Petkovic: I have never had more fun playing than now

Former semi-finalist puts retirement plans on the backburner as she returns to court after a 12-month absence

Andrea Petkovic, Roland Garros 2019© Julien Crosnier/FFT
 - Reem Abulleil

Andrea Petkovic has not played a match in a year, and was initially planning on retiring by the end of 2020, but knee surgery and a pandemic intervened.

Now the 33-year-old German is having more fun on the tennis court than she has had in her whole career.

Petkovic, a semi-finalist in Paris in 2014, will contest her first match since last October on Monday at Roland-Garros against Tsvetana Pironkova, the Bulgarian who made a tremendous comeback earlier this month with a run to the US Open quarter-finals in her first event in more than three years.

Petkovic practised with Tunisian No.30 seed Ons Jabeur a few days ago when she arrived in Paris and admitted she felt nervous at the start. They did not last long on court because of the weather, but the few games they played eased Petkovic’s worries about where her game was at after such a long absence.

“It was like two-all or three-all, and we went off the court and I told my coach, ‘I'm so glad that I got two games because I didn't know at all'," Petkovic told "Practising with a top girl in a tournament environment, I haven't done that in almost a year. So this was still new and I got a little bit stressed and I was like, ‘Oh my God, where am I? Is it the same?’

“Because you are a little bit more stressed and more just under tension around tournaments than you are at an invitational, where it doesn't count. So afterwards, when I came off the court, I was like, ‘Hey, I'm OK, I'm doing well. Ons is playing super well, it was two-all, it's fine’. And then in the afternoon I shook it off and I felt good.”

Andrea Petkovic, Roland Garros 2019© Julien Crosnier/FFT

Petkovic has had a rough run with injuries throughout her 14-year professional career, and even earlier when she was a junior. She had issues with her right knee before her left knee started acting up a few years ago.

Her latest surgery came in February and she had initially planned to return to the tour in Miami in March, but the coronavirus delayed her comeback and she suddenly found herself restarting again after nearly 12 months out.

“Every injury is super hard, but I think I have developed a kind of stoicism towards it in the course of my life, just because I had to; at one point you just learn to accept things that you cannot change,” Petkovic said.

“With all the injuries I had so young and early in my life, it was clear that at one point it was all going to take a toll on my body, probably earlier than maybe other players who were luckier than I was when I was young.

“And it did happen eventually, but you know what? What keeps me alive and sane is that I had never had more fun playing than I have now because I've been through so much, and now, I feel like I had a really good career.

“I'm happy with what I've done, and now it's all about the extra, all about the bonus and being out there, playing with the top girls. For example, today, when I played with Ons (in practice), I'm having so much fun just to see like, ‘Hey, I watched her play amazing just a few months ago. And now I'm here on the court, battling it out with her. How lucky am I?’

“So this is just a place that I wish I had in my early 20s and I feel like that's the damnation or the curse of humanity that the perspective you gain with age, your body kind of gives out, right?” she added with a laugh.

Petkovic is arguably one of the most unique characters on tour. She is a writer – her book comes out in October – a TV show host, a foodie, a music lover... call her a true scholar of life if you will. She once got herself out of what she described as a midlife crisis by drawing inspiration from Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page.

She said Paris held a “very special place in my heart”, not only because it was the site of her biggest Grand Slam success, but it was also the first major she contested. She considers her third-round match against Chinese Taipei’s Hsieh Su-Wei on the new Court 14 last year (Petkovic won it 8-6 in the third) to be one of her favourite matches of her career and is thrilled she gets another chance of competing on Parisian clay.

The writer in her once took her to Cafe de Flore, a popular hotspot for philosophers, writers and artists in the past.

“I was very disappointed because it's very touristy. I expected, I don't know, Simone de Beauvoir to be next table. She wasn't. I wonder why,” she laughed.

Andrea Petkovic, Simona Halep, Roland Garros 2014© Christophe Saidi/FFT

“We’re just in the hotel room this year, so we can't really go out, though we have a beautiful view of the Seine and a little bit of the other side of Paris. We're on the side of where Tour Eiffel is. And it does give you a certain kind of mood where you want to sit down and write a novel in a 12 square-foot apartment, where like half of the apartment is just a roof and you can't really stand up. You can only sit down.

“There's a certain kind of nostalgia and melancholy, I think involved with being in Paris, for sure.”

Petkovic hosted a sports show on German television during her time away from the sport, which meant she kept a close eye on all things tennis.

Asked what stories stood out to her the most over the past 12 months, she said: “So I think my favourite storyline from the perspective of, I guess my age and everything and how well I know her, was Vika Azarenka.

“Because I think she's just a player that has so much quality that it made all of us realise even more how much private stuff can affect your tennis because with Vika, you know she's so good, even if she doesn't play so well, she's still incredibly good. And she was struggling for such a long period of time. And I was just waiting for her to break through that vicious circle.

“And she eventually did. That was a storyline I identified the most with, and I just felt the most.

Victoria Azarenka, Roland Garros 2020, first round© Julien Crosnier/FFT

“And then for me, the most impressive one was the Naomi Osaka one; that was incredible for me. Because I've been in things where the press is going crazy around you. And this was like 100th of what Naomi was going through.

“And to then just put her head down and play such great tennis. And just as if nothing happened at such a young age, I have to say that was incredibly impressive.”

For now, Petkovic has put her retirement plans on the backburner, while acknowledging she might need to be more selective with her schedule to preserve her body.

She gets to write a new chapter in her tennis journey when she steps on court against Pironkova on Monday and she will relish every second of it.