I’ve written so many previews for matches in the last few weeks that I thought it was time to branch out and do something different on Moo’s Tennis Blog. Hopefully this will become a new regular feature, but that will probably require the creation of new 30 hour days. There’s never enough time to do everything I want to do on this blog. I’ve tried writing player-centric pieces before and ending up scrapping them because they’re awful. Anyway this time, i’ve gone for it. I’ve decided to focus on Lucie Safarova. There’s a bit of everything so even if the words aren’t enjoyable then hopefully some of the videos are brand new to you 🙂
The first conundrum that must be addressed when dealing with Lucie Safarova is her name. It is something that has puzzled many tennis fans. Most people just say it how it looks. However in Czech, it is spelt Šafářová and sounds very different when pronounced correctly. The Changeover covered this in a piece HERE after Lucie reached the semi-finals of Wimbledon. Earlier this year, the Fed Cup posted a video where Lucie answered some questions including one about her name! So if you’re confused, this is how you pronounce her name…
Video posted on YouTube by OfficialFedCup
Now get practising that name 😉 For the purpose of this article, i’m going to just stick with Safarova…
I’ve always liked Safarova, but it wasn’t until early this year when I technically classed myself as a fan. In fact, I am starting to become one of those crazy fans. You know, when you start fist pumping at the screen or at the live scoreboard after every point. When you start crying at unforced errors. When you start crying at winners. When you try your hardest not to cheer for the opponent’s errors, but you can’t help it. When you spend most matches hiding behind a pillow. Being a fan of a player generally results in misery for much of the season, but when the good moments happen, they are normally tremendous.
As of the 18th of August 2014, Safarova reached her career high ranking of number 15 in the world. Now 27 years of age, Safarova appears to be in the best form of her career after many years of hovering around the 20’s and 30’s. No-one has ever doubted the talent and the ball-striking abilities of Safarova, but it is her mental toughness on court that has frequently held her back. There have been a series of notable examples, but the one that really resonates with me was the Montreal semi-final she played against Li Na in 2012. After splitting the first two sets, Safarova raced into a *5-1 lead in the deciding set. That’s when the nerves came and the collapse ensued as Safarova twice failed to serve out the match and lost six straight games. It was an uncomfortable watch and a heartbreaking loss (read full match report on Tennis.com HERE). Lucie has had some fair share of shockers and it has unfortunately been characteristic to see her struggle to close out sets.
It was in the summer of 2012 when Lucie started working with Rob Steckley. I found this video of Steckley and Safarova in Indian Wells in 2010 so they have obviously known each other for quite a while. It’s an interesting video in which Safarova credits the dramatic improvements on her serve to Petra Kvitova’s coach, David Kotyza.
Video posted on YouTube by Rob Steckley
It wasn’t until the beginning of 2014 that I really began to notice the Steckley-Safarova coaching partnership. During a third round match in Miami after Safarova won the second set against Maria Sharapova, Steckley came on and spoke with Safarova. I sat there mesmerised at their relationship and chemistry, and how great Steckley was in engaging Lucie. It’s definitely my favourite coaching partnership on the WTA tour. You can see how Lucie really listens to every word and takes everything in. Steckley comes up with the phrase “bye bye old Lucie, hello new Lucie”. If you’ve never seen this changeover, you need to watch it. It’s both hysterical and fascinating! I also wrote about it in this piece HERE.
Video posted on YouTube by SportsMagicianJJ
Rob Steckley has given a couple of interviews about Lucie and most recently, there was an article on Tennis Canada (read HERE), which is well worth a read. Steckley said the following about Lucie, of which I agree with everything he said.
She has always been in and out of the Top 20 but now it is a matter of her believing that she can stay and push further and further to reach the Top 10 and possibly the Top 5. I think it has never been a secret that she has always had the game. She has got all the tools.”
In 2014, Safarova has been so close to a big upset on multiple occasions. In Australia, Safarova had the eventual champion, Li Na on the ropes in their third round match. Safarova had a match point and was inches away from claiming a huge win before eventually falling in three sets, 1-6 7-6(2) 6-3. In a WTA article written by Mark Hodgkinson (read HERE), Steckley had some great quotes in reference to that match against Li…
So Lucie had that match point, and she just fell short, and with that came the realisation that she was truly close to reaching her potential. She started to really believe. We were sitting around for a few days on site after Lucie lost that match in Australia, and Li kept winning and winning, and she ended up taking the title, and that send a signal to Lucie that, ‘Hey, I am right there with the best players in the world’. And she realised that it wasn’t a matter of having to work for a number of years to get there. She realised that she was already in that ball game.
