An up and down 2015 ended on the highest of highs for Barbora Strýcová this weekend, as she and Karolína Plíšková clinched the Czech Republic’s fourth Fed Cup title in the past five years with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 doubles victory over Russia’s Elena Vesnina and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Flashing back to mid-October, Strýcová had just won her first round match in Luxembourg against Yanina Wickmayer in straight sets and laughed at how short a match it was compared to the usual marathons she finds herself in. She certainly found herself in one at season’s end, but earlier this year, quite a number of those marathon matches didn’t really go her way — still, she was already content with how the season turned out overall even before the events of the Fed Cup final.
In February, the Czech cracked the Top 20 of the WTA rankings for the first time in her career, but a dip in form saw her slip back down to No. 41 by the season’s end.
“I’m very happy we’re in the final stretch of the season — I’m pretty tired,” Strýcová said as we sat down in an office at the BGL BNP Paribas Luxembourg Open before adding, “but not as tired as I thought I would be; I’m very happy it’s the end of the season.
“I think the year was pretty solid — my goal was to stay in the Top 50 which I did. I had some matches where I’d say I should probably win, so many matches when I had match points. Well not so many — but maybe three or four, and that can make a difference in the points and I needed those points. Otherwise, I felt like I was playing pretty good tennis. The summer wasn’t good enough for me but I always struggle around Paris time.”
In the spring of 2014, Strýcová started putting consistent weeks together at an increasing rate, which culminated in a strong grass court season that saw her reach the final in Birmingham and quarterfinals at Wimbledon, where she defeated Li Na in the latter’s last career match. While she was unable to maintain that form for much of this season, that didn’t stop her from looking at 2015 in a positive light, even prior to her heroics in Prague.
“I mean last year was incredible, I played so many good matches, but this year I played against really good players like [Sloane] Stephens on grass [at Wimbledon], who is pretty amazing. We played on Centre Court which was great but at that point, I really wasn’t feeling that good anymore — but we’re going to have next year!”
During her breakout season, the Czech talked about –in an open manner that is not a given in tennis or sports in general — how her current mental coach had a big impact on her game, her on-court focus and her results.
“I worked with mental coaches before but it wasn’t really good enough for me or it just didn’t work and they couldn’t show me the right way but this one is very good,” she said. “I’m working with him still and I’m working on my head all the time. There are many things to change, but yeah, I would have worked earlier with him if I could have.”
There are few players on the tour who are quite as expressive on court as the 5’5″ bundle of energy from Plzeň and maybe even fewer who let their emotions flow quite as freely. While such openness can provide a quick outlet for negativity, Strýcová also knows that this trait can just as often cause her to unsettle mentally during a match
“I’m working more on focusing what I can do and focusing what I can do better and not on the things I can’t change,” she said. “It was a problem before. I’m trying to get better but it’s not perfect yet.”
When talking to Strýcová, one thing becomes clear fairly quickly: the Czech is self-aware — almost acutely so. It begins with her reputation as handshake-headmaster of the WTA (“What makes a good handshake? You ask me?“) and resident prankster of the Czech Fed Cup team, and carries over to her on-court temper, how she believes she is perceived and the expense of not holding back emotionally.
“Yeah, I mean, I am emotional and I’m like this on and off the court,” she said. “This is also one thing I’m working at with my mental coach. You can show your emotions and…” — at this point, she paused shortly, then deadpanned — “I feel like people love me or hate me; there is no in-between.”
“To show your emotions — doesn’t matter if it’s happy or angry — it costs you energy. You have to keep that energy; I have to do that as much as I can and sometimes I cannot do that. Also off the court, I talk to everyone, which is nice but sometimes I need to keep my energy for me and sometimes it’s not easy,” Strýcová concluded before becoming enamored with the concept of “me-time” fairly instantly.
A star as a junior player, Strýcová was the 2002 and 2003 Australian Open girls’ champion. She also won three Grand Slam girls’ doubles titles between 2001 and 2003. She was World No. 1 in both singles and doubles on the junior circuit in 2002, and was named the ITF Junior World Champion. Much like several other players, however, the Czech didn’t find her best tennis until she was in her late 20s — explaining that it took her a while to grow into her game.
“Yeah, I was playing much better when I was 27. The older I get I think about it more and I understand the game maybe a little bit more than when I was younger. I’ll turn 30 next year, so it’s going to be my 13th year on tour, so I’ve got some experience now,” the Czech admitted with a chuckle. “The older I get, I think I enjoy the game even more.”
Strýcová isn’t the tallest player on tour, especially by modern-day women’s tennis standards. Her game isn’t the hard-hitting power game that has become more and more prevalent on tour but the Czech’s craft and guile across the court enable her to adapt to different situations and opponents — even if it proves to be challenging from time to time.
“Well, there’s not many players who play the way I do on tour — or any players,” she said. “I have plans A, B and C; I can go to the net, I can stay at the back — but on the other hand, the game has become so powerful at this moment that I have to be really fit to play good tennis. It’s not easy to keep it up all the time and sometimes I get tired…It’s very physical.”
Despite attaining veteran status on the WTA Tour, Strýcová’s eyes lit up when it came to what’s next for her in the 2016 season and, like many other players, there’s one event she gunning for in particular: the Rio Olympics.
“Of course, it’s my goal,” she remarked. “I think if I have a chance, it’s now and I’m not sure I’m going to be still playing for the ones after that. I’m also going to take it easy, step-by-step but it’s certainly a goal. It’s in Rio, [so] it’s gonna be huge!”
While she recognizes that the competition in her country is tough, getting to relive a once-in-a-lifetime experience — but a little differently — is high on Strýcová’s list of goals.
“I mean, I already played the Olympics in Athens but I was 17 and I was a baby, so I want to do it again,” she smiled when reminiscing over the 2004 Olympics. “Last time, I was like, ‘I wanna see this, I wanna see that!’ — I mean, I lost first round singles [to Justine Henin] and doubles [to Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Likhovtseva] but I played the No. 1 seed both times. If I go [next year], I will enjoy it as much as I can.”
With a little over a month’s worth of off-season ahead of her, Strýcová plans on taking a couple of days off — even more necessary now after her Fed Cup exploits — until she heads back to Prague not just to train, but also to roll out some wallpaper.
“We have the Czech League [before Christmas],” she said, implying that her offseason won’t totally be without competitive tennis. “I’m going to a spa every year in Austria now and then I’m going to go home because I bought a flat in Prague and I’ll be renovating, spending time with my family. My sister is coming from the States and [we’ll] spend some time at home.
“We’ve still got the final in Fed Cup and even though I’m not sure I’m going be nominated, I have to be ready for that!”
Well, nominated she got.