Andrea Petkovic: The True Tragic Heroine in Tennis

By David Kane

No matter a tennis fan’s complicated allegiances, the vast majority can agree that nobody wants to see a player in pain. Moreover, nobody wants to see an injured player before a new season has truly begin. Sadly, that was exactly what we were forced to witness this week; a mere hours into the 2013 season, the plucky but hapless Andrea Petkovic ruptured the meniscus in her right knee.

At the Hopman Cup, an exhibition event in Perth, Australia, the part-time YouTube celebrity/full-time wit had barely finished the first set against up-and-coming Australian Ashleigh Barty when she had to retire in tears with what would be diagnosed as her third major injury in the space of a year. No stranger to the bench, Petkovic suffered a back injury that ended her Australian summer last January, and an ankle injury one tournament into her comeback that took her out of contention for another four months.

All of this from a player who once suffered an ACL injury in 2008 that nearly ended her career.

Dubbed “Petkorazzi” by her fans, the German is a polarizing character; her brash style and on-court dance moves endear many and alienate others. She spent most of the 2011 season dancing her way into the top 10, with quarterfinal finishes at three of the four Grand Slam tournaments, and a run to finals of the Premier Mandatory event in Beijing, where she fell to Agnieszka Radwanska in three sets.

Spending most of 2012 on the sidelines undid most of her progress and caused a tumble from the top 100, but a late season surge that saw her make semifinals in Luxembourg and a WTA 125 in Pune gave her “Petkorazzis” hope that 2013 would see the beleaguered German star return to her former place among the game’s elite.

This newest setback promises to further delay such a return, this time perhaps indefinitely.

Despite your opinion of her, you cannot deny her horrible luck. Through it all, the perennially injured Petkovic has done her best to maintain her trademark sense of humor in the face of a very unfunny 12 months:

When a player seems to be followed by the proverbial rain cloud as Petkovic has been, the outside observer cannot help but be reminded of another one of our sport’s tragic figures, Dinara Safina. The former No. 1 was once plagued by chronic criticism regarding her status as a “Slamless Number One” only to become plagued by a chronic back injury that seems to have permanently removed her from a game she ostensibly once dominated.

Both Petkovic and Safina can be characterized as players who have unconditional love and passion for a game that has given them such heartache. While lacking the natural talent and fluid shots of their peers, these two women found success largely thanks to burning desires to succeed and the willingness to put in the long hours required for that success.

It has been said that determination can make up for good genes, that prodigal talents cannot neither compare to nor reach the heights of their less natural, but more disciplined, peers. Petkovic’s compatriot Julia Goerges and Safina’s own brother Marat may be known for their innate athletic gifts, but a healthy Petkovic and a mobile Safina were able to outpace rivals and siblings alike in a game that rewarded consistency as much as flashes of brilliance.

Qualifiers like “healthy” and “mobile” are important in situations like these, for an injured Goerges or Safin, with their natural ability, cannot (or could not) be counted out like Petkovic and Safina can be (or will be). For our determined underdogs, those years of dedicated and disciplined training, however admirable, created robotic and inorganic strokes that look the opposite of effortless. These unique game styles require precise timing and unhindered execution; inject injury or lay-off rust into the equation and the results are calamitous. Women who work so hard deserve better luck.

But one must return to the initial, unspoken question of “Why?” Why do such good-natured women and such dedicated athletes like Petkovic and Safina suffer bad luck to this undeservedly absurd degree?

Perhaps there is a reason why effortless styles of play tend to correlate with longevity. Roger Federer and Steffi Graf’s abilities to combine athleticism with balleticism allowed them to dominate the sport for decades at a time. The idea of an extended injury lay-off was simply a foreign concept to these two legends, and each had the same hunger and motivation as their less elegant peers.

As disappointing as these injury setbacks have been, Petkovic will likely return, and if Safina were not already physically exhausted, I do not doubt that she would do the same. These players’ love for the game is inspiring and while purists may scoff at their aesthetically displeasing technique, fans will always admire their dedication in the face of constant adversity. But there comes a point when we must ask whether style is truly subjective, and if these players’ unwavering drive to succeed is the very thing causing their bodies to fail.

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