Andrea Petkovic beat Jana Cepelova 7-5, 6-2 to win the biggest title of her career. (Mic Smith/AP)
CHARLESTON, S.C. -- No. 40 Andrea Petkovic cemented her comeback on Sunday with the biggest title of her career and the first in three years, defeating Jana Cepelova 7-5, 6-2 in the final of the Family Circle Cup. A former top-10 player, Petkovic will return to the top 30 on Monday.
Petkovic, 26, arrived here ready to return to Europe after a long nine-week stretch in North America. After disappointing results in Indian Wells (first-round loss to Camila Giorgi) and Miami (second-round loss to Alize Cornet), Petkovic -- a self-described "doubter" -- began to question whether her decision to part ways with longtime coach Petar Popovic at the start of the season and hire Eric Van Harpen was the right call. But her game fell into place in Charleston, where she is now 8-0 in her career. After rallying past Lesia Tsurenko 6-7 (2), 6-4, 6-1 in the first round, she went on a tear, winning 27 of 28 games. From there, she pulled out a three-set win over Lucie Safarova and knocked out No. 20 Eugenie Bouchard 1-6, 6-3, 7-5 in the semifinals.
This wasn't the final people were expecting; after all, two-time defending champion and top-ranked Serena Williams was in the field and coming off her seventh Sony Open title. But No. 78 Cepelova stunned Williams 6-4, 6-4 in the second round, foreshadowing a week of upsets. To Cepelova's credit, she followed up that big win to make her first WTA final and used the opportunity to reveal her solid all-court game throughout the week. The 20-year-old, one of three players that age or younger to reach the semifinals, did it all without the benefit of a single person in her entourage. Her coach returned home after Miami and she was one of the last direct acceptances into the Charleston main draw.
"Before the tournament, if somebody tell me you will be in the final, I cannot believe them," Cepelova said. "But now, I'm a little bit upset, but maybe tomorrow everything [will be] OK. But for me it was really nice week here in Charleston, really nice tournament, and I am happy for that, [even if] I lost in the final."
The outcome seemed like a long time coming for Petkovic, who won her third title. After breaking into the top 10 in 2011, injuries derailed her for the next two years and her ranking dropped to No. 177 last March. As a result, she's had to train smarter as opposed to harder and listen to her body.
"I think the lowest, lowest, low point was last year at the French Open when I lost second‑round qualis against a girl that was ranked maybe 160, and I played awful, and that's when I wanted to stop," Petkovic said. "Although I also wanted to stop after I lost the match against Giorgi in Indian Wells [this year], so I had a lot of these moments where I wanted to stop playing. But somehow I always kept doing what I did, and I kept not believing, but wanting it, I guess. That's why I kept working, and I'm very thankful that it paid off in the end."
Widely regarded for her pure fitness, Petkovic is focused on becoming less of a "tennis worker" and more of a "tennis player."
"I got technically much better after my injuries," she said. "You always have to see the good and the bad somehow, and the good thing about my injuries was that I knew I couldn't rely on my fitness only after all these injuries. I wasn't able to practice as much as I used to before, so I needed to develop technically, and I needed to develop my game."
Next up for Petkovic is a brutal turnaround to hard courts, where she and the German Fed Cup team will fly to Australia in the midst of the clay-court season for the April 19-20 semifinals. The commitment could stall her momentum, but it's a sacrifice she's willing to make for a chance at the team title. At least now if things get dark she'll have her Charleston trophy to remind her that all the tough decisions she's made for her career will pay off in the end.
"I know myself so well, and I know there's going to be a moment again where I'm going to be sitting in my room crying and doubting everything," she said. "I just hope I can remind myself of this moment and sort of what I've said now in the press conference."
One of the game's best at the post-match celebration -- she got Pam Shriver to do a little dance during her ESPN interview -- Petkovic plans to break new ground on her flight home.
"I'm going to have champagne and I don't even drink champagne, but I'm just going to have it for the heck of it in the airplane," she said, laughing. "I'm going to get drunk. I never get drunk on the airplane. That's what I'm going to do, and I'm going to walk around and dance with the cabin attendants."
Petkovic is a breath of fresh air in the press room and, gauging by the reaction of her fellow players, in the locker room as well: