The Undercover Serb

Wednesday, March 30, 2011 /by

  Petko

by Pete Bodo

MIAMI, Fla.—Near the end of Ana Ivanovic's press conference yesterday, someone asked her to talk about Andrea Petkovic, who is nominally a German, having spent almost her entire life there, but was born in Tuzla, Bosnia. "A lot of us don't know her well," the reporter admitted, "Obviously she did well in Australia. I know she is 23. Can she beat anyone out there?"

"Yeah," Ivanovic replied, her eyes lighting up. "You gonna get to know her."

Ivanovic's tone suggested that we would not be disappointed, but also that it was going to be fairly impossible not to get to know Petkovic, and that doing so would be an experience comparable to, oh, your first ride in an F-15 fighter jet, or your first Lady Gaga concert. "She's great girl, and she's playing really well. I think she can challenge anyone out there...She's (also) very, very smart girl—and very well educated."

"And she's really a Serb, of course," someone interjected.

"Yeah. Exactly."

Now keep in mind that Ivanovic had just lost a match (to Kim Clijsters) after being up 5-1 (and, ultimately, five match points) in the third set—not an ideal time for talking about how great some other player is, especially one who, unlike Ivanovic, was still in the hunt at the tournament. But Ivanovic is one of those girls who just can't help but be nice, and Petkovic is not just her doubles partner but a fellow Serb. And there isn't a group of players on tour who share a comparable sense of solidarity, or seem to draw as much inspiration from each other (and we're talking about players of both sexes), as the Serbs.

Petkovic has captivated one and all here in Miami, as she has at past tournaments. And that "Petko dance" is the least of it. She's one of those people who seems to exist to remind you that there's no point twisting yourself up in knots, putting on airs, adopting a game plan for how to deal with the basics of life, or worrying about how you'll be perceived by others. Just go out there and be yourself; meet the world with an open mind and a smile and all the rest will take care of itself.

She isn't the first person to bring us this message, but it's rare to get it from a professional tennis player. As a group, ATP and WTA pros are a clannish, self-sufficient and stand-offish group, and there's no point blaming them for it. It wasn't always that way, of course; you can blame the degree to which tennis pros seem to occupy a different plane of existence (where their neighbors are film and rock-music stars) on the growth of the game, and the specific direction of that growth (the march has been relentlessly upscale—bourgeois, if you prefer—since Day One, Bethanie Mattek-Sands with her knee socks and eye-black non-withstanding).

But lo and behold, here's Petkovic, a young lady who engages the people living outside her bubble without simultaneously implying she's only doing it because some agent or tennis official is holding a gun to hear head. Walk away from a meeting with her and you're likely to ask yourself, "Why are the rest of them so guarded and opaque? It doesn't seem all that complicated..."

Petkovic appears to live by the advice good parents give their good children as they prepare for life: Look people in the eye, shake hands firmly, always tell the truth, give others the benefit of the doubt—and don't ever think you're better than anyone else. This isn't an easy attitude to maintain in a game that thrives on notions of elitism, right down to the ranking system, and it can get you in plenty of trouble on the WTA side, where secrets are closely guarded and the overarching seige mentality keeps many women from ever saying what they really feel. I asked Petkovic if she ever got in trouble for actually saying what she thinks, and she answered:

"It gets me often in trouble...Sometimes I talk sarcastically and people don't seem to get it, especially in the writing media. You cannot really bring that to the media, so I get in trouble all the time. But I learned to deal with it in the last (recent times). I'm not so long on the tour. I'm now on the tour maybe for one?and?a?half years. Especially in the beginning I made some mistakes that got back to me, and I'm more careful now. But I still try to stay as honest as I can."

That's good enough, I suppose, given her situation. And it's only going to be more challenging for this refereshing new voice and face as she improves. She'll be playing Maria Sharapova in the semis of the Sony Ericsson Open tomorrow, in what is most decidedly a great opportunity. Sharapova showed last night that her game is still infected with the virus that causes it to freeze up for long periods, and she can't afford to have that happen against Petkovic, at least not the way the 23-year-old from Darmstadt, Germany, has been playing. Remember, Petkovic knocked out Venus Williams and Sharapova in back-to-back matches just a few months ago at the Australian Open. And here, she's taken the scalp of Caroline Wozniacki (the current No. 1) and Jelena Jankovic (No. 7).

Petkovic is only just making her move (her current ranking is 23), but that's partly because she chose to complete a university-level education in Germany before taking her chances on the pro tour. As the daughter of a teaching pro whose dreams of playing the tour were crushed, she not only understood the risks of trying to become a pro, she had them drilled into her. She practiced and played a bit while she was school, but didn't really fling herself into the tennis culture with the requisite commitment until around 2009.

"I had a big fight with my dad because he didn't want me to be a professional tennis player at that time when I was making decisions if I should go to university or try to be a professional tennis player...he didn't really make it and I think he didn't want his little daughter to go through the same things. But, yeah, I had the bigger head in this decision, and I'm quite happy that it ended this way."

Stylistically, Petkovic plays a bread-and-butter game. She's very solid, but also aggressive and always looking to force the action. And she's willing to follow up her penetrations with finishing placements or volleys. She considers herself (along with the likes of Petra Kvitova) part of a "new generation"—women who have big games and a less defensive mindset than some of the old guard.

"I think what we all have in common is just the general fitness level is just raised so much," she said. "That's why you have to be—even for an aggressive player like me or Petra who are going for their shots—we have to be able to play them 10 or 12 times in a rally. That's just a big difference to earlier times, maybe."

It will be worth remembering those words when the season of interminable matches, aka the European clay-court circuit, gets underway. And, as befits a woman with her attitude, Petkovic is awed by Steffi Graf but was most impressed and influenced by Serena Williams.

"I can really relate to her (Serena) with her fighting spirit on court, and she impressed me so much with the way she turned around matches even when everything was lost. I just remember this match against Azarenka at the Australian Open, where she was down 6?2, 4-0 and Azarenka was playing unusual and she kept playing unbelievable. Serena just stepped it up two levels, and it was too much for Victoria.  That impressed me so much. She was the first player that really, really, yeah, that really touched me emotionally on the court."

Perhaps if Petkovic were a German by blood rather than citizenship (her father initially went to Germany to coach tennis, but moved the family there when the former Yugoslavia began to disintegrate) she might feel differently. But she seems so much more the Serb. Let's be real here; Graf was known and adored for many reasons, but a sense of humor was not among them. Whereas...

"We (Serbians) hang around all the time together, you know, and Novak is making his jokes, you start to try to be funny, as well. Sometimes you are; sometimes you are not. And it's just a very good energy between all of us. So I really enjoy all my time spending with them."

Petkovic insists that whatever else happens here in Miami, this will be the last place where she'll perform the Petko dance after each win. It's a good move, because the times she's done it here she seemed to be merely going through the motions, quickly and half-heartedly. Clearly, the dance has become dangerously close to something like a trademark or "brand," instead of a spontaneous act.

And that's not how Petko rolls.

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