knew how to fight on the court, but this was the situation when I find out that off the court I’m a fighter, too. Maybe even bigger. So, yeah, it (gave) me a lot. I mean, the perspective of life as well, the perspective of tennis.”
Perspective is something Kvitova feels as though she has gained at every turn, having first splashed onto the global tennis scene by winning Wimbledon in 2011, when she was just 21 years old.
“I always said to myself, ‘I don't want to change.’ But of course, in some ways, I had to,” said Kvitova, who reached a career-high ranking of No.2 in the world later in 2011. “That's life... experiences. I need to deal with the with the pressure, with everything around me and to find a balance between (it all). It’s been a long road, but I'm happy. I would never change it for anything.”
That includes her bronze won in Rio, having lost in the quarter-finals of the London 2012 Games on her beloved courts of the All England Club and Wimbledon, she finally realized a childhood dream by winning in three sets over American Madison Keys in the bronze medal contest.
“Yeah, this is my bronze medal from Rio. It's beautiful and it looks like a gold,” Kvitova said, laughing during the video interview.
She continued: “But no, I mean, it means a lot for me for sure. When I see those (Rio) colours, of course, they always bring me those beautiful memories of the sun and warm weather and those clothes and everything from 2016. Being on the podium to be in third place with the other two girls, it was amazing. To me, the Olympic Games are very special.”
So special, Kvitova said, that she’s targeting more hardware at Tokyo 2020, which, in tennis terms, will be wedged between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open next summer. Kvitova is all but assured a qualification spot as the second-ranked Czech player (behind world No.6 Karolina Pliskova).
Olympic teams for tennis are announced on or after early June 2021, at the conclusion of the French Open.
Here, an interview with Kvitova on why the Olympic Games are so special to her, how she’s learned some of life’s biggest lessons from winning – and losing – and much more. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Olympic Channel: Petra, why have the Olympics been so important to you in your career? With the four Grand Slams in the sport, that’s not the case with every players’ perspective.
Petra Kvitova: For me, Olympic Games... it's something totally different compared to any other event. I love it. Since I was a kid, I always love to play these team competitions, playing for my country.
You're not just playing for yourself, but for the country, for the people. We are a family. And it's something which I'm proud of.
OC: What memories do you have from your run to bronze in Rio? You lost to eventual champion Monica Puig in the semi-finals, then bounced back.
Kvitova: In that week I was playing and fighting for (the wins). And I know how I felt. (After I won bronze), I was crying (because) it was something I really, really, wanted: To have a medal from the Olympic Games. It was missing in my career at that point.
OC: Tennis can be relentless: In a tournament of 32 players, 31 walk away as “losers” each week on the WTA Tour. What do you feel like the sport has taught you?
Kvitova: It's really, really tough. It's a sport where you can be one or two points from winning sometimes and it turns out you lose. That's how it is “beautiful.”
It's easy to say that we are learning from this, but from my side it's really tough because those things can be really painful. And for me, to get over the painful losses, it's tough. At the end of the day, I just sometime want to forget it. But I think that inside it's given me for sure something that I want. The more that I want to get better, I want to work more, I want to fight more.
I think that what I’ve learned is that it doesn't matter if you win or lose. It's always, you know, how you look at it. And that's what I'm trying always to do, even when I win, I always find something that was not really working (on court). And if I lose, I find what was working... even just a little bit.
OC: Tennis can teach you a lot, but if you’re comfortable sharing, what did that attack teach you in 2016? Or how has your perspective changed in the years since? It was a very scary, poignant moment in your life.
Kvitova: I mean, every day when the sun is out, I'm like, ‘Wow, that's beautiful.’ I love to see my loved ones and my family and my friends. To be playing tennis again, to compete in the biggest stadiums in the world with the greatest competitors... with the crowd clapping for you and the atmosphere... It's something really unbelievable.
After (the attack), I was fighting to be back playing tennis. I know being in the final of a Grand Slam, being the semifinal of the French Open... that means a lot. [Kvitova finished as runner-up to Naomi Osaka at the 2019 Australian Open. In October 2020, she was a semi-finalist at the French Open for the first time in eight years.]
OC: This situation of course involved your tennis career, but other things became so important... your life, your health... How did that impact you as a person?
Kvitova: I had to be really careful about my hand, how everything will go. And the surgery took forever. That's what I heard afterwards. There was a very small percentage, like five, 10 percent, that I would never play tennis again. Luckily my doctor didn't say to me this time. He just said it afterwards when I was already playing tennis. So, I thank him for that (laughing).
It's really helped me for sure to see the positive, of course. Yeah. It was totally up and down with my scars, with my movements of the fingers and everything. But I mean, the motivation and the desire to play tennis again was a much bigger challenge.
I was really working a lot to be ready to play not only like physically but mentally. It was very tough and it took me a while. Sometimes it's still not so great, but I'm getting better.
OC: Is it right to say you have better appreciation now for what you do? Or a new perspective?
Kvitova: Yeah, I think so. I'm coming in like a “second career” since my comeback in French Open (in 2017). You know, it was so weird because my second tournament, I was playing in Birmingham (U.K.) and I won the tournament. I was like, “This is not real!” I mean, it was something out of nowhere. It was the first time when I felt like, “I'm back!” And I can compete with the best again.
At the U.S. Open (that year), when I reached the quarter-finals, and played against Venus Williams, I lost 7-6 in the third set. But that was the tournament where I was like, “Yeah, I can be here again.” That was a great motivation. And I'm really appreciating everything I've been done since my comeback.
OC: If we pivot back to your bronze medal, what made it so meaningful to you, having grown up in the Czech Republic and watching the Games as you did as a kid?
Kvitova: Well, this medal, I would say the difference is that this is not only for me, but it is for our Czech tennis (community) and for the country, for the Czech Republic, which I always have been proud to play for. Now I can hold it for my country. As a kid, I always watched Olympic Games with my dad... all the sports, even the Winter Games. I couldn't really imagine myself to be in the Olympic Games. And then I was there and now I have this beautiful medal. So it means something really more than probably every person (knows).
OC: You competed in doubles in Beijing 2008 and then of course London 2012, but what was special about your experience in Rio aside from that bronze?
Kvitova: For me it was such a good experience to talk with other Czech athletes and find out about the mental strength in their sports. For me to see the other sports, it was great. Since then, I know a lot of athletes and I have lots of friends from the Olympic Games. That's just been great.
OC: After you lost your semi-final, how did you re-focus for the bronze medal match. You went from maybe playing for gold to perhaps not being able to win a medal...*
Kvitova:* I don't really know how I slept. I think I didn't sleep actually before my match for the bronze medal. And I was like, ‘OK, now I'm going to play against Madison. And she is such a great player and I don't know how I can win it.’
And then I just step on the court. I saw athletes, people from the Czech house and everything, and I was just playing... fighting.
It just came very naturally for me and I didn't know I wasn't thinking about (the medal). It was a very good match and I just left everything of what I had in me on the court. And I won the bronze medal.
OC: How did you celebrate? You actually stayed in Rio versus rushing back to the tennis tour, is that right?
Kvitova: When I won my bronze medal I was so tired... exhausted. So I said, ‘OK, I will not play our next tournament in Cincinnati.’ So I withdrew and I stayed a few days in the Olympic Village. So I saw some cycling, I saw Usain Bolt, how fast he was running. Doing that experience, watching the other sports, it was really nice to see our Czech colours out there.