Leaving it all on the court: Andrea Sestini Hlaváčková on her tennis career
Czechia has produced some fantastic female tennis players, one of them being Andrea Sestini Hlaváčková. Over the course of her career, she has garnered Grand Slam titles, and a silver medal at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, bringing Czechia to the centre stage of international women’s tennis. Andrea recently visited Radio Prague’s studio to talk about her career, life after tennis, and her sports show on Czech Radio.
“I work here in Radiojurnal Sport and I have a weekly show on Mondays. I have sports guests, anyone from the sports industry where they come and talk to me, and I love it. It’s a different part of my life and career which I love to keep pursuing.”
It’s interesting because when you were at the height of your professional career you were always in front of the microphone, but now you're behind it being the journalist, so what’s it like to change those roles?
“Very different, especially because you have to prepare, and I tend to do these things last minute. The night before I’m usually sitting reading up on all the materials and researching. It’s always a bit of an adrenaline rush because I usually don’t know my guests personally. So I don’t know if they will be talkative or just answer questions with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ because that’s a disaster in radio. So as long as you feel that the guest is comfortable and talking, you’re like ‘okay, this is going to be good’.”
Let’s switch gears and talk about your career. Tell me about what it was like to start out playing tennis when you were a little girl, what was it like in Czechia?
“I was born in 1986 so I started playing tennis as soon as I could, because my older sister was playing tennis, so I was always running around and picking up her balls. The tennis club was my playground, I never felt like I was really going into tennis, tennis was just a part of my everyday life. Slowly I started growing into this sport, and when I was nine or ten I started to play matches, and I was encouraged because I was winning those matches and it was fun. Hats off to my parents because they gave every weekend, every vacation, all their free-time to my tennis, and in the end every penny, so I was able to become a successful junior. From junior I went to professional, and it was a long step becoming a professional because I was a stronger junior, so it took me several years, so little by little my career boomed when I was around 25.”
Going back to playing with your sister when you were younger, you two ended up playing professionally together, what was that like?
“She was about to decide to go back to her studies and stop playing tennis, because she couldn’t quite make it. She was close, but then the last season she played was because of me, I was already entering women’s tennis, and she was leaving, so we merged the last season and played doubles together. She showed me what to do on tour, guided me through some situations, how to travel and handle budgets, and how to handle relationships in the tennis world. When you travel on the big tours, it’s a different story than what you see on TV. When you are trying to make it and traveling mostly on your own, there are a lot of women around you, and you have to get along, because it’s all you have, but at the same time you’re not always going to get along with everyone. So it’s a good learning experience and it prepares you for life.”
Thinking about that kind of pressure you were facing, because when we see it in the media it might look glamorous to be an athlete doing all these press conferences, but what was it like going through that at the time?
“It’s interesting, lately I’ve seen a lot of documentaries on Netflix about the tennis scene, and these show you a lot more about the pressure and negativity behind the scenes. Yes, it’s amazing to make it and break through and make the top level, but with your ranking comes the pressure, and the better you are, the more pressure there is. I always thought ‘if I would be top ten in doubles, I would be happy’, but then you’re top ten and you want to be top five, and then you’re top five and you want to be number one. You’re constantly going somewhere, and it’s interesting, because I look back on it with a big smile because it gave me everything I have at the moment, but the years of tennis are not full of glamour, because you’re usually losing, only sometimes you win. I only had a streak where four, five tournaments I won, and I couldn’t believe it. So it’s a lot of ups and downs, and it’s not as easy as it looks.”
Was there ever a moment where you thought the pressure was too much, where you almost backed out?
“The pressure really only came from me, it was never outsiders who were breaking me. But there were times when I didn’t want to do it anymore, where I thought I wasn’t good enough or right for this. But that’s exactly when my parents, my sister, and my husband come in and support me, and push me, and also coaches. They have different perceptions of these situations, where they tell you ‘no you don’t suck’, you’re great, just keep working. That is what’s good about tennis, there is a chance every week, you can win as much as you can lose. When one tournament ends, you’re already going to another one with new hope.”
Speaking of your husband, you two met through tennis, so tell me about that.
“Yea, we knew each other from the tours, just by seeing each other and not even knowing names. One year in Australia at the Open, I saw him at the players’ party, and I was thinking that this guy is probably taken, and we could just have a casual chat, but when I went over to him he told me that he was actually there to meet me. We had a nice talk, and the next day we went on a movie date, and the day after surfing. And here we are 13 years later, now with a three-year-old daughter. It helped a lot that we were both from the industry, he was travelling for work and I was too for tennis, and we were merging calendars and seeing each other as much as possible, so I was very lucky.”
You’ve had some great career highlights, Grand Slams in women’s doubles, but I’m also curious about the Olympic match where you won silver against Venus and Serena Williams, what was that like?
“It was interesting because the two seasons around the games in London, 2011, 2012, and 2013, they were dominating and they were playing a lot of doubles together and collecting Grand Slam titles, and it was really the peak of their career. Serena won gold at the London games in singles tennis. We played them two weeks before at the Wimbledon finals, and we lost to them, and then two weeks later we were in the Olympic finals against them. So honestly, it was not such an incredible deal because we didn’t feel at all confident that we could win, we thought they were too good. The match against the Williams was a gift, you play against the best in the sport, and you know, there’s no pressure. It was a lot of fun, and we had a full box where our coaches and families sat. We just enjoyed the moment, it was so special.”
