While Nadia Petrova surprised many, including herself, by winning her 12th career title in Tokyo over Agnieszka Radwanska, if you’ve been keeping track of the veteran Russian and her season so far in 2012, then her victory this weekend feels almost expected.
Though a part of the Russian wave of female players that began to dominate the sport starting around 2000, Petrova was often lost in the shadows of the exploits of Maria Sharapova, Elena Dementieva, Svetlana Kuznetsova and then later by the rise of Dinara Safina to number one and Vera Zvonareva who reached two Grand Slam finals back in 2010. Petrova around that time began to find more success on the doubles court and when she fell out of the top 30 in singles midway in 2011, it seemed the expected decline of Petrova was underway.
But after playing without a coach for some time, Petrova took matters into her own hands earlier this year when she hired Ricardo Sanchez just before the start of the Memphis tournament. Sanchez, who worked with Jelena Jankovic for many years, had just ended a brief and turbulent trial consultation with Caroline Wozniacki and her father. Though well respected, Sanchez’s colorful and sometimes controversial reputation often precedes his coaching skills, but in some ways he seemed to be the perfect fit for Petrova, someone with her own prickly personality.
“I really wanted to have the best, and with Ricardo, I mean, I know him for almost like 10 years,” said Petrova back in at Indian Wells on her new arrangement. “He’s been on the tour and worked with great players. I was always trying to find that opportunity to work, but it just didn’t ‑ actually for both of us ‑ didn’t work until now.”
With her new partnership, Petrova felt confident she could return to the top ten — a bold statement for someone many viewed as being past her prime.
“I want to get back into top 10. I think that would be great,” said Petrova in March. “I have been out of that category of players already for a couple of years, and it would be a nice thing for me to challenge the new players like, let’s say Kvitova, Azarenka.”
Challenging the new elite of the game seemed like a stretch for the Russian who, though possessing the ability to outhit anyone with her heavy groundstrokes, often has lost matches due to her own stubborn mindset and by getting too negative on herself in tight situations. But with Sanchez’s passionate yet tactical approach to coaching, Petrova has found a way to smooth out her sometimes grumpy on-court persona with more confident and at times even relaxed play.
The results speak for themselves. While under Sanchez’s guidance, Petrova is having one of her best seasons ever in 2012 including claiming two titles, reaching the fourth round of the U.S. Open and winning an Olympic bronze medal in women’s doubles with Maria Kirilenko.
Though she reached No. 3 in the world earlier in her career, many viewed Petrova as an underachiever. But perhaps instead, we should now be looking at her as a late bloomer in the same light as Li Na, Francesca Schiavone and Sam Stosur — all veterans who won a Major just in the last few years. In fact, Petrova still feels that a Grand Slam title is within her reach.
“There are a few players who have won Grand Slams after 30, and I feel like I don’t want to walk away from tennis without accomplishing the same,” Petrova said after winning Tokyo, the biggest title of her career. “I still find the will to wake up every morning and go on the court and just try to improve with each day. If it’s meant to happen it will, but if it doesn’t, at the end of my career I’ll know I’ve done everything I could to achieve it.”
Can Petrova really be a contender once again for a Major? Her recent results suggest that at least she is certainly capable of taking out anyone in the top 10. She pushed Sharapova to three sets in New York and she knocked out three top 10 players in a row en route to winning Tokyo. It still will be a tough mission for Petrova who hasn’t reached the quarters of a Grand Slam since 2010, but her recent success suggests it’s not impossible.
“I’m pushing towards the end of my career, said the Russian back in March. “I still know that I have a couple good years left. So I want to maximize. I want to give it all, so then I can, you know, say I have done it all, no regrets.”
With her win in Tokyo, Petrova is getting closer to her goal of getting back into the top 10 and another run at Major might not be a surprise at all if she continues her recent form. At age 30, she is proving that despite having early success she just might have a few more surprises in store for us before she calls time on her career.