US Open 01 sep 2011 R64: Williams (27) 0-6 1-6
Her Long and Winding Road
Facing Serena Williams when she's on her game, in the second round of a Grand Slam tournament, may seem like a surefire recipe for leaving a player ranked No. 183 bruised, battered and wondering what on earth she's doing playing this game.
But it takes more—a whole lot more—than a blizzard of aces and a few dozen blazing winners to kill the basic joy Michaella Krajicek takes from playing tennis.
The point was driven home when Serena produced said blizzard of aces and winners under the glare of the midday sun on Arthur Ashe stadium this afternoon. Looking devilish in a blood-red tennis dress, Serena played the match and posted the score most people expected when they saw she was playing the second-lowest ranked player in the draw, 6-0, 6-1.
Serena hit 10 aces and 25 winners—20 more than Krajicek—and she made just 10 unforced errors compared to Krajicek's 18. So why did Krajicek come bounding into Interview Room 2 deep in the bowels of Ashe, a great big grin on her face, and ask the quartet of reporters waiting for her there: "Did you guys even see the match?" She laughed out loud. "It went by so fast!"
She had reason to feel buoyed despite the drubbing she took. As she told me later, "I'm not saying this is a huge breakthrough for me, but I think it's a little bit of a breakthrough. For sure it was good to be out there (on a stadium court) again. I went out there believing that I could beat Serena, but it was a tough one. I haven't played a top player like her in a long time. I can't say I'm happy but I have to laugh at it a little bit. I mean, six-love, six-one? It's kind of funny."
Only someone who has been at the other end of a score like that could take it so lightly.
Before the match, Krajicek had consulted Lucie Safarova, her friend and doubles partner, for advice—after all, Safarova had stretched Serena to three sets in the quarterfinals of Eastbourne, the first tournament Serena played this year. When Krajicek returned to the locker room right after the match, Safarova was waiting. Krajicek's eyes light up as she recounted how Safarova stammered out her profuse apologies: "Oh, I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to ruin your game, I'll never give you advice again, I promise!"
Of course, Krajicek knew the blowout had nothing to do with Safarova's advice, and everything to do with her own ongoing struggle to find the game that once brought her to the cusp of stardom. Krajicek was a prodigy who won the girls' singles title here in 2004, at 15. She cracked the pro Top 50 in January of 2006, shortly after turning 17. And at 18, she rode a big serve to the 2007 Wimbledon quarterfinals. Her bloodlines predicted great success, and also pumped out a certain measure of pressure—Michaella is the half-sister of former Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek.
Michaella hit her career-high ranking of No. 30 in Februrary of 2008, and that's just about when things began to fall apart. Before Wimbledon that year, she suffered with a bad wrist. After Wimbledon, she blew out a knee. By the time she returned to the tour at the end of September, her ranking was down to No. 168. It never really recovered.
But also since that fall from grace, Krajicek has been working—hard. She's lived in the netherworld frequented by journeywomen who sustain their so-so rankings shuttling between sub-Tour events in places like Barnstaple (in the UK), or Olomouc (Czech Republic) and the qualifying events for WTA and Grand Slam events. But that's just one of the ways she's traveled a long and winding road.
For about two years starting in 2008, Krajicek lived in Bradenton, Fla., and trained at the IMG NIck Bollettieri Tennis Academy with Bollettieri's blessing. She needed some distance from her family, who didn't approve of her relationship with her coach at that time, Allistar McCaw. She hit rock bottom at this time last year. "I was practicing for five hours a day. I was doing everything I could, but it just wasn't happening. I lost in the qualifying at the U.S. Open, and the girl who beat me won two rounds. I felt exhausted. It's not that tennis wasn't fun anymore, it was more that I felt like something has to happen, and be different, because the way it was going it wasn't going."
In December, Krajicek terminated her relationship with McCaw and re-connected with her family. She traveled to Prague, where her family still had ties, and decided to buy an apartment. Jaroslav Jezbera, the Century 21 agent (yes, they have a franchise in Prague) who showed and sold her the new apartment, kept in touch and invited Krajicek to a New Year's Eve party hosted by Jezbera's sister. "Nothing happened there," Krajicek says, "But when I returned from Australia early this year we started dating."
Re-discovering family bore fruit in many ways, not least of which was that Richard Krajicek once again encouraged Michaella to take on veteran coach Eric Van Harpen (he's worked with, among others, Conchita Martinez, Maria Sharapova, and Maria Kirilenko)—an idea Michaella had previously rejected because she wanted to live in the U.S. and Van Harpen was based in Europe. Michaella decided to give it a whirl and they teamed up after a brief trial, shortly after Wimbledon. "We clicked," she said. "I know Eric can help. He sees a lot of things he thinks I can improve."
Until this tournament, Krajicek had failed to qualify in six consecutive majors, but she punched through here with three-set wins in two of her three qualifying matches. In her main draw matches here, we alternately witnessed impressive displays of her strengths—a fine serve and solid groundstrokes—and her most outstanding liability: so-so mobility. Krajicek was disappointed by her failure to make better use of her serve against Serena today (she put just 50 percent of her first serves into play); her feet were an even better indicator for what she needs to improve. As she said:
"She (Serena) takes the all so early. I've played Maria (Sharapova), and she takes the ball early as well. But she doesn't hit it as hard or as precisely as Serena. Even (Victoria) Azarenka doesn't hit as hard a Serena. It's just hard to meet her at that level and stay there. I could have done a better job, but at least I know how much better I need to get."
After the match, Krajicek sat in her chair alongside the umpire for a long time, gazing out at the crowd, taking small sips of water and patting herself here and there with her towel. I asked her if she was soaking up and enjoying the atmosphere, drinking in the sights and sounds of her first adventure at a major since the summer of 2008.
She laughed and emphatically said, "No! Damn. . .I couldn't get more than one game. I was, like, you gotta be kidding me—is that it? I was sweating, of course, but I had to ask myself, 'Did I even sweat?' It was really that fast."
It's easy to forget that despite that colorful and eventful past, Krajicek is just 22. She has plenty of time to improve, and has a veteran coach to help her find her way to land of milk, honey, and direct entry into majors. For now, it seems enough that the way it's going is. . . going.
|De glimlach is terug bij Krajicek 2 september 2011|
|Her Long and Winding Road 1 september 2011|