February 20, 2024

Open Court


Andrea Petkovic puts struggles in perspective

When you parse a tournament draw, there are always players here and there who, at one time, were in the top 10 and on top of the tennis world.

For various reasons – the most basic being that what goes up must inevitably come down – they’ve fallen off that perch.

Most notable lately has been Canadian Genie Bouchard, who was there three years ago, but will fall out of the top 150 this week.

Her story has been well documented. And it’s not a simple one, but a perfect storm of worst-case scenarios.

But she’s not alone.

You see Francesca Schiavone, who turns 38 next month and is a former French Open champion, hitting the qualifying at smaller events. You see Sabine Lisicki, a former Wimbledon finalist, struggling with injuries and form and watch her ranking tumble.

A private struggle, played out in public

We wondered what it was like, how it felt, to work just as hard as you ever have but no longer have the same results you may have almost taken for granted.

With Bouchard, it hasn’t been easy to get those answers. In part because of all the attention she has received – and the criticism – she’s guarded. Perhaps, on some level, she doesn’t even want to dig in there.

So during the week before Indian Wells, with the Oracle Challenger being played on the same site and the access to players so very much easier than it is during regular events, tennis.life spent some time with Andrea Petkovic.

From top 10 to outside the top 100

The German, now 30, has been in the top-10 on two occasions. Her first trip to the top came during the last part of 2011 and the first part of 2012.

And then, she fell off the map because of injury.

In the first half of 2015, she got there again.

These days, she’s hovering around No. 100 and treading water in the rankings.

Petkovic was gracious enough to sit down and try to shed some light on that journey, from her perspective.

(Note: We would have included the audio recording of the interview. But it turns out, in a relatively small Challenger player’s lounge, the sound of a couple of big servers going at it tooth-and-nail on the ping-pong table is louder than the sound of one fabulous German talking).

On the difference between being No. 10, and No. 100…

“In both extremes it’s exactly the same. It’s like a whirlwind of (energy) that you get in. An atmosphere – I don’t know how to describe it differently. When I was playing well and when I was top 10, it was also a whirlwind of luck that I had. Draws that opened up. Matches that I won where I saved match point, where everything just goes your way.

“So many matches that I won that I shouldn’t have won. Where I was way worse than the other girl. And something happened. She started missing. Or the umpire made a decision she lost her cool. I luckily won a point.

“Some things just happen. Now, the same things happen – but in reverse. I don’t feel like I’m necessarily playing badly. I had some struggles physically last year, so that was part of the deal. But now I’m playing well again, and I’m healthy.

“Now, against Ajla Tomljanovic (Petkovic lost to her, 4-6, 7-5, 6-4 in the first round of the Indian Wells Challenger), I had a set, up 2-0, 40-15 to go up 3-0, and the match is probably over. She played four really good points, comes back to 2-1. One dodgy decision, one ball that goes out (by a little), all of a sudden it’s 2-2 and I lose the match. The same way, but instead of instead of going my way, it goes against me.”

Think it, and it will happen

“It’s not something from a higher power. It’s something you do to yourself. Because at one point, you start to expect things, and they happen that way. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy, right?

“When I was top 10, I was kind of expecting to win the matches, even when I felt I was the worse player. That’s confidence, basically. (I thought) even if I turn the racket around and play with my grip, I am going to win this match, somehow.

When you lose confidence, it’s the same – the other way. You remember that time you were up a set and a break, and still lost. And then maybe you start to expect a bad outcome. Nowadays, tennis has grown so much, it has developed so much. Everyone is playing so well. So that that one, two per cent makes a huge difference.”

A change in perspective

In 2017, Petkovic said that every time she lost a match or had problems with her knees, the inner dialogue began.

“That’s where most of my struggles came from. After every match, doubt the whole thing. I’m (ranked) 90. If I lose this point, I will be 100. This is not where I want to be. I don’t want to play qualifying. Maybe I should retire. It would be better for everybody.

“Different thoughts. Sometimes it was this. Another was, ‘My knees hurt, I shouldn’t be doing this.’ You get into a spiral of negative energy and negative thoughts.”

