Dr. Andrew Broad
Nicole Vaidišová

Quick links: Early Years | 2003 | 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008

N.B. I use the name Czechia to refer to the country that most English-speaking people call "the Czech Republic". Since this is a tennis-biography rather than a formal official document, I don't see why it should be any different from other republics such as Slovakia, Serbia or Croatia.

Nicole Vaidišová is a teenage tennis-sensation (if you're reading this before 23rd April 2009), and one of the most powerful and exciting players ever - she goes for her shots fearlessly, and is an absolute joy to watch. Six feet tall and physically one of the strongest players on the WTA Tour, she has quite possibly the best serve in the history of women's tennis, and her forehand is right up there too as one of the biggest weapons ever seen on the Tour. She is Maria Sharapova with a better forehand and more variety, albeit without Maria's superior footwork and mental strength.

Nicole: "I like the energy of it, the movements. I'm pretty hyper, so I love that, and the nerves are always jangling, so I like that. I want to take it match by match, but I want to be the best: be number one in the world, and win many Grand Slams." [Trans World Sport documentary, 2005]

Nicole has brilliant timing, a great understanding of angles, and her long limbs give her extraordinary reach. She hits her groundstrokes very hard and deep, but with topspin to make them dip in, giving her more margin for error than those who hit very flat, as well as jerking her opponent around and inducing mishits. Nicole may be physically strong, but in my opinion, she's definitely on the flairsome side of the power-spectrum. Her groundstrokes are certainly sharper and flatter than some of her muscular contemporaries, who hit with more topspin.

Nicole takes big swings on her groundstrokes, which can be a problem against opponents who rush her either by taking the ball early or by hitting deep groundstrokes on a fast court. But she is very powerful and accurate when she's in her comfort-zone.

Nicole does tend to run around her backhand to hit her forehand too often for my liking. This leaves a huge gap to her right, which she can get away with on a slow surface such as clay, but may be another reason why she is more vulnerable on a fast surface such as grass.

When I first saw Nicole play (at Birmingham 2005), it was her serve and forehand that amazed me straight away, but like all members of my Eternal Fanship, she also has a good two-handed backhand: she whips her racket-head through very quickly, and gets her whole body into the shot, with a 180° rotation of her shoulders from take-back to follow-through. She always hits her backhand with an open stance; it can break down on a fast surface when her opponent is hitting deep.
            Nicole: "I've always thought my backhand is better than my forehand. <smiling> So I don't know. I hit a few more winners from my forehand, and a lot of mistakes through my forehand. It gets even." [Interview from the Hansol Korea Open website, 2006].

When I say that Nicole's serve may be the best I've ever seen in women's tennis, I'm not just talking about speed, but the regularity with which she hits the lines and corners! Unfortunately her serve can be affected by a right-shoulder injury that forces her to use an abbreviated backswing, as I observed when I saw her play at Moscow 2006. I sincerely hope that this will not be a long-term problem for Nicole.

Nicole is a mistress of the one-two punch: her big serve often sets up a groundstroke-winner on the third stroke of the rally. And her returns of the opponent's second serve are deadly. That said, she was missing a lot of returns in her slump-year 2008.

When not touring, Nicole splits her time between her home in Prague and the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy at Bradenton, Florida.
            Nicole: "It was hard at the start because I've never been here, and it's a huge difference between Czechia and America, but I get used to it, and I like it here, I really do, and I don't think I'm a half-American - I'll always be Czech, no matter how long I stay here, but I like it. I think I have great conditions for practice, everybody's trying to help me, so it's good." [Trans World Sport documentary, 2005]
            "Everywhere I go, I have a Czech mind. It's not like when I go to Asia I try to change to my Asia mind, then use my Australia mind. I'm definitely influenced by America, but still keeping my one Czech mind." [Australian Open 2007 quarter-final press-conference]

In 2004, Nick Bollettieri himself described the 15-year-old Nicole as follows: "Nicole's strength is going to be: 'Hey, I'm gonna control the court and I'm gonna beat you up.' Now in order to do that, you have to have a little variety in your game. Even the biggest hitters of the world have to throw a little variety in once in a while. She wants to work on her slice, wants to be able to hit some heavy balls as well - but predominantly speaking, she's out to get you." [Trans World Sport documentary, 2005]

Nicole is a very versatile player - able to play at the baseline or the net. She does have great variety: I've seen her hit dropshots, sliced backhands and come to the net quite often, where her forehand drive-volleys are particularly impressive; she can also hit old fashioned punch-volleys and drop-volleys.
            Nicole has a brilliant ability to improvise: for example, the sliced-forehand pass-winner that she hit at 5-5 (15/15) against Svetlana Kuznetsova in the third round of Wimbledon 2005. Nicole has Federer-like passing-shots when stretched low and wide: she can flick a short-angled crosscourt forehand pass-winner.
            But the quality of the dropshots, and especially the sliced backhands, could be greatly improved in my opinion - even though they do succeed in making life awkward for her opponents.

