On the heels of a breakout 2011 season in which Petra Kvitova won Wimbledon, led the Czech Republic to the Fed Cup title and cracked the top five in the world rankings, many suggested she might be the next rising star of women's tennis.
Kvitova, 22, hasn't solidified her grip on that title just yet, but the powerful lefty certainly hasn't succumbed to the pressure either.
She's the only player to reach the quarterfinals or better in the first three grand slams of the year. She recently won the Rogers Cup in Montreal and reached the semifinals in Cincinnati. And she clinched the U.S. Open Series title Thursday night with a victory over countrywoman Lucie Safarova in the quarterfinals of the New Haven Open.
Kvitova will begin the U.S. Open on Monday as the No. 5 seed and a legitimate threat to hoist the trophy if her formidable serve and potent forehand remain consistent. She spent a few minutes chatting with me earlier this week about a variety of subjects including her goals for the U.S. Open, how winning Wimbledon changed her life and what it's like dating a younger man.
JE: You won in Montreal. You made the semifinals in Cincinnati. You're playing well in New Haven this week. Are you pleased with how you're playing during hard-court season so far?
PK: I'm very happy with how I'm playing. I hope that it gives me confidence for the U.S. Open. I will try to keep playing well and to improve on what I did last year.
JE: Last year was a breakout year for you, but you struggled during the hard-court season. Do you feel a lot better about your game heading into the U.S. Open this year than you did a year ago?
PK: For sure, I'm playing much better than last year. I have a tough time with my asthma in the U.S. during the summer. I can't breathe very well. But this year, I think it's much better. It's not very humid. I've played night matches, and that has helped me a lot. I have a good inhaler. I don't think it's going to be a problem. And for me, it's always tough to go from grass to hard court, but I'm very pleased with how I'm playing right now.
JE: So many players on the women's side have risen into the top five recently, maybe won a slam and then sank off the radar within a couple years. What makes you confident you can have sustained success?
PK: I think my stamina has improved. I'm on a better level than before. Now some of the close matches that I was losing before, I'm winning at the end. That makes a big difference.
JE: How did you get started in tennis?
PK: My two oldest brothers played and my father also. My father wanted us to have a sport, and for girls, we had only tennis and volleyball. I played both and I had to choose between them. I chose tennis. My father coached me until I was 16.
JE: I've read that tennis was really a hobby for you growing up and you didn't really get serious about it until you were 16 or 17. Is that true? And do you think that made your breakout season last year all the more surprising to a lot of people?
PK: Yes, I do. My father and mother didn't think I could be a professional tennis player at that time, so I played really for fun. I'd play an hour, hour and a half after school every day. It was easy for me and I didn't have any pressure. I didn't travel a lot. I played only in the Czech Republic because my parents didn't have the money to send me other places.
JE: Martina Navratilova was one of your tennis idols growing up. Have you had a chance to meet her? And if so, what was that like?
PK: I have had a chance to meet her and it was a lot of fun for me. We aren't in touch very often, but sometimes we see each other at the Grand Slams.
JE: Your English is very good for someone who didn't grow up speaking the language. I understand one of the ways you've been working on it is by reading children's books. How has that helped you?
PK: My friends have given me some easy books and I'm trying to read them, but sometimes it's pretty hard. I have the basic English. Books have helped me. If I don't know a word, I usually look it up in the dictionary.
JE: What are the biggest ways your life has changed since winning Wimbledon last year?
PK: I think it has changed my life a lot. I'm more famous in the Czech Republic and around the world. People recognize me on the street or when I'm sitting in a restaurant I have to do more media. That's a big difference. And on the court, I'm a different player now. I have more pressure now. I have to try to keep my ranking up because I have something to lose.
JE: You represented the Czech Republic in the Olympics earlier this month. Any favorite Olympic memories? Or did you have a favorite event that you saw?
PK: The Olympics was great, but I didn't get to see a lot of the other events because we were staying at the Wimbledon Village instead of at the Olympic Village. But I love to play for my country, so I was really proud to be there, to play for my country and to be part of the Czech team. It was a good experience for me for sure.
JE: So no run-ins with Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt?
PK: Unfortunately, no.
JE: Your relationship with Adam Pavlasek caused a stir because he's four years younger than you. Were you surprised by the attention that received when it became public last year? And was that difficult at first?
PK: Yeah, it was tough. In the beginning it wasn't easy for both of us. I know that was a big surprise for the media, but I didn't feel like that. He's the guy meant for me. I was really surprised the media found out about that. Now it's fine, but in the beginning it wasn't easy.
JE: If your friends are anything like mine, they probably give you a hard time for dating someone younger than you. What's the best joke you've heard about that?
PK: I've heard an awful lot of jokes. We've been together almost three years, so I've heard a lot, but I don't remember any specific ones.
JE: One last question, you've made at least the quarterfinals of every grand slam so far this year. Do you have a goal in mind for the U.S. Open?
PK: I'm not thinking like that. I want to focus on every match I play from the first round on. I don't have any bigger goal than that.