Unlike many players, Petkovic has a number of interests, other career paths she’s already exploring off the court.

But at heart, she’s a tennis player. It’s what she’s done since she was a child, what she always dreamed of.

So on New Years’ Eve, she sat down with her date – herself, she joked.

“I really made a New Year’s resolution with myself. I poured myself a glass of red wine, had some very fine dark chocolate, very good wine. Fifteen minutes before midnight, I sat myself down. ‘Andrea, this is the deal. If you want to continue playing this year, you do it 100 per cent. And no matter if you lose 25 matches in a row, you will stay positive, you will not think about retirement, you will try your best.

“And then by the end of the year, if it doesn’t go well and you continue to struggle, you can sit down with yourself again and make another decision. But you will not do what you did last year.

“I stayed away from (the negative thoughts) this year. So I’m very happy with that. And this year will be the question if I can turn it around. The only way to turn it around is with this kind of attitude. And then, if I can’t turn it around, for whatever reason, I will sit down and talk to myself again, and make another decision.”

Everybody loses nearly every week in tennis. Petkovic says the reaction to it can determine how much that linger, and feeds on itself.

“It’s a matter of how long to you let it affect you. Last year it was a matter of four to five days where I was still thinking, ‘I couldn’t, I shouldn’t.’ Now, I’m disappointed and I’m angry for a day or so. And the next day when I wake up, new day.

“It’s not easy. Every day is a struggle, but that’s what I try to do.”

When you’re top 10, world’s your oyster

Petkovic struggled with injuries a lot early in her career. So she says she realized very early how quick some people will turn away during tough times.

“I don’t mean only in the tennis world, but around you. I was up there in the top 10; actually, I was there twice. I’ve had all the different spectrums of rankings. And so I learned that very early. So I don’t really care. I don’t actually get treated differently by people, though.”

Matthew 25:29: “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance.”

The passage from Matthew, Petkovic says, has become an expression in Germany, far beyond its original meaning in the Bible.

“The only thing that is different is that when you’re top 10 and you earn so much money, you get so many things for free.

“You don’t need the free stuff. You earn $200,000 every week. So you don’t need the free rooms, and you don’t need the free plane rides. And now when you need them, nobody will give it to you. That’s the only difference, practically – logistically speaking.”

The social media backlash

When a highly ranked player starts losing matches, social media and gamblers think they should win, the fallout is quick and cruel.

“I obviously get all these betting freaks. But I don’t take them seriously. I’m kind of immune to that. The thing is, It’s always … a lot comes from yourself. I get the exact same messages probably when I feel weak and vulnerable, and really they hurt me, they get to me. But for whatever reason this year I feel confident in myself. I like who I am and I’m okay with myself. So in one ear, out the other. So it doesn’t affect me at all.

“The thing is, at one point, it was way worse when I was dropping down. Now, I’m kind of around 100, and people have forgotten about me. I think they’re hurting more on people who’ve been successful and are struggling for awhile, or dropping from a 10 to a 30.”

The financial realities

Petkovic said she used to always travel with two people: a physio, and her coach.
Now, with her on-court earnings not what they were in her best years, she’s doing a little paring back.

“Now I tend to travel with only one, either my coach or my physio. At the big tournaments I bring them together; at the smaller ones I kind of change it up a bit.

“I earned enough money in my life that if I’m clever about it, I’m going to be okay. If I’m not clever about it, I can lose it very quickly. I didn’t earn $25 million. Plus, I’ve always been based in Germany – 52 per cent tax. Plus, all the costs we have to cover – we spend $20,000 in two weeks easily, for your coach, hotels and travel and whatnot. So I have to be clever about it.

“I think I’ve been being very German. I’m very German. I’m, like, ‘These are the numbers. This is what I have to make. I can take a coach, I can take a physio.’

“Now, I want to also invest in myself. It’s not like I go for the zero all the time. These are big tournaments, these are important to me, so I’ll travel with two or three people. You have to make a good balance, obviously looking at the numbers, but also investing in yourself. I think that’s something I’ve learned throughout my career. I’m lucky that I have the experience now; I’ve been around for awhile.”

