An interview with Carla Suárez Navarro after her quarterfinal win at the Brisbane International.
Every athlete starts with a dream, one she carries through her career, and one she aspires to achieve before that career comes to an end. Growing up in France, Marion Bartoli set her sights across the Channel and dreamed of winning Wimbledon. Finishing her career with a US Open trophy, Flavia Pennetta was over the moon, and yet still felt pangs of regret at having never won her home country’s tournament in Rome.
Sofia Arvidsson announced her retirement from tennis not long after New Year’s Day; her dream was somehow simpler and grander than the rest. Peaking at No.29 in the rankings with two WTA titles, the Swede wanted little more than to be an Olympian.
“When I was young, I watched so many sports on TV, but the Olympics was always special,” she told WTA Insider. “I would watch the opening ceremonies and think that those are the best athletes in the world, and I was dreaming I could be there.”
Arvidsson’s dream came true in 2008, when she qualified for the Beijing Olympics and played eventual gold medalist Elena Dementieva in the second round.
“It was a very special moment when I got to be at the opening ceremonies with 90,000 people screaming. I had to battle to be there because I had injured my knee at Wimbledon, but I always liked to play for my country.”
As the London Games loomed four years later, Arvidsson was playing some of the best tennis of her career, earning two Top 10 wins in 2011 and a title in Memphis to start the season in 2012. But her dream of returning to the Olympics became a nightmare when the Swedish Olympic Committee initially refused to send her.
“I remember I was practicing on grass somewhere and I was waiting for the call from the Swedish Federation to tell me if I got into the Olympics. I was in by the rankings for sure, but the Swedish Olympic Committee still had to say yes.”
Heartbroken by the rejection, she refused to stay down for long.
“They called my coach to say, ‘no,’ and I sat down and was crying for five minutes, and then I stopped and said, ‘let’s practice again.'”
With the backing of former WTA CEO Stacey Allaster and a strong push from the International Tennis Federation, Arvidsson was eventually chosen to be doubles specialist Robert Lindstedt’s partner for the inaugural Olympic mixed doubles event. The loophole allowed her into the singles draw, but the irony of her selection was not lost on the thoughtfully articulate veteran.
“I was a mixed doubles specialist who really didn’t play mixed doubles,” she said, adding with a laugh, “I don’t think I ever won a mixed doubles match in my career! It’s just that there was a big chance of winning a medal back then because there were only 16 teams.
“As a country you should be proud of your athletes; if you’re Top 50 in tennis, it’s not easy to make the cut. So I was a bit disappointed, because in the end, I was there, but it felt like they didn’t want me there.”
There won’t be a third Olympic appearance for Arvidsson, who has hung up her racquets on the eve of the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. Turning pro in 1999, the Swede, a former junior national champion in table tennis, was a stalwart in the Top 100 for most of her career before her ranking began to drop, her desire slowly ebbing along with it.
“Motivation is not something you can buy, and I just felt like, for the last one and a half years, the hunger to play hasn’t been the same. The last year I’ve been trying to just see if there’s something left. I’ve been trying, working hard, but I just felt like, no, I don’t want to do this anymore.
“It’s sad in one way, but in another way, I’m happy I can choose when to quit. Last month, I didn’t play at all, and I didn’t miss it; I didn’t even think about it. It’s very emotional, of course, because I’ve played for a long time. It’s been my life, and I’ve played full-time since I was 16.
“It’s a big decision but I feel it’s right.”
Retiring without ceremony or a long goodbye, Arvidsson quietly announced her decision on Twitter, a few days after another Swedish tennis star, Robin Söderling, confirmed his own intent to do the same.
“Of course, it would be nice to go out like Pennetta did, winning the US Open, and then being like, ‘bye, see you!’ I don’t know if I’d like so much attention; it would be too emotional to play a match and then retire.
“The last few days I’ve gotten a lot of messages and people calling. That’s kind of overwhelming that you have so many people that have been following you and appreciate you.”
Few appreciated her more than the fans that attended her favorite tournament. Three of her four WTA finals appearances came at the Racquet Club of Memphis, and that success earned her two trophies and a personalized parking spot at the venue itself.
“Memphis is always going to be special in my heart, that’s for sure. I had one good run there and when you come back, you have good memories. I remember when I won my first title there, they said, ‘we can send you the trophy, or ship it to you,’ and I said, ‘nuh-uh! It’s going to be on my knee the whole way home!'”
Another constant in her career was a rivalry with former No.1, Jelena Jankovic. The Serb and Swede first met in the finals of the junior Australian Open in 2001, a tournament that provided Arvidsson with the initial impetus to dream big on the tennis court.
