Martic's journey from tears to triumph

Follow Martic's rollercoaster year that led her to her maiden slam quarter-final.

Petra Martic Roland Garros 2019©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT
 - Reem Abulleil

Petra Martic understands the agony that can often present itself in sport.

She was sidelined with a career-threatening back injury in 2016 that saw her drop out of the top 600. Footage of her weeping openly after a heartbreaking Australian Open defeat in January was aired to the world across the globe.

Like every athlete, she has experienced gut-wrenching lows but also emotional highs.

Now ranked 31 in the world, and contesting her maiden Grand Slam quarter-final at 28 years of age, she is enjoying her career-best moments and is ready to take on Czech teen Marketa Vondrousova on Tuesday.

Here’s a close look at Martic’s journey to her best form this season, with insight from her coach Sandra Zaniewska.

She’s having a tremendous clay-court campaign

The 28-year-old leads the tour with 15 match wins on clay in 2019, against just two losses. Roland-Garros is her best Slam, having made the fourth round or better on three occasions. Her clay-court season includes a title run in Istanbul, a semi-final appearance in Charleston, and quarters in Madrid.

Strong on return

Entering Roland-Garros, Martic had the third highest winning percentage on tour of return points won against the first set (42%) and in Paris this fortnight, she is tied second in the percentage of return games won (61%, 23/38).

Martic is actually older than her coach

The Croatian formally started working full-time with her coach, former top-150 player, Sandra Zaniewska, after last year’s Australian Open.

Zaniewska, 27, is a year younger than Martic, and the Pole explains what it’s like being a young coach on tour.

“I thought when we were starting that it’s going to be really funny, we’re probably the only player-coach relationship where the player is older than the coach,” said Zaniewska in Paris on Monday.

“But I always felt that I could help her and the thing was that I also told her, ‘If I can’t help you with something, I’m just going to tell you. I’m not going to be here and say I know everything because I obviously don’t’; and she also knows this, so we really formed this partnership based on trust. And I still tell her, ‘If a day comes I feel I can’t help you anymore, that’s it, I’ll step away and you have to look for someone better’. And I think that’s really the only way that you can work with a player, whether you’re 25 or 45. You still have to be honest with yourself and with them.

Sandra Zaniewska©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

“For me this age thing wasn’t really a big thing. I think it was more a big thing for her, thinking like, ‘Okay, is it really going to work, am I making a mistake or am I not?’ I know at the beginning she was struggling really a lot, and I was just there saying, ‘Hey, if you want we try it, if you don’t, we don’t. There’s no pressure of anything like this’.

“We were lucky that right after we started she did really well at Indian Wells, it was her first quarter-final at a Premier event and I think there already the pressure went off of her a little bit, she felt, ‘Oh I can breathe. We just started but already something good happened’. But I think it was more for her than for me.”

The power of apple cider vinegar

Martic had a tough start to 2019. She had a mysterious stomach illness that wasn’t properly diagnosed, despite the numerous medical tests she underwent.

It stopped her from practicing properly and it wasn’t until Zaniewska spent five hours one night in Doha, googling Martic’s symptoms, that they found a remedy that helped her. What was it? Apple cider vinegar!

“She was like, ‘Whatever, give me anything, I don’t care anymore’, because she was just so desperate,” recalls Zaniewska. “So I ran to the supermarket and I came back the next morning I gave her the apple cider vinegar and I’m like, ‘Okay, let’s go and try it now’. She goes on the court and she’s like, ‘I can move, I don’t feel nauseous. I feel so much better’. And I’m like, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to Dubai, we’re going to play’. We hadn’t even bought tickets for Indian Wells because we thought she wasn’t going to play.”

Raw emotions in Aus

Martic lost in the Australian Open third round in two tiebreak sets to Sloane Stephens. She walked off court and found the first empty spot for her to collapse to the ground and weep. The moment was captured by the tournament’s behind-the-scenes cameras, showing her crying uncontrollably with a towel covering her face. It proved to be a pivotal moment for the Croatian.

Petra Martic roland garros 2019©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

“I showed [the video] to her because I didn’t see it as a bad thing,” says Zaniewska.

“I saw it as a really beautiful moment, of someone who played a match and lost by only one point difference but played a great match and came out just so hurt that it didn’t fall her way. It’s a tough moment but on the other hand it was a great experience, great match, great growth opportunity, great entertainment for all these people that saw it. I came to her not long later and I said, ‘Hey, you’re going to keep on playing like this and you’re going to be winning tournaments like this soon’, and here we are. Maybe still far from winning but as close as she’s ever gotten.”

Heartbreak at Indian Wells

Martic, who was defending quarter-final points at Indian Wells in March, lost in the first round to Poland’s Magda Linette 7-6 in the third. It was a crushing defeat that left her crying in the parking lot after the match. Zaniewska gave her quite the pep talk.

“I said, ‘Listen, let’s get back to work, it’s going to be amazing. I’m telling you it’s going to be amazing, the only thing we need is time’. And I kept on telling her for weeks, every day,” said Zaniewska.

Martic had broken her small toe in that match against Linette and the continuous bad luck really got to her.

“Again she starts crying and she’s like, ‘I don’t know why this is happening to me? Again I can’t practice but I really need to, like what’s going on?’ And someone took a really great picture of us, Petra is like down on the court and crying and I’m just there holding her, and I’m like, ‘Listen, we’re going to do whatever we can, even if it’s standing, we’re just going to hit balls and that’s it. If it’s going to hurt, then we’re going to do even less, we’re going to work with what we have. This is the toughest time, but everything after will be super easy. This can build you up so much for later. I really see good things coming’,” Zaniewska continued.

The clay upswing

Her coach was not wrong. By early April, Martic had started the clay-court season healthy and worry-free, reaching the semis in Charleston before her great results in Istanbul and Madrid. She is now in her maiden Grand Slam quarter-final and riding the wave.

“It [the tough times] gave her a whole new level of appreciation, like, ‘Okay I can be here and I can play, let’s not get stuck on little things, let’s just enjoy it’. And then suddenly she just went up and I think now she’s just on a roll. And I keep on telling her now, ‘Now you’re here, you have this momentum, just use it. Risk more. Because it’s so much easier to risk it now than if you’re out of top 50,” said the Polish coach.

RG is an opportunity

With the likes of Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, Karolina Pliskova and Garbine Muguruza already out of the tournament, there is (once against at a women’s Slam) a sense of a real opportunity on the table here for any of the remaining eight ladies to lift the trophy on Saturday. It’s a fact that is definitely on Martic’s mind.

“I always tell her not to look too far ahead. Of course everywhere we come we want to win, no matter who is playing and I think that’s the case for every single player. So it’s nothing new. I think she’s feeling it a little bit. She’s looking a little bit more around but she’s really aware of it. She feels this need to go more inward and stay focused,” says Zaniewska.