Safarova has played three setters this year against Petra Kvitova (X2), Maria Sharapova (X2), Simona Halep and that Australian Open match with Li Na. These losses have been disappointing, but they’ve all demonstrated that Safarova has the ability to rally and stay close with some of the best WTA players in the world. From the same WTA article linked above by Mark Hodgkinson, Steckley also said this…
Since then she’s had a few more nail-biters, and has fallen short, and she has realised through those that she’s really close. For sure, you can trace what’s happening here all the way back to Melbourne, but it’s also been a gradual thing, her confidence building and building
Arguably, Safarova’s biggest win came at the French Open where she upset Ana Ivanovic in the third round. She reached the last 16 of a Grand Slam for the first time in seven years. For a player with Safarova’s talent, that is an insane stat. Safarova then backed that up with a career best result at Wimbledon, reaching her first ever Grand Slam semi-final. It wasn’t a tough draw, but Lucie took advantage of it, something she has frequently failed to do in her career. It was a magical run and she never once looked like things were getting on top of her. She looked comfortable, she looked free and even in the semi-final up against good friend, Petra Kvitova, she played a good match. Most important of all, Lucie looked happier than she has ever done before on a tennis court. I watched two of her matches at Wimbledon and was delighted to see her win her fourth round match on my birthday!
To my mind, this has felt like one of Lucie’s best years on tour, if not the best. Lucie had her best result at Wimbledon, but I wanted to look a bit more closely at her whole season so far. Basically, I had a geek out session on the WTA website. Firstly, I looked at victories and losses in each year and whether they were in two sets or three sets. This yielded nothing particularly interesting. Then I focused at the actual wins and losses, and calculated the average ranking of players that Safarova has beaten and lost too. This was more interesting…
Statistics from Lucie Safarova all accessed from the WTA website HERE
Firstly, it is important to stress that 2014 is obviously not over so it isn’t a complete dataset. Anyway, you can see from the first graph that since 2007, which was the season when Safarova broke out on tour and reached the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, 2014 has been the best year for her (so far) in terms of the average ranking of players she has beaten. In 2014, she has defeated the likes of Ana Ivanovic, Dominika Cibulkova, Caroline Wozniacki, Venus Williams, Flavia Pennetta and Sam Stosur. In terms of losses, 2014 has also ranked favourably with the average ranking of players that Safarova has lost to at 37. This result is also rather skewed due to a first round loss in the ITF event in Prague to the world number 301, Ekaterina Alexandrova (i’ve never heard of her either). Of Safarova’s 19 losses this year, 12 of them have been at the hands of top ten players.
Stats obviously don’t tell the whole story. Lucie has still had some pretty shaky moments this year. She nearly blew a huge lead to Casey Dellacqua at the French Open, needing three sets to win that particular match. Even in Montreal two weeks ago, she showed her nerves in trying to force a first set tiebreak against Serena Williams, eventually succumbing after serving up several double faults on game points. Rob Steckley could be heard saying at the changeover, “look, you’re shaking”. I think nerves will always be an issue for Lucie. However when you look at all of her 2014 results laid out on the table, there are definitely signs that she is doing a much better job at dealing with them. In my opinion, the partnership with Steckley has been absolutely crucial at helping Safarova to improve her mentality on court.
I feel the progression in Lucie’s game can be demonstrated in a recent match with Venus Williams in Cincy. Lucie went down a set, faced a number of break points, but she hung in the match and won the second set. At *5-2 up in the third set and with match point, Safarova thought she had bagged her first win over Venus, only to have her winner called out after a hawkeye challenge. Suddenly the ship started rocking and Venus broke and then held. I’m fully convinced that a year or two ago, Lucie would have lost this match along with another huge wedge of confidence. The nerves were there, but she rode through them and gained a superb win.
I still believe that the best is yet to come for Lucie. I fully admit that this may be a biased view, but she has been steadily improving all year and will now benefit from being a top 16 seed at the Slams, at least for the 2014 US Open. Rob Steckley deserves a lot of credit for the work he has done with Lucie and I really, really, really hope this partnership lasts. In my opinion, the top ten is definitely achievable for Lucie. It’s only five ranking places away, but the WTA is in a very healthy place right now and there are many quality players jostling at the top of the rankings.
Finally, i’ll leave this ramble with some of my favourite videos of Lucie. I haven’t come across ANYONE who doesn’t warm to Lucie. She seems like such a sweet person…
1) This is from Indian Wells earlier this year where notice, Safarova doesn’t pronounce her name with the Czech pronounciation!
Video posted on YouTube by WTA
2) Thanks to @mastergabe17 (Gabriel Zanipatin) on Twitter for alerting me to this video published two weeks ago in Canada.
Video posted on YouTube by BATennisWorld
3) Anyone who goes in for a hug with Maria Sharapova is not only brave, but totally AWESOME.
Video posted by MrPieroTennis