By Blair Henley / Monday, January 13, 2014
Lucie Safarova may avoid the spotlight, but that doesn't mean the current world No. 27 is any less deserving of our attention. Get to know her as she kicks off her 2014 Australian Open campaign.
Photo Credit: Lucas Dawson / Getty Images
MELBOURNE, Australia – It may be her ninth season on the WTA tour, but don’t call 26-year-old Lucie Safarova a veteran. A recent news article on the Czech star incorporated the term and, well, she wasn’t thrilled with the distinction.
“I was like, ‘What!’ They called me a veteran!” she said, laughing. “In my translation, it is someone with a cane who cannot walk.”
While she may not take kindly to the word, she certainly fits the bill. Safarova first picked up a racquet at three years old in an effort to emulate her older sister, Veronika. Her father Milan, a tennis coach, was more than happy to get her started, and it wasn’t long before the blonde, blue-eyed powerhouse was the best junior player in her native Czech Republic. As a teen, she started playing ITF junior tournaments where she quickly rose to top-10 status. Professional play was a foregone conclusion.
Thanks to her position as the best female Czech player, the tennis association there provided financial support. In addition, she was hand picked by a high-powered Czech sports agent who helped her gain international visibility.
“Without that [aid], unfortunately my family wouldn’t be able to finance me, and I would have probably never made it. My father was a coach, but everything is expensive.”
Now Safarova has no trouble paying her own way. She has a sponsorship deal with Nike in addition to over $4 million in career earnings. She’s ended her singles season inside the top 50 seven of the last eight years, securing a career-high singes ranking of No. 17 in 2012. Currently ranked No. 27, Safarova insists she’s not in the game for the fame or the money.
“I’m kind of shy, so I’m not like the person who wants the spotlight,” she said, confirming the fact with her soft-spoken tone. “I’m kind of going on my path silently. I’m not extravagant in any way.”
In 2011, Safarova made headlines for something other than tennis. She had a very public split from boyfriend and current top-10 player Tomas Berdych after an eight-year romance.
“It was a first love which is always strong,” Safarova said. “I think we came to the point where it was just not going the right way and both of our personalities became different. It just happens. Our breakup was very normal. We didn’t have fights or anything.”
While she admits the split was difficult, she acknowledges that it changed her perspective on her life and her career for the better.
“I discovered more of myself which was great,” she explained. “Since I was 15, I was sharing everything with a person and suddenly I was there alone. At the beginning it was frightening, but it was good to also know what I like for myself and what I like to do.”
Post-breakup, a renewed focus on her tennis led to the best singles season of her career in 2012. Now Safarova, a self-described “relationship person,” is dating American coach Troy Hahn. They spent plenty of time together in the offseason, even taking a couples’ vacation to Costa Rica with Safarova’s childhood friend Andrea Hlavackova and her boyfriend. According to Safarova, the foursome engaged in some “very serious” games of beach volleyball while they were there.
Though she enjoys being active in her free time, she doesn’t rule out the occasional relaxing activity. Safarova giggled as she recounted a recent scene at the theater after seeing the movie Out of the Furnace with Hahn. The extreme violence in the film left her feeling terribly depressed, so, like any good boyfriend, Hahn immediately neutralized the situation by taking her to see – what else? – Frozen.
“That’s definitely one of my favorite [movies] right now,” she said with a smile.
Safarova’s recent doubles success is worth a look. She reached a career-high ranking of No. 17 in 2013 after reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and the French Open with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Not bad for her first full season of doubles play on tour. Safarova kicked off 2014 with a doubles title in Sydney, teaming up with Timea Babos for the first time.
Though she admits the pressure on the pro tennis circuit can suck the fun out of the game, doubles has helped her keep things in perspective.
“Singles is the priority, but I really enjoy doubles,” she said. “Especially with the team spirit because tennis is such an individual sport. Tennis you’re alone on the court and suddenly there is someone else there! I like the interaction.”
She credits at least a fraction of her doubles prowess to the fact that it was a requirement for junior players in the Czech Republic. Players’ doubles rankings would contribute to their overall ranking, which forced her to build a doubles skill set at a young age. Now she’s attracting some of the best partners on the circuit. At the Australian Open, she’ll team with her vacation companion and two-time Grand Slam doubles champion, Hlavackova. The newly minted duo won’t have to worry about communication or chemistry in Melbourne – they’ve been friends since age nine.
What's Next for Lucie?
Safarova is currently working with Canadian coach Rob Steckley in hopes of making a continuing impact on both the singles and doubles court. She got off to a good start by reaching the singles quarterfinal in Sydney, beating Caroline Wozniacki along the way. She’ll face Julia Glushko in the Australian Open first round.
Even with a few good wins here and there, Safarova knows how challenging it is to make the leap into the top 15 and beyond.
“The tennis season is so long, and you have to keep your performance at such a high level,” she said. “It’s very important to stay healthy to stay focused and to work hard, obviously. I feel good, though. I’m happy with what we are doing.”
Without a Grand Slam title or a top 10 ranking to her name, it may be tempting to mindlessly toss Safarova to the seemingly never-ending pile of “ovas” on the WTA Tour. But one look at her booming serve and penetrating groundstrokes, and it’s clear this sweet, quiet “veteran” has the tools to do damage at the highest level. Fans who familiarize themselves with Safarova’s game now will save themselves time if and when she becomes a household name.