Meet Lucie Hradecka.
The 29-year-old is a familiar face for WTA insiders. With compatriot and doubles partner, Andrea Hlavackova, Hradecka has enjoyed her career’s biggest successes. As a singles player, however, her arc has a much gentler slope. But when she outgunned No. 5 seed Ana Ivanovic in three sets Monday afternoon, that arc came full circle.
It all started six years ago. I’m totally kidding, it actually started way before that. Hradecka spent much of her formative years grinding on the ITF circuit, winning 12 titles between 2003 and her major main draw debut in 2009.
She arrived to Wimbledon two weeks later and drew then-No. 13 seed, Ana Ivanovic. The Serb was at the start of what would become a protracted slump; starting the year in the Top 5, she would fail to defend her finalist or championship points at the Australian and French Opens, and found herself out of the Top 10 for the first time since the spring of 2007.
Against Hradecka, Ivanovic found herself without her Grand Slam title, Top 10 ranking, or the benefit of a show court assignment. The big-hitting Czech took full advantage, going toe-to-toe with the out of sorts Serb for three brutal sets.
Hradecka plays a booming game. Armed with a flat serve and thudding two-fisted groundstrokes, she could perhaps have cut a more dominating figure had a tennis court been just a few inches bigger. Against Ivanovic, the shots were, for the most part, landing in. She served for the match and even held two match points, but couldn’t convert, losing a heartbreaking 8-6 final set.
Two years later, her partnership with Hlavackova began to flourish. On the surface, the “Silent H’s” have all the makings of a well-balanced pair. Hlavackova is bubbly, talkative, and plays with more spin. Hradecka speaks softly, and carries a big stick. Unseeded at the French Open, they combined to knock out two of the top three seeds and win their first Grand Slam title.
As her doubles improved, so too did her singles. On the blue courts of Beijing, she played another thrilling three-setter, this time against reigning No. 1, Caroline Wozniacki.
Remember that color; it will come in handy later.
The Dane had spent the year under heavy criticism that her style was too defensive, and Hradecka looked poised to smother her more decorated opponent with her even heavier ball. It was ultimately a match that encapsulated everything right – and wrong – with Hradecka’s game. At its best, she could take a World No. 1 to within points of defeat. At its worst, she could swallow a mid-set bagel.
Cut to the following spring. Hradecka had continued her successful tenure with Hlavackova, reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open. At the height of the clay court swing, the players came to Madrid to find the courts colored an unnaturally bright blue hue. Many complained about the offensive change, but Hradecka didn’t seem to mind. The Czech was ranked outside the Top 100 and had to club her way through qualifying just to play some of blue clay’s highest-profile opponents.
Hitherto a weak closer, Hradecka was hardly bothered by change of pace or opponent’s face in Madrid. She showed great maturity to up-end defending champion Petra Kvitova and clay court specialist Sam Stosur – each in straight sets – before losing to eventual winner Serena Williams in the semifinals. But blue clay came and went, and Hradecka’s singles game receded along with it.
Her big game still shines in doubles. She took a silver medal on the grass of the London Olympics, and won a second major title on the blue concrete of Flushing Meadows. The two planned to reunite after spending a year apart.
That sense of stability may well have inspired Monday’s win, though Hradecka looked anything but stable to start. Hitting thirteen unforced errors to just three winners, the Czech veteran lost the opening set in just over twenty minutes.
But as she settled into the second set, Ivanovic began to doubt. Shades of the the uncertain Serb of six years ago began to surface. By the final set, Hradecka was hitting twice as many winners, all but taking Ivanovic out of the equation as the match reached critical mass. Where the No. 5 seed was overcome by uncomfortable nostalgia, the qualifier shook off her own demons to close out the match on her own serve.
Hradecka has never passed the second round of a Grand Slam, but with a big game clicking and a blue court beneath her feet, don’t be so quick to count her out.
Hand: Right (two-handed both sides)
WTA Titles: 0 singles, 18 doubles
Career High Rank: No. 41 (6/6/11)
Best Slam Result: 2R Singles (Australian Open, French Open, US Open), W Doubles (French Open, US Open)
Biggest Win: Petra Kvitova (No. 4, Madrid 2012)