Nicole: "A lot of tennis is about fitness. A match goes to the third set: sometimes it's hot. I don't think I have ever cramped in my life. I've never really felt tired in a third set. Some players, when the match goes to three sets, you can feel they're going away. They can't breathe any more. They're trying to make the points as short as possible." [Indian Wells 2007]

Nicole loves to go for her shots, but now that she's more mature, she is willing to grind out the rallies when she has to. As she said at the French Open 2007: "On clay, I'm trying to wait for a little bit, put the ball in play more, and not hit it as much to make mistakes."

Nicole may sometimes be a slow starter in matches, but she learns during matches (which is another Sharapova-like quality). She's a tremendous fighter with inner belief and inner fire, she has great maturity, she's not intimidated by top players, and she has a champion's response to big points against her. She can come from a set down to win big matches, as she did at the French Open 2006.

But she's not as strong mentally as Maria Sharapova, especially when it comes to being a frontrunner and trying to close out matches. She has a tendency to overanalyse her mistakes and choke on her leads, as we saw when she served for a place in the French Open 2006 final at 7-5 5-4 against Svetlana Kuznetsova, and again in her Wimbledon 2007 quarter-final when she squandered a 5-3* third-set lead with three match-points against Ana Ivanovic. She spends too much time looking up at her entourage in desperation.

Nicole plays her best tennis without pressure of expectation. It may be just a bizarre coincidence, but at the end of 2007, she had been the top seed at three WTA tournaments in her career - and lost her opening match at all three (but she bucked this trend at Gold Coast 2008). I can only 'expect' that she will learn to handle the pressure as she gains in experience.

Nicole also has a bit of a temper: she has been known to destroy her racket as recently as 2008, and at the US Open 2005, she threw a bottle of Gatorade across the court! And she has been known to be in tears on the court occasionally. But she does have the ability to keep a cool head during points, even when she's working herself up into a lava between them!

Nicole: "Sometimes I used to go crazy. When I was a little kid - about 10 or 11 - I used to cry my eyes out, slam rackets all over the court and go psycho. But as you get older, you definitely improve." [Ace tennis-magazine, March 2007]
            "I am very emotional. Sometimes it's to my advantage. A lot of times to my disadvantage. I can't be something I'm usually not, so I just have to try to more put the emotions in a positive way. I mean, I'm always gonna be an emotional player. That's nothing that's gonna change ever. It's just the way I am." [Australian Open 2008]

Nicole is a very hot-and-cold player - a confidence-player - both within a match and from week to week. Sometimes she gets on a roll and looks like she should be ranked #1, but there are times when she's just plain awful. ;-) Hopefully she will become more consistent with experience, although that hasn't been the case with everyone I've inducted into my Eternal Fanship.

Nicole's major technical weakness is her movement: more specifically, her footwork. While her long-legged strides are great for covering the longer distances, she doesn't have all the little steps around the ball yet, and sometimes she hits the ball too late or too early because she hasn't moved forward or backward to the right place. She doesn't move diagonally to cut off short-angled balls. Even short balls down the middle - which she should be hitting easy winners off - can be a problem for her, especially during one of her slow starts. She's improving (I wrote this paragraph in 2006), but this is the area of her game most in need of development if she is to become the Major champion she deserves to be. When she beat Amélie Mauresmo at Wimbledon 2007, she achieved much better footwork by exaggerating it at the start of the match. But at Wimbledon 2008, her footwork had regressed to approximately what it was at Wimbledon 2005.

Hard courts are Nicole's best surface, I think because she moves better on them than on grass or clay, and hardcourts don't exaggerate the spins from her opponents - Nicole prefers a straight hitting-match to being jerked around the court and having to deal with a lot of awkward balls. The US Open is her favourite Major - although ironically her least successful as it's the one Major where she has yet to get past the fourth round as of 2008.
            Grass is Nicole's worst surface because she doesn't have enough experience on it yet (although reaching the quarter-finals of Wimbledon 2007 and 2008 may have gone some way to rectifying this). You have to get used to the awkward low bounces, and the inconsistency of the bounces. And the short-angled balls, which Nicole struggles to move for, are more difficult to handle on grass than on any other surface.
            But Nicole definitely has the weapons to succeed on grass, where her willingness to go to the net should be another big plus. And ironically, the only good results of her post-February 2008 slump came on grass - presumably because it doesn't punish lack of patience like clay- or hard courts.

