Petra Kvitova, a No. 11 seed and a favorite to win Wimbledon, lost Wednesday to unseeded Madison Brengle, who had never won a singles match in the tournament before. Kvitova undid herself with individual mistakes, totaling 50 unforced errors to Brengle’s 16.
After coming back to win the second set, Kvitova was forced to sit down by her trainer. She was exhausted. The heat had been too much for her. Her blood pressure and heart were checked, and afterwards she was allowed to continue, but even though she passed the quick physical, her body had nothing left to give.
“Then from the beginning I felt OK, in the warm-up or beginning of the match I felt not really anything badly,” Kvitova said after the match. “But then when the match get longer and longer, I felt a little bit sick and tired. So I couldn't really move. I was so slow. I felt like, I don't know, like an animal. But a very slow animal. I fought, and I'm not sure what's happening, actually. I could not just breathe, and I was feeling a bit sick, as well.”
Exhaustion and injuries happen in sports, forcing athletes to retire from competitions early. That’s part of the game, and Kvitova’s body was, by her own admission, not in the best shape. She played in just two tournaments beforehand: the French Open at the beginning of June, and the Aegon Classic in Birmingham at the end of the same month. She lost in the second round of the French Open to Bethanie Mattek-Sands but won the Aegon Classic.
But the results, like the one at Wimbledon, were secondary. She had played and been upset, that’s true — but she had played. Her body let her down, but it did so during a tennis match. For Kvitova, that was all that mattered.
Late last December, Kvitova, who had been eating breakfast, answered the door of her apartment in the town of Prostejov. A man who claimed to be an electricity maintenance worker said that he was there to read her utility meter. Soon after she let him in, he attacked her. For the want of 5,000 koruna, he put a knife to her throat. She fought him off, but in the process he slashed her left hand. Her playing hand. All five fingers were badly damaged. After the attack, her surgeon told her that there was a high chance that she would not play tennis again.
Kvitova was transported to a hospital 40 minutes from her home. After almost four hours in surgery, doctors were able to repair the tendons and two nerves in her hand. She wore a protective splint for eight weeks and didn’t hold a tennis racket until March. Three months later, she was playing in a tournament.
After she lost in the French Open, she admitted that she still could not feel two of her fingers. It was a miracle for her to return to professional tennis, but the damage of the attack was severe enough to leave permanent change, despite the doctors’ work.
“The doctor said my hand will never be the same because of the scars and we don’t know how everything will work out,” Kvitova said, “but I am happy that I am playing tennis.”
When she was interviewed after advancing past the first round of Wimbledon, Kvitova joked that she had to learn to fist pump with her right hand, since she couldn’t make a fist with her left hand anymore. But she was in good spirits. After being told that she was a favorite to win the tournament, she dismissed the notion and asserted that, in her mind, she had already won. She was playing tennis at Wimbledon again. Each moment in that tournament was a victory.
The attack gave her two near-death experiences. One of the body and the other of the spirit. In defending her life, she almost lost her passion. At the age of 26, ranked 11th in the world, Kvitova faced the real possibility that her career was over. During her rehab, she even enrolled in a communications and social media course in University to prepare for a life after tennis.
“It was difficult because it was something that I hadn’t decided. If I sit down with myself and say ‘OK, that’s enough’, then that’s a different story,” Kvitova said. “But suddenly I couldn’t play — and it wasn’t my decision.”
Heat exhaustion wasn’t her decision either, but it was a sweet failure. Sports injuries may come at the expense of dreams, but at the same time they affirm those dreams. The body breaks down because the athlete has pushed it too far — in most cases, because the athlete wants to win, to be better, to fulfill his or her potential. The body falters and says, “OK, that’s enough, but soon we will go again.”
Sometimes the injuries become too much and the athlete has to retire as a consequence, but even that can be dealt with. There’s an understanding between both parties, the body and the person, that they have gone as far as they possibly can. That too has a sweetness.
What is evil is for a third party, a criminal, to come in and corrupt the agreement between body and athlete, and take away the future. Someone took away Kvitova’s left hand and her smile because of 5,000 koruna, plunging her into despair without consent, and destroying a pure source of joy, her love for tennis, for a comparatively measly amount of money. There’s no consolation to be found in such a horrible thing.
Yet Kvitova managed to recover and return to the tennis courts. She can’t close her hand completely or fist pump. She can’t feel some of her fingers. She lost early in the French Open. She failed to make a real impact at Wimbledon. In the second round of the tournament, her dry and tired body said, “OK, that’s enough.” That’s all true.
But what a wonderful thing to even have that communication with her body again. What a tremendous privilege to have the chance to fail at the biggest stage, to know that she has a future in the sport again. Kvitova has new challenges ahead of her, but the opportunity to face them is a win more precious than any trophy.