Andrea Petkovic made her major breakthrough five years ago at the Australian Open – defeating Maria Sharapova en route to a debut Grand Slam quarterfinal in 2011 – but how close was the German to skipping the tournaments Down Under altogether?
Despite reaching the semifinals of the Miami Open and spending much of the spring ranked in the Top 10, Petkovic’s 2015 ended with a thud and a 6-0, 6-0 loss at the Huajin Securities WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai. Worn out and wounded, she spent the start of her off-season wondering whether her career was something she truly wanted to continue.
“It was very tough. The first week I was basically just at home. I didn’t go out at all.”
Her malaise nearly caused her to cancel a much-anticipated vacation to New York. Though she ultimately took the trip, a week in the Big Apple led to one last soul-searching moment.
“[My friend] had to check something with her luggage because it got lost on the way in, and there was one point where I took my wallet and I looked inside of it. I had a hundred bucks left, and I was like, ‘I could just stay here. I could make it in New York. I could leave my life behind and take a cab back. It would be enough to get back to the city, to just stay here and see where life takes me.’
“It was like in a movie,” she later told WTA Insider, “because then my friend came back and asked, ‘are you ready to go?’ and I said, ‘yeah, yeah, sure, let’s go.’
“I thought about it again while I was in the airplane, and I was like, ‘OK, you’ve made a decision to go back to your real life, or your actual life that you are leading in Germany. You have to figure out if you want to do that 100%, otherwise you’re not coming back [to tennis].'”
That desire to escape was the apex of Petkovic’s quarter-life crisis, one that had caused her to question the path she had taken at the expense of other opportunities that no longer felt possible.
“In my early 20s, I felt like, ‘I can be an actress, a singer, a lawyer, a doctor, a chef, or a professional tennis player,’ that all of the doors were open. Then, all of a sudden I realized some of those doors were closing; I’m never going to lead a normal student life, living in a dorm and partying all night. That’s not going to happen for me, and I think I was at a part of my life when I thought, ‘but maybe I wanted that; why didn’t I do that?’
“I found myself in an identity crisis, and I think when you’re 27, 28, everyone asks themselves the same questions when are that age or older. That was the first time you really grow into an adult – for me, at least.”
Ironically, the very thing that might have made going on feel all the more overwhelming was that which catalyzed Petkovic’s own resolution to continue.
“The Olympics saved me – rather, it saved my tennis career – because I didn’t want to go out not having played the Olympics. Especially being in Rio and Brazil, I think that’s a city and a country that really is fitting to me and my personality; I’ve never been there, so I wanted to experience that.”
With a goal in her pocket and a new coach in Jan de Witt at the helm, the 2014 French Open semifinalist was able to calm the storms in her mind and focus on little else beyond her own love of the game.
“I may not always be in love with the world around it, but I love the raw essence of the sport, and that’s why I picked it up in the first place. It was me who made the choice; nobody pushed me into becoming a professional tennis player. So, I made my peace with that, for at least another couple of years!”
At once effervescent and analytical, Petkovic admits to having her share of neuroses, but is taking a calm approach to what promises to be a crazy season with four major tournaments and an Olympic Games.
“This is the first time I’m giving away responsibility because I’m someone who really wants to have control, and I’d never really found the coach that I could trust 100%, where I could just let it go and say, ‘I trust you, you do my schedule, and that’s in your hands. I’m going to have a say every now and then but you know better on what I should be doing because I’m too emotional in some aspects to be objective and to actually have a contribution to the plans that makes sense.'”
Tracing back the trail of self-doubt that followed her through 2015, she now believes she never mentally recovered from her very first match in Brisbane, a loss to former champion Kaia Kanepi. There were few such problems a year later in a 6-1, 6-2 win over Brazil’s own Teliana Pereira; the German feels ready and, thanks to her new coach, more than just physically fit.
“Jan is a very intelligent person; he’s very straightforward, very honest and very structured, and that has helped me tremendously because I immediately felt like I could give more control to him. He was very careful with my health, measuring my lactic acid every second day, sending me to doctors, yoga, osteopathy, flexibility and mobility.
“So when I say ‘fitter,’ I mean healthier and that has helped me with my mind. That was a big part of everything I was feeling last year; I was never 100% healthy; I was never really injured but there were always little things that were bothering me. Now that I feel healthy and pain-free, I’m just much more myself and more centered. There is something to this whole mind-body relationship!”
She may not have pursued that new life in New York, but her decidedly Empire State of Mind could be exactly what the veteran needs to make another splash in 2016.
Listen to Petkovic’s thoughts on the new season and more during the latest episode of the WTA Insider Podcast: