An interview with Victoria Azarenka after her first round win at the Brisbane International.
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:
SHENZHEN, China – One of China’s biggest stars made her return to action at the Shenzhen Open on Monday. Winning her first match in over a year, former World No.14 Peng Shuai took an important step in her comeback from back surgery, winning a first round doubles encounter with partner Liang Chen over wildcads Li Yixuan and Sheng Yuqi, 6-2, 6-1.
Peng was hitting new heights in the summer of 2014 when she reached the US Open semifinals – losing a heartbreaking match to former No.1 Caroline Wozniacki in a retirement – but within a few months, the Chinesewoman was struck by a career-threatening back injury that forced her to end her season at last year’s French Open. Taking the match in under an hour was that much sweeter for a player who wondered if she would ever compete again.
“I thought about giving up many times,” she admitted after the match. “Before the surgery I went to see the doctors in US and Germany; both of them said even I took the surgery, they can’t guarantee that I can be 100% fit again.
“The surgery was very successful, but no one knows how the recover could be. And this injury could happen again.”
That concern has caused her to take extra precaution in reacclimating her body to the grind of professional tennis. Playing only in the doubles event this week in Shenzhen, Peng plays a fuller comeback in February, following the Australian Open.
“I’m going to play in Kaohsiung, then probably in Dubai. I will try my best to play more matches in singles and doubles. It’s been about five months after surgery, and I recovered faster than I expected. But I’m still working on getting my power back.
“I want to take it step by step, not to make it rush, becuase I don’t want to get injured again. Now even though I’m not able to run and jump like what I can do before, I feel I’m getiing better, and at least I can play the match. I’m looking forward the matches in February.”
No.3 seed Irina-Camelia Begu was equally emphatic in her opening round match against Lara Arruabarrena, winning 6-3, 6-2, while Zarina Diyas and Monica Niculescu also reached the second round – the latter in three sets over Anastasjia Sevastova. No.8 seed Annika Beck was the highest ranked player to fall on Monday, losing in three sets to Alison Riske.
BRISBANE, Australia – If Simona Halep has her way, get ready to see a more relaxed Romanian in 2016. The World No.2 has a new outlook on her life and career to go along with a coach who’s more than game to guide her through it.
“I can say I feel stronger mentally because I’m more relaxed,” Halep told WTA Insider on Monday at the Brisbane International. “Now I feel stronger, I feel more relaxed. I feel I have the game, a good game to start the year.
“I improved a lot in the off-season. I worked hard. Now I’m looking forward to start this tournament, to start this year and see if I can stay in the Top 5 again and see if I can do good results at the Grand Slams because I [didn’t] at two of them last year and I [regret that].”
To assist in her cause is her new full-time coach Darren Cahill. The veteran Australian coach worked part-time with Halep last season but was still under contract with Adidas as part of the company’s Player Development Program. Under the program, Cahill offered his coaching assistance to Adidas players. But there was a catch. If two Adidas players faced off Cahill couldn’t offer coaching advice to either player. That proved problematic at the US Open, where Halep lost to fellow Adidas-wearer Flavia Pennetta in the semifinals.
“I can say that was a little bit difficult also in US Open because he couldn’t show up for Pennetta’s match,” she said. “I knew that and accepted before, so it was okay.”
But with the Adidas program shutting down at the end of last season, Halep was quick to get Cahill on her team. She announced the hire shortly after the season ended and Cahill flew to Bucharest for a three-week off-season training session.
Don't forget to bring the balls for practice @Simona_Halep. I booked the court ? #romania ☃? #beautifulhere pic.twitter.com/Xitc43hUOi
— Darren Cahill (@darren_cahill) November 24, 2015
“Now he’s mine, only mine,” she said with a laugh. “No more players around. It’s good. It’s a good feeling… It’s good to have him close to me and to learn things from him.”
The two have been working to improve all facets of her game with particular focus on her serve and strength. But aside from techniques and tactics, Halep credits Cahill with her new outlook on life. The 24-year-old broke through with six titles in 2013 to finish that season at No.11. She backed it up by making her first Slam final at the French Open in 2014 and finished at No.3. Last year, in a season that she admits wasn’t her best, she still managed to do one better and finish at career-best No.2. The winning has been fun. The tension? Not so much.
“I was too tight and I was very focused just for tennis,” Halep said. “I think if I’m more relaxed I can play better tennis.” To keep things loose Halep has gone out of her way to break old habits. Even if it means a little body surfing.
“Yesterday I went with Darren and my team to Surfer’s Paradise,” she said. “It was the first time in my life that I went out of the tournament to go enjoy something.”
Learning to let go may be precisely what Halep needs to make her Grand Slam breakthrough. She has played well in Australia in the past, making the semifinals as a junior and now back-to-back quarterfinals. She says the court suits her game.
“I feel good in Australia,” she said with a smile. “Now I’m part of Aussie, no? Because I have an Australian coach.”
Hope you're having a good day @Simona_Halep ? #andreicociasu @CercelT #andreicristofor #badsign ? pic.twitter.com/oKJZy5HPWv — Darren Cahill (@darren_cahill) December 13, 2015
Despite that Aussie comfort, nerves have been her undoing here the last two years. Having now established herself as part of the game’s best, Halep hopes to craft her breakthrough by retreating. Looking back at her tennis career, Halep highlighted her tendency for an adjustment period. Maybe the solution is to stop pressing. “Since I was a kid I didn’t do the results straight away,” she said. “It was difficult for me in juniors to change everything to go to the [senior] tournaments. I was not very young when I did my best results in the WTA. I was 21, 22. I feel like I have enough time. Many players are winning Grand Slams at 30, 31, 32. It’s not a big deal if you win now or [later].” “Now I met Darren and he made me more relaxed, that I have enough time in this life to win titles, to win Grand Slams maybe. I have to enjoy the life. I know the time goes very fast. “Life is too short and we just have to be happy and to do everything we could in that day to give 100 percent what we have.” Halep is set to play former No.1 Victoria Azarenka in her first match of the season, a rematch of their tightly contested US Open quarterfinal from a few months ago. It’s a brutal draw for both women as they shake off the off-season rust and ready themselves for a run at the Australian Open.
Hope you're having a good day @Simona_Halep ? #andreicociasu @CercelT #andreicristofor #badsign ? pic.twitter.com/oKJZy5HPWv
— Darren Cahill (@darren_cahill) December 13, 2015
Despite that Aussie comfort, nerves have been her undoing here the last two years. Having now established herself as part of the game’s best, Halep hopes to craft her breakthrough by retreating. Looking back at her tennis career, Halep highlighted her tendency for an adjustment period. Maybe the solution is to stop pressing.
“Since I was a kid I didn’t do the results straight away,” she said. “It was difficult for me in juniors to change everything to go to the [senior] tournaments. I was not very young when I did my best results in the WTA. I was 21, 22. I feel like I have enough time. Many players are winning Grand Slams at 30, 31, 32. It’s not a big deal if you win now or [later].”
“Now I met Darren and he made me more relaxed, that I have enough time in this life to win titles, to win Grand Slams maybe. I have to enjoy the life. I know the time goes very fast.
“Life is too short and we just have to be happy and to do everything we could in that day to give 100 percent what we have.”
Halep is set to play former No.1 Victoria Azarenka in her first match of the season, a rematch of their tightly contested US Open quarterfinal from a few months ago. It’s a brutal draw for both women as they shake off the off-season rust and ready themselves for a run at the Australian Open.