“I was thinking how it was so nice to play the Grand Slams, because you saw all the big stars and thought, ‘maybe one day, I can be there!’ In the beginning, it’s hard; you transfer from juniors to seniors, and suddenly I was playing players that I’d only seen on TV!”
Jankovic won that meeting in Melbourne, but the two went on to split their WTA head-to-head at two three-set matches apiece, and Arvidsson still remembers the epic encounters they had as pros.
“I was up 6-3 in a third set tiebreaker [at the 2008 Miami Open], and then I had two more match points, but I lost. I was at the net and I had this pretty easy one, but the girl’s fast, so she ran it down. I was thinking that I should have hit it in the other corner!”
Their US Open rematch a few months later was equally electric, with the unseeded Arvidsson pushing the Serb to another photo finish, this time on Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“That was just a fun game. During the match I was looking up and I could see John McEnroe sitting and commentating my match. I was like, ‘oh my god!’ That was kind of funny, and I was like, ‘come on, focus!’
“That’s really what you play for, to play the big players on the big stadiums. It was a really cool experience.”
Her biggest win came in Beijing, where she upset reigning Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova – who went on to win her next 12 matches – on a night she half-seriously expected to lose.
“We had plane tickets for the day after, and I was thinking, ‘this is perfect. I play a great player on a night match, and I think I was following Roddick and Anderson, really cool players, and that’s a good way to finish this trip!'”
Arvidsson admitted to feeling wistful when seeing photos of her fellow players in Australia, and though she may yet return to the sport in some other capacity, the Olympian is excited to move forward and find new dreams to pursue.
“They say there is a life outside tennis, but I’m really happy. I could not have imagined, when I picked up a racquet when I was eight that I would reach this level, to experience all that I have done.
“I feel really fortunate, because I have lived my dream.”
Follow Sofia’s post-tennis journey on Twitter @Sofia_Arvidsson!
All photos courtesy of Getty Images.
BRISBANE, Australia – No matter who wins Saturday’s final at the Brisbane International, one player will walk away with a drought-busting win. No.22 Victoria Azarenka is in her first final since Doha and aiming for her first title since Cincinnati in 2013, nearly two and a half years ago. Looking to stop her is No.10 Angelique Kerber, who will try and snag her first win in six tries over Azarenka.
The first week of the year began with much hand-wringing over the withdrawals and retirements of the Top 3 seeds in the tournament, with defending champion Maria Sharapova, World No.2 Simona Halep, and No.3 Garbiñe Muguruza exiting the tournament under a cloud of injury. It will end with a rematch of the best women’s match of 2015, when Azarenka got the better of Kerber in the third round of the US Open, winning 7-5, 2-6, 6-4 in a grueling match.
“We always bring the best out of each other, I think,” Azarenka said. “I mean, I hope we do. It was a pretty amazing match, so I hope we can put on a good show. I think the final deserves that.”
Azarenka has been in blistering form all week. She has dropped just 13 games in four matches, posting two bagel sets along the way. Her run in Brisbane most assuredly puts her on the shortlist of favorites at the Australian Open – she is, after all, a two-time champion in Melbourne – but Azarenka doesn’t want to get ahead of herself.
“I’m feeling pretty good right now,” she said. “I’m not saying anything besides that. It’s irrelevant. Tomorrow is a match. I’m looking forward to that. I never jump ahead. It can seem so close, yet so far. Done those mistakes before, and I’ll stick to being present.”
Kerber has looked just as sharp this week. Aside from dropping the first set of her tournament to Camila Giorgi, Kerber has been untouchable, notching wins over Giorgi, Madison Brengle, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, and Carla Suárez Navarro. Most notably Kerber has unveiled a more aggressive gamestyle. A change of strings during the off-season – she now uses a Yonex hybrid and natural gut – has given her more pop on her groundstrokes.
“I was working a lot in the last few weeks on this, so I’m trying to transform it to the matches,” Kerber said of her newfound aggression. “It works good right now. Of course I must take the decision and just go for it and not hope that the other one will miss. I will try to make the points by myself.”
Looking towards Saturday’s final, the big focus point will be Kerber’s serve. Azarenka is one of, if not *the* best returner in the game when she’s at her best. Much of her 5-0 record against the German is a result of her ability to dominate Kerber’s second serve. Kerber hopes her off-season work on her serve will pay off now.
“I worked a lot in my off-season on my serve, and I’m feeling that the serve is also a little bit faster,” she said. “Also I’m trying to go for it with my second serve, not only pushing the ball. Of course that needs time. I think I’m on the good way. I’m feeling better on my serve.”
