MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) – Petra Kvitova has shed her tears. The tears, for a long time private, were in a very public arena this week.
A violent home invasion that caused serious knife wounds to her left hand was a punctuation point in her career, as she sees it. There’s the before – two Wimbledon titles – and her “second career” – which so far is highlighted by her run to Saturday’s Australian Open final.
What she is focused on now is winning her first Grand Slam title since Wimbledon in 2014. To get there, she’ll have to beat 21-year-old Naomi Osaka, the U.S. Open champion who is on a 13-match winning streak in the majors.
“To be honest, I’m still not really believing that I’m in the final,” Kvitova said. “It’s kind of weird, to be honest, as well, that I didn’t know even if I was going to play tennis again.”
Kvitova was 21 when she made her Grand Slam breakthrough at Wimbledon in 2011 and was a star on the rise, much like Osaka is now.
Unlike Osaka, she lost in the first round in her next Grand Slam. There were ups – including a second Wimbledon title – and downs in tennis until that until the horrible ordeal in December 2016 that could have derailed her career, or worse.
For a while she was confident being alone, she remembered, until one day she left the locker room at a tennis club in Prague and told her support crew “yeah, it was a good one today that I really felt OK.”
Her doctor didn’t tell her at the time of concerns about the scarring on her surgically repaired left hand that could hinder her return to top-level tennis. In retrospect, Kvitova said it’s good she didn’t know.
“It wasn’t only physically but mentally was very tough. It took me really a while to believe,” she said. “It was lot of, lot of work … a lot of recovery, treatment. You know, it was – I think that’s kind of the sport life help me a lot with that. I just set up the mind that I really wanted to come back, and I just did everything.”
She missed the 2017 Australian Open during three months off the tour. She returned at the French Open and had a second-round exit there and at Wimbledon before a bright spot in her comeback, a quarterfinal run at the U.S. Open.
But that was the peak for two seasons. She was out in the first round at Melbourne Park last year and at Wimbledon, and third rounds the French and U.S. Opens. Minor setbacks, all things considered.
“The mental side was there, and I really needed to be strong and not really thinking too negatively about it,” said Kvitova, who is now on an 11-match winning streak. “Yeah, it’s been long journey.”
Kvitova and Osaka have never played each other. Osaka has been watching Kvitova for a long time, though.
“I’ve watched her play the Wimbledon finals. I know what a great player she is,” Osaka said. “To have the opportunity to play her for the first time in a final of a Grand Slam is something very amazing.”
Osaka, whose mother is Japanese and father is from Haiti, has been a star in Japan since she beat Serena Williams in the final of the last U.S. Open.
And her fan base has grown, as has her physical condition and mental strength.
That was crucial when she had to come back from a set and 4-1 down against Hsieh Su-wei in the third round, when she spiked her racket in frustration. Wins over No. 13 Anastasija Sevastova, No. 6 Elina Svitolina and 2016 U.S. Open finalist Karolina Pliskova followed.
Now, she’s aiming to be the first woman to win back-to-back majors since Serena Williams in 2015.
“It definitely helped knowing that I won the U.S. Open,” she said, “because I knew that I had the ability to win that many matches, play for that long.”
Both players are aiming for top-ranking with a win, and both will have plenty of support in Rod Laver Arena. Kvitova will be a sentimental favorite, particularly after her tearful on-court acknowledgment of success in her “second career” after her quarterfinal win over Australia’s Ash Barty.
She was asked Friday if she could sense that the crowd knew her story and was behind her.
“I don’t know. They are not screaming it,” she said, smiling. “Hopefully I can find some of them to be on my side.”
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