Andrea Petkovic has made a name for herself based on personality alone. In a sport in which most of the women can be a bit aloof or chained to clichés as if their media training came from Crash Davis, Petkovic has been a breath of fresh air. She answers questions thoughtfully and honestly and remains unapologetic about her need to express herself in whatever way she sees fit. She posted a song on her Facebook page that even she admits was horrible, her tweets have been seen by some tennis fans as pandering and of the "trying too hard to be funny" variety, and she's shrugged off the backlash from her on-court dancing after victories.
"I really feel like with the social media, with Twitter and Facebook, I have it [under] my control and I can give as much personality as I want to the public," she said during last month's Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. "The way I've lived it, it's been received well."
Of course, when you have that much personality, invariably the spotlight shines brighter and doubters begin to wonder. Does she have the game to back it up? Or is she just one of those low-ranked players who has the freedom to act so freely because she'll never be taken seriously?
To her credit, Petkovic has risen steadily since she debuted her "Petko Dance" at the U.S. Open last year, cracking the top 10 for the first time last month and beating the likes of Maria Sharapova, Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Jankovic. It hasn't been a meteoric rise that would raise "flash in the pan" concerns, but a slow and steady one that tends to indicate a player who is still growing. (The 23-year-old showed some of that maturity Thursday in rallying from a set and 0-3 down to beat Zheng Jie in the second round of the U.S. Open.) Most important, she's enjoying the spotlight and remains uncompromising in her commitment to just be herself.
"I don't feel comfortable on the court if I feel like I have to act [like] somebody that I'm not and if I cannot stay true to myself," she said. "I need sometimes for people to say, 'OK, why is she dancing'? Is this necessary? Why is this? Why is that?'
"They can keep telling this to me and they keep saying this, but I need this stuff to stay true to myself; otherwise, I would go crazy. Tennis can be really one-dimensional and I'm not one-dimensional. I need these other things to live myself to the fullest, not only on the court but off the court as well."
Fitness has been a huge factor in her ascent. She has a mechanical game with heavy groundstrokes that look like they've been honed, or actually "drilled," for hours on end. Watch one practice session and these suspicions are confirmed. Aesthetically, the game just doesn't look like it comes naturally to her. While some players have a natural shot that they were able to hit the minute they picked up a racket, or movement that seems easy and almost unconscious, Petkovic looks trained. You see the effort and focus that goes into each shot and the strain as she runs from side to side laboring to overcome her heavy footwork. Her game takes work and clearly she's put in the time this year.
"There are a lot of weights and running involved [in the beginning of the year]," she said. "Then naturally, with just playing the tournaments and not being able to work as hard, your fitness just slowly goes down. So it was really important for me to take the break after Wimbledon. I took four weeks off and I took five days off where I didn't do anything, and then I took another three weeks where I worked as hard as I did in December also focusing more on the fitness than my tennis."
The effort shows. The Internet lit up with post-Wimbledon pictures of Petkovic practicing in a sports bra and showing off the most ridiculous six-pack in the women's game (or men's game, for that matter). Ana Ivanovic gave her childhood friend a good-natured ribbing while practicing in San Diego, claiming her shirtless sessions were just so she could justify her six-pack.
Unfortunately, the German sustained a torn meniscus in her right knee in Cincinnati and came into the U.S. Open a bit hobbled. She says she feels an occasional sharp pain and just needs to be mentally strong to fight through it.
"When it comes, I'm scared and I start not running," Petkovic said. "I am hesitating to run, and then I lose a few games very fast because I'm not moving well. It's just a mindset."
As it is, Petkovic fought through the pain and overcame the talented Zheng on Thursday. She thanked the fans afterward for helping her "stop crying and start fighting" to get back in the match, and busted out a particularly heartfelt pop-and-lock dance. Petko is prime time and there is no city more prime time than New York. The crowd was loving it.
"When you're extreme, there are always going to be people that hate you more than love you. That's OK for me, because I have a lot of love to give, even to those people," Petkovic said, laughing.