You have played with your sister before, so I'm sure you understand the feeling the Williams must have playing as sisters too. Do you see any similarities between you two pairs?
“Just how nervous you get for your sister, you can wish the best for any other player, but unless it’s your sister, your own blood, you are not that nervous. You might have seen in it in the past, Serena playing a match and Venus sitting in her player box. You’re thinking for her it’s just another boring match, but for her, I’m pretty sure she feels through every motion her sister is going through. In doubles, it’s something special. In 2012 in doubles with Lucie Hradecká, we weren’t sisters, but we felt so strongly about our team that we would also put our lives on the court for each other.”
What is the relationship like with you and Lucie Hradecká? I can imagine when you’re playing doubles there’s a lot of trust and motivation you must have to give each other.
“We’ve had our ups and downs, we played six years together side by side, and it didn’t end incredibly, but now we are friends, and I’m happy about that. We are friends, we are in touch, and last year I got to finish my career with her next to me. On the court, we had great chemistry, we knew what the other was feeling, doing, and how to help her, and it was very special.”
I want to talk about how you returned to the court this past summer. What was it like coming back after a break?
“I didn’t touch a racket for four years, and it was a bit unexpected. I never thought I would go back to play, not even for one tournament. Slowly, my daughter was three, and I was also lucky because the Covid break of the season extended my protected ranking. When you are a tennis player and you give birth or get injured, they freeze your ranking for up to two years. But because of Covid, my break extended to two and a half years. I had this special ranking and it was about to expire in the summer, and I thought ‘am I going to just cross myself from the ranking’? I couldn’t decide. I actually came to have an interview with Lucie Výborná, and she’s my role model in hosting and moderating. I asked her if she thought my career deserved a farewell, and she said ‘definitely’, it should be something special. That’s when I said okay, I want to say goodbye with a racket in my hand, and I texted Lucie Hradecká and asked if she would play with me. She surprised me and said ‘we’re not going one last time, we’re going for a few matches’. And I didn’t think I was going to be good enough, but we won one match, and that was super special. But I have to say it’s really hard to go back to a tour if you’re out, the girls are very strong, fit, competitive, it’s a tough sport to go back to if you’ve had this break.”
It must have been a bit bittersweet knowing it was your farewell game. How did it feel to look up at the crowd and say goodbye?
“I was quite emotional that week, because I am a very emotional person. But, I was so relieved. I had pain in my whole body after the one match we played. I had my daughter on the court. I don’t have a full-time nanny or anything and my husband works, and everybody around me is trying to help, but you know, as a mother it’s always you who makes the plans and packs the bags. So I was very busy that week, and I could not imagine going back on tour with a kid. I was happy it was over, that I could just go back, relax and be a mom and just do the things I normally do now.”
Are you hopeful that your daughter will be interested in picking up a tennis racket someday?
“I hope so! Right now she is refusing to even pick up a toothbrush, so I hope that one day it will come. This summer I want to introduce her through camps with friends, but at the moment she isn’t showing interest. She’s also seen me on the show Dancing with the Stars here in Czechia, and she loved that, she’s really into dancing. She was watching me, and I think whatever she sees me do, she will like to do it too. So I have to think really hard and be a role model.”
How has tennis moulded the rest of your life?
“Being a mom now is a whole new situation and experience. This by itself is building me and teaching me new things. Tennis has built me and given me everything. How I react to good and bad, handle losses, handle wins. I’ve learned how to read people, it teaches you to travel, how to manage yourself. You’re really a company when you’re a tennis player. Tennis is really a complete sport, and I was very lucky that I did have to do everything on my own, because it taught me a lot, and I’m happy about that. I know how to do a lot thanks to tennis, mainly handling pressure and situations, and I love that I went through it.”
Is there anything that you’re enjoying now that you aren’t a professional player and not needing to train as intensely or be as strict?
“I was always lucky because I could always eat anything I wanted, that’s not really a change. Maybe I need to eat healthier now, but what I really enjoy, back to the serious part of the question, is losing all the pressure. When you’re playing there’s always pressure; how was the practice, heading to go and train, what has improved, are you injured? You’re constantly under pressure. When I got pregnant and stopped playing, the first few weeks I kept waking up in a panic thinking ‘oh no, I have to get to practice!’ But then I realized, no, I don’t have to run to the tennis club and play, and go to the gym and recover. It’s a new chapter and I’m enjoying it a lot. I can decide what I want to do, it’s my choice, so I’m doing stuff that I like.”
When it comes to the state of the sport here in Czechia, how do you think it’s going in terms of the training resources, could it benefit from anything?
“Women's tennis is probably the most successful sport in Czechia. I don’t know how we’re doing it, but it’s going incredibly well. We always have number ones, all over the world, we have a strong tennis base for women. I honestly think the results of other tennis players are just motivation for other girls, and that’s just how it works. We have a generation of hockey players and football players, who have been motivated by the past champions and legends. And now this is happening in women’s tennis, so I don’t know what we’re doing, but we’re doing a good job.”
Finally, if you could give a piece of advice for any little girl who is just picking up a tennis racket for the first time, what would it be?
“If she’s just picking up the tennis racket, enjoy it, and play it for the fun of the game. Especially to her parents, don’t compare yourselves until later. If she was 16 or 18, stick to it no matter the cost, keep on grinding, it doesn’t matter that you aren't in the top 200 right away. Keep going and you might get a break, that’s what happened to me. I was in the top 200 until I was 25, and then I won the Olympic medal, Grand Slam titles, and was able to make a living out of tennis eight years after.”