Two weeks ago, Jelena Jankovic won three titles in as many weeks. The last female player to achieve this feat? Nicole Vaidisova, who went back-to-back-to-back in Seoul, Tokyo, and Bangkok in the fall of 2005.
That year, Vaidisova was one of the game’s rising stars. Even before her Asian three-peat, expectations were running high for the 16-year-old Czech newcomer. In just her second season as a pro, the press had her picked as the “next big thing” and “future of women’s tennis.” Standing 5-foot-11 with long blond hair, coming from Eastern Europe to train at the Bollettieri Tennis Academy, Vaidisova was, by all appearances, the second coming of Maria Sharapova.
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Vaidisova poses at a players' party in Miami in March 2008.
Vaidisova had a 48-15 record in 2005. She reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open and went from a ranking of No. 77 at the start of the season to finish the year at No. 15. She was proving herself worthy of all the praise.
Adding to the fuss was that she had five WTA titles, having won two events in 2004. Only five other women have won as many titles before their 17th birthdays: Tracy Austin, Andrea Jaeger, Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati, and Martina Hingis.
We know their stories. All but one of these prodigies would go on to be No. 1, the winner of multiple Grand Slam events, and considered among the greatest to ever play the game. (Jaeger got as high as No. 2 and twice reached the final at a major.) We also know that all five had their pro careers interrupted early, either because of injury, burnout, or circumstances beyond their control. In Sister Andrea’s case, apparently, it was God.
Since 2005, Vaidisova has added just one title to her career highlights. And, although she’s reached the semis at two majors and was able to push her ranking as high as No. 7 just last year, she’s become increasingly susceptible to illness and injury. As a result, she’s had to take off for long stretches, and has been unable to defend points and get back into the grind of the tour.
In April, to shake things up, Vaidisova did something drastic: she dropped the coach with whom she built her game, stepfather Alex Kodat, and picked up former Tim Henman coach, David Felgate.
At the U.S. Open, I was able to speak with Vaidisova after her first-round win about this change, which she said was difficult to make but necessary.
“It was 10 years [with Kodat] so that’s hard. But I think we each gave it our all,” she said. “The fact was the excitement part was gone. We’d seen each other every day and we wanted to switch that. It just stopped working so we just parted.”
On the difference Felgate has made so far, she said, “He definitely has got me thinking more positive. We’re more working on strategy than technique, and it’s a refreshing thing to do that and be more excited again for practice and stuff.”
And like every good athlete dealing with lackluster results, she remained positive.
“I feel like my game is picking up. Today, in my first round I played great. So I really feel like it’s turning around.”
OK, fine. In her next match at the Open, she lost to wildcard Severine Bremond in two sets, and then fell in the first round at her next two events. The game hasn’t picked up. In fact, after coming off that career-high rank of No. 7 last year, Vaidisova fell to No. 34 this week, the lowest she’s been in three years.
Now that this season appears over for Vaidisova, she can focus on her personal life, which involves cheering for her boyfriend/rumored fiancé, Radek Stepanek. She was in Madrid last week watching Stepanek lose to Roger Federer, seemingly unperturbed that her season had ended with a 19-19 record. Both she and Stepanek have kept their mouths pretty shut about the relationship. All she told me when I asked about him was that she was “very happy.” I couldn’t help wonder why that happiness isn’t carrying over to her game.
The other morning, I happened to turn to the Tennis Channel and there were Jankovic and Vaidisova playing each other. It was their quarterfinal match from 2006’s tournament in Linz. (Nice timing, T.C.) You could see how erratic Vaidisova’s ground strokes were then, how she goes for too much, tries to make every return a winner. And you could see her habit of constantly checking in with the folks in her box. She won a lot of easy points off her big serve and Jankovic’s unwarranted errors. She was No. 11 then, a spot above Jankovic, and ended up winning the match in three sets.
What a difference a couple years makes. Now Jankovic is ranked No. 1 and Vaidisova is… Well, I already mentioned that.
Vaidisova’s story remains unwritten. She turns 20 in April, so there is time to get back on the winning track. But judging by how far her game slid this year, it’s not looking like happy-ending material. The window of time to make great things happen is small in tennis, especially for women. Mary Pierce and Capriati, a washout at age 18, are two players who were able to turn things around and finally fulfill all their pent up phenom potential. Who knows if Vaidisova is still capable of back-to-back-to-back wins. I, for one, would just like to see her come back.
Sarah Thurmond is an associate editor for TENNIS Magazine.
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