In a new series on TTI, Andrew Eccles profiles a prime mover in tennis popularity, analyzing what captivates and captures the imagination. This week, a look at one of last decade’s most promising youngsters who lost her love of the game when she was barely out of her teens, who returns years later hoping to reclaim what she left behind.
By: Andrew Eccles
After five long years away from the sport, Nicole Vaidisova has put racket in hand to head back out onto the courts of the WTA Tour. There was much excitement among fans when the former World No. 7 announced her imminent return to the scene, and after a slow start, the Czech starlet turned heads this week when she pushed former rival Ana Ivanovic to a tense second set tiebreak. Her efforts in Monterrey were rewarded with a wild card into Miami, and will be surely followed by further interest as she continues to appear in larger events on a more regular basis.
But why does such excitement surround the two-time Grand Slam semifinalist’s return?
Why do we feel such affection for a player who left the game at 20 years of age?
When it comes to Vaidisova, a player whose game seemed so mature and so threatening so quickly, it is easy to forget how young she was when she first found success. In October 2004 – her first full year on the professional circuit – she entered the Top 100, at No. 74. She was 15 years old and the youngest to be ranked that high by some margin. Just one year later, she would break into the Top 20 on the back of a phenomenal run during the Asian hard court season, winning a trio of titles in Seoul, Tokyo, and Bangkok.
By 17, she was a Top 10 player.
The rise was meteoric, and thoroughly exciting. Vaidisova possessed all the weapons of a typical mid-2000s WTA star: hard and flat groundstrokes, a powerful swinging volley, an aggressively flat serve. It was a power game par excellence – with the added bonus of nifty touch on her backhand slice – and one with good instinct for when to attack. Her movement and defense were not reliable, but her sheer aggression masked her weaknesses, more often than not.
It was this aggression that saw her reach the semifinals of Roland Garros as a teenager, beating then-No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo in the fourth round and recovering from a set down to beat Venus Williams one round later before falling to Svetlana Kuznetsova in three sets. It was this same aggression that saw her through to another semifinal in Melbourne Park, and defeat Mauresmo in another fourth round – this time at Wimbledon where the Frenchwoman was the defending champion – before falling to Ivanovic in a memorably dramatic quarterfinal encounter. She would repeat the feat run in 2008.
All before the age of 19, Vaidisova looked set to be one of the sport’s biggest stars.
So what went wrong?
The easy answer is her relationship with fellow Czech player, Radek Stepanek. The two began dating sometime during 2007, just before Vaidisova’s ranking began to fall. She quickly became a fixture in the crowd than on the courts, and her eventual retirement in 2010 came a few short shy of the couple’s wedding in July of 2010. The couple’s divorce in the summer of 2013 was quickly followed by rumors – and the eventual announcement – of her intention to return.
The storyline fits neatly, but we can only know so much about the private lives of strangers.
A more intriguing explanation lies within Vaidisova’s speedy rise itself. When you look back at her most memorable matches (something I recommend purely for the entertainment her game provides), you can see a pattern of confidence play. Take her French Open encounter against Williams as an example. The first set was a tight affair; Vaidisova was visibly nervous as the tiebreak loomed, conceding a vital mini-break to put the American in front. From there, however, the Czech looked relieved of any pressure. She started to roll, and her rhythm carried her over the finish line to win, 6-7, 6-1, 6-3.
Much like we see from 2013 Wimbledon finalist Sabine Lisicki today, Vaidisova was all momentum.
Once momentum ceased, Vaidisova struggled. As with any new player on the scene, the first years can be exciting and hugely successful, as more experienced players have to deal with a new opponent across the net. As everyone became familiar with Vaidisova, her momentum naturally slowed.
Confidence ebbed away.
While Lisicki has experienced a similar phenomenon, she has kept herself as relevant as possible with a handful of flashy weeks each season, particularly at Wimbledon. So young as a Top 10 competitor, Vaidisova could not muster the same tenacity. Her drop was as severe as her rise; by the end of 2008 she was ranked No. 41, by 2009, No. 188 and unseeded in Grand Slam qualifying. The final match of her first career was an ITF encounter with Great Britain’s Heather Watson in Hammond, Louisiana. Watson would win the match, and Vaidisova would step away from the sport, citing an overall loss of interest.
The truth is probably a combination of personal and professional. Either way, the sport lost one of its most exciting stars the day Vaidisova chose to exit the fray.
Now older and wiser, the Czech is back playing the sport that had welcomed her with open arms 11 years ago. Who knows if she can find the same kind of success she once had; tennis is a living landscape, always packed with young talent who usurp and improve upon the previous generation.
The new world of the women’s tour is tough, but Vaidisova was never a pushover.
We love Vaidisova for her aggressive all court game, her willingness to take huge scalps on the biggest stages, the way she wears her emotions for all to see. If you don’t understand the excitement at her return, just wait.
There may well be life left in this lost gem of the sport.
What do you think of Vaidisova’s comeback? Sound off in the comments!