So will we see another three-set epic on Saturday? Kerber’s 2015 was defined by her participation in the year’s best matches. Earlier in the week Kerber’s compatriot and doubles partner Andrea Petkovic – the two are into the doubles final against Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza – was asked why her friend always finds herself embroiled in dramatic matches against the game’s best.
“I think one part of her game style is that she plays fast but just not too fast to make the other girls play well,” Petkovic said. “She’s too good for the lower-ranked players, but for the top players I think she [hits] exactly the pace they need to play really well.
“But Angie is somebody, when she gets challenged, she gets the best out of her as well. So I think these two things coming together just make for Hollywood, popcorn, great movie nights.”
Come back on Saturday as WTA Insider live blogs the final from Brisbane. The final begins at 7:30pm local time, 9:30am GMT.
BRISBANE, Australia – Victoria Azarenka continued her relentless march towards a second Brisbane International title with a quick-fire quarterfinal win over Roberta Vinci on Thursday night.
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Having dropped just seven games across the opening two rounds, Azarenka put No.8 seed Vinci to the sword in similarly ruthless fashion, running out a 6-1, 6-2 winner.
Azarenka set her stall out on the opening point, arrowing a backhand return into the corner. The break swiftly followed and while she was unable to hold onto this for long, she was soon ahead once more thanks to a fizzing double-handed winner.
Twenty minutes later she swatted another backhand away to take the set. In the second, it was the forehand that came to the fore, a brilliant stretching passing shot and a crisp down-the-line winner creating the vital breakthrough in the sixth game.
“I’m pretty pleased with tonight,” Azarenka said. “Thank you for the full crowd – you guys make me play much better, that’s for sure!
“I feel like I was really focused from the beginning and I knew she wasn’t going to give anything away so I had to take control and really dictate the play. I’m glad I stayed strong and focused in the difficult situations and really fought for every point.”
Meeting Azarenka in the last four will be the tournament’s surprise package, Samantha Crawford, who earlier in the day defeated Andrea Petkovic, 6-3, 6-0.
“Nobody gets into the semifinals without playing well so I’ll need to rise to this challenge – it’s a new experience – but I’m just happy to be back in the semifinals and doing something I love,” Azarenka, the 2009 champion, added when asked about meeting Crawford for the first time.
On the other side of the draw, No.4 seed Angelique Kerber continued to play herself into form ahead of the Australian Open with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. While Carla Suárez Navarro came through a topsy-turvy encounter with Varvara Lepchenko, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5.
SHENZHEN, China – The two remaining seeds in the draw – Agnieszka Radwanska and Eugenie Bouchard – had mixed fortunes on Quarterfinals Day at the $500,000 Shenzhen Open on Thursday.
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The No.6-seeded Bouchard was the first to take center court and succumbed to an on-fire Timea Babos, who broke once per set and fended off all five break points she faced to prevail, 6-4, 6-4.
Bouchard, who had only played one match since the US Open due to a concussion, was playing her first WTA quarterfinal since last year’s Australian Open – Babos was just too sharp on the day, though.
“Genie’s a great player, and she definitely has more confidence and is playing a lot better than the couple months before, so I’m happy I was solid and managed the tough situations well,” Babos said.
And what about the big serving in those tough situations? “In general, in my game, I have one of the biggest serves on the tour, so it’s a huge advantage for me, definitely. Genie is an aggressive player and takes the return very early – she has great returns – so I had to put a lot of first serves in.
“Thankfully in the big moments I came up with good serves and aces, so it worked out well.”
The No.1-seeded Radwanska took the court straight afterwards and needed just 63 minutes to beat Wang Qiang, 6-3, 6-2, holding all nine of her service games – she saved both break points she faced.
Radwanska has now won 20 of her last 24 matches – including eight in a row on Chinese soil.
“We actually played each other in Tianjin, and I think she played a much better match this time, but I really pushed myself to play my best tennis today,” Radwanska said. “It was a good match for me.”
Up next for the World No.5 is Anna-Lena Friedsam, who won a see-saw battle against Katerina Siniakova in the late match, 6-4, 2-6, 6-1. Radwanska beat Friedsam in the pair’s only meeting.
Babos’ semifinal opponent will be Alison Riske, who rallied past Anett Kontaveit, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.
Babos has beaten Riske in both previous meetings, including in Tianjin just a few months ago.
Always love playing in Asia. Fans are great! https://t.co/8CDUy4dBfp
— Aga Radwanska (@ARadwanska) January 6, 2016