Dropping down to get wins

Of all the armchair advice Bouchard has been offered through her struggles, the most oft repeated has been to drop down to the ITF level to “get wins and gain confidence”.

She has begun to do it now. But the biggest reason for that is the state of her ranking, combined with the fact that these two weeks feature just one tournament per week. They are big tournaments, with really tough cutoffs. So the option is to play down – or not play.

For Petkovic, dropping down has not been a consideration.

The week she spoke to tennis.life, she played the Oracle Challenger – technically a WTA event with a $125,000 purse. The convenience of having it the week before the event at Indian Wells factored in.

She also is not at the same stage of her career as Bouchard, who is seven years younger.

“I’m going to play the big events because I still believe that if I do well, play well, win a few matches, that it can turn around so quickly. Especially where I am now, If I just play well in one event, I’m back where I need to be.

“Now and then I’ll play a 100K, a 125K, if it fits into the schedule, if it’s convenient. But I’m not going to back to the Challenger tour. Because I still believe in myself. It’s a matter of belief.

“I still believe that every moment there (could be) a breakthrough. So I want to play the big events and I want to play with the best players. That’s what I always wanted to do. I can do so many other things in life. I don’t need tennis. But I want tennis.”

Life after tennis

Regardless of what kind of conversation Petkovic will have with herself next New Year’s Eve, she is already branching out.

She’s already writing a lot – in several languages. She said she’s writing an hour or two a day.

Petkovic began penning columns in Racquet Magazine a year ago. And she just kicked off a weekly column in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung’s Sunday magazine last month.

The German also is in talks for a weekly radio show about pop culture and music, which will run on a public radio station in Germany that targets the 24-35 age group. She’s already drafting concepts for that.

“I’m preparing my goodbye from tennis already. And I do things that I can work into my schedule. I’m older now. I don’t practice as much any more, so I have time on my hands.

“I like to work, I’m not someone who can sit around and binge-watch series or look at my phone. So I like to be busy.”

On clay, the quest continues

The plan was to run this interview at an appropriate moment, likely when Petkovic posted a big result or – as was expected this week – when she met Bouchard on the tennis court.

Because the struggle is similar, even if the ways the two women have of dealing with it, and their personalities, are so different.

After losing the match to Tlmljanovic referred to above, Petkovic came back from losing the first set 6-1 to defeat Nicole Gibbs in the first round of qualifying at the main event, the BNP Paribas Open. She lost to Taylor Townsend in the final round.

In Miami, things improved. Petkovic won two qualifying rounds before losing to No. 26 seed Daria Gavrilova in the second round of the main draw.

She lost to Varvara Lepchenko in first first round of Charleston, and No. 8 seed Katerina Siniakova in the first round of Prague.

In the same situation as Bouchard this week, with the cutoff in Madrid unreachable, Petkovic also headed to Cagnes-sur-Mer for the $100,000 ITF Women’s Pro Circuit tournament there.

Bouchard and Petkovic were to have met in the first round, until the Canadian withdrew a few hours before their match with an abdominal injury.

Petkovic maximized that free pass and posted a 6-0, 6-3 win over Evgeniya Rodina of Russia in the second round. She will play No. 5 seed Viktoria Kuzmova of Bulgaria in the quarterfinals Friday.

She and Bouchard both are entered in a similar event in Trnava, Slovakia next week.

Petkovic likely will get a wild card into her home-country event in Nürnberg, Germany the week after that. And she squeezed into the French Open main draw with an entry-deadline ranking of No. 103. She is a former semifinalist there (in 2014).

Final word, on overcoming fear

“I didn’t realize it when I was in the moment. Now, when I think back, I was getting down on myself and I was scared. I think that’s the thing … Because sometimes it’s not good if you can see things, and perceive things.

“I could see me falling out (of the rankings). And I could see me not getting into main draws any more, going through qualifying. I could see all that, and it made me scared. I was constantly scared.

“The unfortunate thing is I didn’t realize I was playing with fear last year. Now, when I look back in hindsight, I realize that I was. I don’t have that right now.”

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