By Benjamin Adler
Wednesday, June 7, 2006
No16 seed Nicole Vaidisova is very much the surprise package of the women's semifinals at this year's Roland Garros, but no-one can say that she has not earned her place in the final four. The 17-year-old Czech girl has already beaten Amélie Mauresmo and Venus Williams thus far, showing a talent and maturity beyond her years, with a style of play and a star quality reminiscent of a certain Maria Sharapova.
Just as Amélie Mauresmo's earliest memories are of Yannick Noah's win in 1983, a six-year-old Nicole Vaidisova was glued to the TV screen in her home in Nuremberg as Steffi Graf held aloft her fourth French Open trophy in 1995. Weeks earlier, she had picked up a tennis racquet for the first time, and while she certainly had tennis in her genes - Czech star Daniel Vacek, who was in the top 30 at the time, is her uncle - no-one was predicting what lay ahead of her. 11 years on, when you watch the current world No16 on court, it is difficult to believe that there was ever a time when hitting a tennis ball was merely a child's game like any other as opposed to the destiny of a future champion…
In 1995, Nicole's mother left Germany to go back to her native Czech Republic, and it was on the courts of the Sparta club in Prague that Nicole would show the first signs of her burgeoning talent.
Under the wing of Nick Bollettieri
The more she played, the better she got, and she began to take the game seriously, very seriously, in fact. Some find her stand-offish - Mary Pierce commenting on the fact that she is happy to sit in the corner and mind her own business - but this can be put down to her single-mindedness, and something which is a personal choice. "I only play because I love it, though - never because my entourage has forced me into it," she explains.
In 200, she joined the Nick Bollettieri academy in Florida, where she has since spent five months a year. By 2004, the statuesque (6' ½"/1.83m, 140lb/63 kg) Nicole had won her first WTA tournament, having got through the qualifiers to win in Vancouver, at the age of 15 - making her the sixth youngest winner of a title on the professional circuit.
By the time she was 16, she had already made it into the top 50, and followed up her win in Vancouver with another tournament success in Tashkent. At similar stages in their careers, the likes of Sharapova, Henin-Hardenne, Clijsters and Serena Williams were still outside the top 150 and looking for their first tournament wins. In 2005, she won in Tokyo, Bangkok and Seoul, under the coaching of her step-father Alex Kodat, who is "like a father to (her)". All that was missing was a contract from a major sponsor - and along came Reebok, who signed her up to headline their "I am what I am" campaign.
"Tennis is my priority"
Vaidisova is a very direct young woman, both off the court and in particular on it. Her style of play consists of "hitting a winner on every shot" - a fair reflection of the boldness, bordering on arrogance, which has already thrown a few big name opponents off their games, and what with her physique has led to ever increasing comparisons to another tall, blond, aggressive player.
"I don't mind being compared with Sharapova. I don't know her personally, and to be honest, I really don't see what we have in common, but I suppose that people like to make comparisons," states the Florida resident quite calmly. The discussion heats up, however, if the subject strays away from tennis and onto her looks. "I want to be considered a tennis player and nothing else. I've done a few adverts and photo shoots because it was fun, but tennis will always be my first priority."
The next Steffi?
Having won the sixth tournament of her fledgling career, in Strasburg, you wonder where Vaidisova finds the time to enjoy hobbies such as listening to Madonna, yoga and ice hockey ("even though I don't know how to skate", she smiles). And here she is, about to play in her first ever Grand Slam semi-final. Steffi Graf was 17 when she won her first ever French Open in 1987 - will Vaidisova be able to follow in the footsteps of her idol this year already? And who knows, maybe a future champion will be glued to the television, her eyes lighting up every time Nicole hits a winner…