While the rest of the WTA Tour’s elite might have been asleep to the talents of Kristina Kucova, the surprise semifinalist in the Coupe Rogers tournament this week, her parents and supporters back home in Bratislava clearly have not been as somnolent.
Not even at two o’clock in the morning. Kucova made sure of that as well, and that’s before going out onto the court and continuing to play the role of Cinderella well after midnight.
The qualifier’s dream run in Montréal continued on Friday night after a 6-4, 6-3 win over world No. 14 Johanna Konta, her third successive attention-grabbing victory that has now launched her into the consciousness of the tennis world, along with becoming a fan favorite here in eastern Canada.
Those following in her homeland of Slovakia are just as excited – even if a little sleep-deprived.
“I make [my parents] wake up very early,” said an overjoyed Kucova in the post-match conference on Friday night. “In Slovakia, it is two in the morning, three in the morning when my match starts. I feel sorry for them that they are not sleeping and they are making alarms.”
Who needs sleep when the dream is playing itself out in real life? Kucova had to win two matches in qualifying just to get into the main draw, including defeating American Christina McHale – last seen taking Serena Williams to the limit in the second round at Wimbledon – to book her place in the tournament. Since then, she’s beaten Yanina Wickmayer (former US Open semifinalist), Carla Suarez Navarro (five-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist and current world No. 9), Eugenie Bouchard (former Wimbledon finalist) and Konta (2016 Australian Open semifinalist), making her the first qualifier to reach the semifinals of the Coupe Rogers since American Kimberly Po in 1996. Each win has been just as special as the last, but the victory against the crowd favorite and Montréal native Bouchard in the Round of 16 carried an extra special nugget: a maiden appearance in the WTA Top 100 the next time the rankings are released.
“Yeah, with this match I broke to top 100,” said Kucova after the Bouchard win. “I was working for this moment all my life. I’m just so happy about it. I don’t know if this will change my life. I don’t think so. But I will remember this moment, that tonight I beat Genie in Montréal and I break top 100. It means a lot to me.”
Moments like those on the professional level looked as if they would come much earlier for Kucova, who plays two-handed from both sides. She won the 2007 US Open junior title, defeating players including Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Urszula Radwanska (Agnieska Radwanska’s sister) on the way to that triumph. Since then, inconsistency and injuries have stunted her progress, leaving her at a crossroads in her career.
“Yeah, it was very long journey,” said Kucova. “As winning US Open junior Grand Slam normally should give me a lot of confidence. In the end, I didn’t have after this success very big confidence. It was strange for me.
“After I try to break into women’s tennis, I was 103, my best ranking. Then start many injuries. I had to stop for half year. It was difficult to come back and always find the balance between working hard and resting and be healthy, stay on the tour. So now as I’m older, I try to take care of my body also, and I’m very happy that now is the time that I broke the 100.
Part of her success, according to the 26-year-old, is the fact that she changed her fitness coach at the beginning of the year, and she attributes coming back from a set down in each of the first three main draw victories this week to having more energy on the court for the third set and having the work she’s put in on the fitness side pay off.
All of that also comes with a financial payoff/windfall as well. Coming into this tournament, Kucova had made $81,018 of prize money on the entire year. With a run to the semifinals in this Masters 1000 series event in Montréal, she has made $121,150 alone.
Even with all of the hard work and perseverance finally paying off, count Kucova as being at the front of the line as the most surprised of all for the dream week she currently is having.
“Yes, a lot,” said Kucova when asked if she has surprised herself this week. “I surprise everybody around home. I had very tough weeks before. I was trying also qualifying on Roland Garros and Wimbledon. It didn’t go well. After I had some losses on the WTA first round, so on.
“I surprise myself very much.”
Those surprises haven’t gone unnoticed by her peers on the tour, as tennis legend Martina Hingis joined Kucova’s friend and part-time coach Genevieve Demers in the coaches’ box on Friday night. Hingis and Kucova had crossed paths before on the tour, but Friday was the first time they officially struck a friendship.
“Yeah, she speaks Slovak language, same as me. That’s what brings more, like, easier to get friendship. She’s very nice. I think she lost today with her doubles. She said, ‘Oh, I’m going to support you tonight.’ They going to stay and they will be there tomorrow also.”
And like the days before, her parents will be there with her as well, up at two in the morning in Slovakia to do so. Unfortunately, Kucova didn’t get to celebrate with them after her win on Friday night because something else went to sleep.
“I didn’t talk to them because my phone after match, battery died.”
[Cover photo (Kucova) courtesy of Minas Pangiotakis/Getty Images North America]