Nadia Petrova and the Albatross of “Almost”
UPDATE: Per this statement from Petrova, she is only taking an indefinite break, and has no plans to retire at this time. While she may return to tennis, what follows below is a reflection to the extent that she will not:
In an interview with Russian Fed Cup Captain Shamil Tarpischev, it was revealed that Nadia Petrova, former World No. 3 and two-time French Open semifinalist, plans to retire from tennis. Petrova last played in Charleston, a tournament she won in 2006 during a streak that saw her win four titles in five events played.
Working herself back into elite form two years ago, she took out three Top 10 players to win the biggest title of her career in Tokyo. The Russian carried the form into the Tournament of Champions in Sofia, capping an unlikely resurgence with a win over Caroline Wozniacki.
Then came injuries and tragedy. First dealing with left leg and hip issues that caused her to go 0-4 in Grand Slam singles matches in 2013, she suddenly lost her mother, Olympic bronze medalist Nadezhda Iliyna, in a car accident in December.
It isn’t easy to write about Nadia Petrova. Not because she is the best player to have never won a Slam, because she isn’t. In a career that spans across three decades, she never reached a Grand Slam singles final, and only found herself ranked within the world’s Top 5 for little under a year. Instead, she is a player whose results are most disproportionate with her talent and capabilities.
The ultimate underachiever.
Petrova arrived onto the WTA Tour at the height of – and could have been the postergirl for – the “Big Babe Tennis” Era. She possessed a game that was not merely powerful, but heavy. Her serve and backhand could penetrate the court with thudding accuracy. Her all-court game was a perfect fit for both singles and doubles. Her volleys and putaways served as unceremonious athletic punctuation.
Blessed with immense physical gifts, her body would turn against her for months at a time. She reached the second week of the French Open and Wimbledon as a teenager, only to spend the entire 2002 season nursing a left foot injury. She cracked the Top 3 with three clay court titles and a win over the best on that surface, Justine Henin, only to strain her left leg days before the 2006 French Open. At the only Grand Slam where she would ever be considered a heavy favorite, she lost her first round match in 62 minutes.
“It seems like every time she gets up a head of steam, she gets injured,” Tracy Austin remarked in 2004 as Petrova upset an ironically ailing Henin at the US Open. It would be the first of her three wins over reigning No. 1s.
The Russian was no less enigmatic when healthy. She is among a rare few to have beaten Serena Williams more than twice, and among an even rarer few to have beaten her twice in a row. She often played her most consistent tennis when it mattered most, and reached the quarterfinals or better of each of the four major tournaments. Playing at a time when Russian tennis was at its most prolific, she was a two-time Olympian – winning a women’s doubles bronze medal with partner Maria Kirilenko in 2012 – and a Fed Cup stalwart.
Blessed with immense intellectual gifts, her mind would often turn against her when it came time to close. An opponent, high-profile or otherwise, was never safer than when she trailed Nadia Petrova by a set and a break. In what would be her last major event as a Top 5 seed, she was on the verge of routing an ostensibly unfit and unprepared Williams at the 2007 Australian Open before collapsing four points from the finish line.
But her biggest stumbling block hit much closer to home. Compatriot Maria Sharapova was younger, blonder, and grittier. She pumped her fist. She engaged the crowd. She played to win.
Petrova was older, quieter, and crankier. She scowled at errors. She scowled at winners, left impatient by the time it took her to get it right. She refused to be anyone’s underdog, and saw spectators more as prying eyes on her perennial embarrassment. She played to win perfectly, or else better not to win at all.
Sharapova beat Petrova nine times in as many years. Five of those wins came at Grand Slam tournaments. Twice, Petrova had break advantages in the final set. She won more points than her nemesis at the 2009 French Open – 94 to 93.
Nadia Petrova wasn’t a fan favorite. She wasn’t a cover girl, or a marketing mogul. She lacked the graceful resilience of a Serena, or the relentless determination of a Maria. She wasn’t a Grand Slam champion or a World No. 1.
But she almost was, so much that it invariably obscures who she is. She is a philanthropist, participating in charitable activities ranging from Habitat for Humanity to starting a Foundation in her own name. She is a daughter, who yearned to meet her parents’ high expectations, who played through pain at last year’s US Open because her mother had already made the arrangements to travel to New York and watch her play.
In a world overflowing with immortal ability, Petrova endeared those who looked past her narrow-eyed frustration and saw her human frailty. “She’s a bright, intelligent woman,” Mary Carillo once said of the Russian in 2010. “She so often knows what’s going wrong in her matches, with her game.”
Nadia Petrova almost made it big in tennis. Her life beyond the sport promises to be bigger.
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