Nadia Petrova played her first Grand Slam in 1999 and despite not having much formal tennis training as a junior and having to learn on the job, she still managed to secure the world No. 3 ranking, 11 singles titles, 20 doubles titles and reached the semifinals of Roland Garros twice. The intelligent and outspoken Russian, who is the fourth seed at this week’s Mercury Insurance Open in Carlsbad California, also made the Russian Olympic team along with Maria Sharapova, Vera Zvonareva and Maria Kirilenko, whom she will play doubles with. She sat down with Matt Cronin at La Costa Resort & Spa.
CRONIN: You just turned 30. Do you feel 30?
PETROVA: No. I still feel in my early 20s. Physically I feel like I’m in very good shape. If you look at me, I don't have any tape or wraps on. I have a little pains and niggles so I go to the physio every day to make sure I don't get hurt, but one thing that drives me crazy is when I’m introduced as a veteran.
CRONIN: You are a veteran.
PETROVA: Lisa Raymond is veteran. Francesca Schiavone and Li Na won Grand Slams almost at 30.
CRONIN: But they were veterans. So to you veteran means ‘old’ rather than just being experienced.
PETROVA: Yes it just sounds old.
CRONIN: You have been on tour a long time.
PETROVA: 14 years.
CRONIN: Then that's really being a veteran.
PETROVA: I’m not going to keep talking to you if you continue that way (Laughs).
CRONIN: Well you still look 20. Do you remember how you approached the game when you first started?
PETROVA: I was so nervous when I was young. I remember my first tournaments; I could not even sleep before matches. Now it’s at a different level. Win, lose, I wasn't sure. Being out there, performing, making sure I played the right game, that I looked good. Now I’m more relaxed about it. I started to get relaxed nine years ago when I reached my first Grand Slam semifinals [in 2003 at Roland Garros where she lost to Kim Clijsters].
CRONIN: Could you retire happy today, or do you still have unfulfilled goals?
PETROVA: I’ve had a great career. I’ve been in top 10, I’ve had consistent results at the Slams, I’ve won singles and doubles titles. I’ve won Fed Cup. I even won the Hopman Cup. I would love to win a Slam in singles or doubles, but overall I’ve had a very consistent career.
CRONIN: But have you enjoyed most of your career?
PETROVA: Winning feels great.
CRONIN: What about losing?
PETROVA: Now it doesn't matter. You just deal with it. No problem. Sometimes I’m excited. I get the chance to go home, relax for a couple of days, hang out, get to see my dog, eat the food I like, hang out with a friend. There’s always another tournament.
CRONIN: I’m sure you feel that way? At every tournament I've covered I’ve seen a woman player crying.
PETROVA: I don’t cry much. I’ve maybe cried a few times in my life. I’m hard on myself and there are some losses I couldn’t get out of my head for a couple of days, like the 2010 US Open doubles finals with Liezel Huber when we had a matchpoint (in a third set tiebreaker loss to Vania King/Yaroslava Shvedova), also the finals of doubles at the French Open this year with Maria (a three-set loss to Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci), and a couple of finals in singles that I was close to winning and maybe serving for the match.
CRONIN: Do you remember dramatic losses more than your great wins?
PETROVA: I remember when I beat Jennifer Capriati in the fourth round of French Open in 2003, an unbelievable match and everybody was talking about that one. Then when I beat Justine Henin 6-3, 6-2 on center court at the 2004 US Open, and when I beat Kim Clijsters 6-0, 6-1 at 2010 Australian Open in about 40 minutes, that was one of the best matches that I ever played. That's when everything works and you try to reproduce those kinds of matches and it just doesn’t happen. Maybe once a year you get those kinds of matches where you don't even think and the ball just comes off your racket and goes in the right place and you make the right decisions.
CRONIN: You made the Russian Olympic team, so you must be very happy. I remember talking to you in 2008 after you had just missed the Olympic cut and you were a little down.
PETROVA: I’m excited. I missed Beijing, but not by much, but that year we had four players in the top 10 and it was almost impossible. I remember playing a tournament in Cincinnati and watching it on TV. Of course I wished I was there and not here and I was a little frustrated because I had to play a small tournament and they were there [on the medal stand].
CRONIN: That’s when Russia swept and won the gold, silver and bronze medals with Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina and Vera Zvonareva. Were you actually happy for them?
PETROVA: Of course I was happy for them. But I don’t think it will ever happen again in the history of tennis because we don’t have so many big names from the same country again like [Americans Lindsay] Davenport, [Jennifer] Capriati, [Monica] Seles, and the Williams sisters. No one has a really strong third player.
CRONIN: And Russia isn’t as strong as it was back then either.
PETROVA: That’s exactly the thing. The Czechs are doing well but they don't have a really big group. It’s just one or two players per country now.
CRONIN: Russia has an incredibly successful Olympic history in many sports. Is there more pressure because you are expected to win?
PETROVA: Definitely the Russian mentality is if you are going to the Olympics you have got to be winning medals and failure is not acceptable. In Fed Cup we have the same mentality. Russians are a bit hard on themselves and we have high expectations. We want to achieve a lot of goals in our careers.
CRONIN: So just going out there and giving it your all is not good enough?
PETROVA: I would love to win a medal in singles and even if I don’t I think I have a good chance with Kirilenko in the doubles. I won’t be disappointed if I leave the Olympics without a medal as long as I give my best effort. For me life goes on. Tennis is just part of my life. It’s a game that gives me great feelings and can also be frustrating and disappointing. But when tennis is over you will probably look back at it and just laugh. Silly me.
CRONIN: What if none of the Russian players win a medal? Would you care if fans were upset with you if that happens?
PETROVA: I’m sure something will be said in the press, for them it’s hard to understand how you went and didn’t win a medal, but they don’t understand the whole picture. It’s easy to just be spectator and analyze things from the outside.
CRONIN: Compared to when you first came on tour - do you find the new girls friendlier?
PETROVA: It was friendlier back then. Maybe now everybody is in their zones, they have their teams, and they don't socialize as much.
CRONIN: It must be hard for the younger ones because they have such big teams around them that don't encourage them to socialize that much. But some of the younger players seem to be pretty social. Caroline Wozniacki is.
PETROVA: She has always been that way. The rest -- I don't want to name names. I think it's a little bit of a rivalry when the younger generation comes in and the older generation doesn’t want to welcome them, so they put up a barrier where you should earn the respect before you are let into the circle.
CRONIN: Were you treated that way when you came up?
PETROVA: I had a great relationship with the older players like Conchita Martinez, Arantxa Sanchez, Dominique Van Roost and Iva Majoli – everyone was so much friendlier.
CRONIN: Had Steffi Graf retired before you got to know her?
PETROVA: I got to hit with her in her last Wimbledon . That was special. She was my idol. She said, ‘Would you like to hit?’ I said ‘Yes!’”