As of the end of 2008, Nicole has won six WTA singles-titles, which is a phenomenal number for a 17-year-old, as she was when she won her sixth! When she won her first two - Vancouver 2004 and Tashkent 2004 - she was only 15! And she won her next three during an 18-match winning-streak towards the end of 2005! But she finished 2008 still not having won a title since Strasbourg 2006, and she's still looking for her first Premier (Tier I/II) title or even final.
            Her highest ranking has been #7 - held for two weeks in May 2007 (in August 2006, she became the 12th-youngest player ever to reach the top ten).

But Nicole's biggest achievement (up to the end of 2008) has been reaching the semi-finals of the French Open 2006, by stunning world #1 Amélie Mauresmo and five-time (now seven-time) Major champion Venus Williams back to back with spectacular performances that earned her a place in my Eternal Fanship! She also reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open 2007 - again as a 17-year-old, albeit with a somewhat easier draw. She beat Mauresmo again at Moscow 2006 and Wimbledon 2007, and her list of victims also includes two Serbs who have been #1 in their careers: Ana Ivanovic (Sydney 2007) and Jelena Jankovic (whom she leads 6:3 at the end of 2008).

Nicole hasn't had much success in doubles, but it can still play a useful role in her career. As Louise Pleming said at Wimbledon 2007: "Nicole always plays doubles with a friend. It's all about relaxing and practising her serve."

Nicole may be one of the strongest female players physically, but she's also one of the most attractive! I see her as more voluptuous than muscular; I can't imagine a sexier pair of legs, or a more beautiful pair of hands. She has lovely on-court gestures. But what really melts my butter is her off-court demeanour: warm, relaxed and charming. And no one looks more ravishing when holding a trophy than Nicole!

Nicole makes lovely noises on the court, as her groundstrokes are often accompanied by a delightfully girly two-tone grunt - which can get very loud, and the second tone can even turn into a high-pitched yelp! The two-tone grunt is reminiscent of Monica Seles, as is the way she taps the court with her racket while waiting to receive serve.

Nicole goes to great lengths to prevent injuries, sometimes pulling out of tournaments at the first warning-pains! She does Yoga, which should make her very aware of how to prevent injuries and get stronger. Provided that she stays healthy, the sky's the limit to what Nicole can achieve. Multiple Major titles, world number-one - that's her potential!

But she may not have many years left to do it in. At Indian Wells 2007, the 17-year-old said: "I think health is definitely the number-one priority, because I still want to play five, six years."

Early Years

Nicole was born in Nuremberg, Germany, on 23rd April 1989 (a birthday she shares with Daniela Hantuchová). Her mother's name is Riana, and her father's name is Josef Vaidiš. But the man she refers to as "my dad" is her stepfather Aleš Kodat, who was also her coach - and "a perfect coach" in Nicole's opinion [www.juniortennis.com] - until April 2008.
            Nicole has two brothers: Oliver Vaidiš (who is three years younger and plays junior-golf) and Toby (approximately ten years younger). Former #26-ranked ATP Tour player Daniel Vacek, whom 14-time Major champion Pete Sampras once described as "extremely dangerous", is Nicole's uncle (Riana's brother).

Nicole: "And when I get off the court, you know, we're a normal family, I'm a normal kid, and we handle things that all families do, you know. My mum makes a great home for me that when I get off the court, I'm a normal person like everybody else, and I don't get left out of things." [Trans World Sport documentary, 2005]

In 1995, Riana returned to her native Czechia, taking the six-year-old Nicole with her to live in Prague. There, Riana introduced Nicole to tennis; Nicole played her early tennis at the Sparta club, and it was in 2000 that she joined the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Florida - perhaps winning the 12-and-under Nisa Cup at Prague had something to do with it!

2003: Undefeated

In October, after an unremarkable junior-career thus far, 14-year-old Nicole made a lossless début on adult-courts by winning ITF Plzen, a $10k tournament in Czechia. After coming through qualifying (with a 4-6 6-1 6-3 win over Petra Novotníková and a 6-0 6-2 thrashing of Jitka Kleisnerová), she stormed through the main draw without dropping a set, beating Tereza Szafnerová 6-2 7-6, second seed Zsuzsanna Babos 6-2 6-1, receiving a walkover from the lovely Eva Hrdinová to reach the semis, where she thrashed sixth seed Pavlína Šlitrová 6-2 6-1, and finally sealing the title with a 7-6 6-4 win over Andrea Hlavácková.

In December, Nicole became the youngest player since Anna Kournikova to win the Orange Bowl at Key Biscayne - one of the most prestigious tournaments for 18-and-under juniors. Nicole beat Megan Falcon 6-3 6-3, beautiful Marina Erakovic 6-4 6-0, Alla Kudryavtseva 6-1 7-5, Iris Ichim 6-0 6-0, and Monica Niculescu 6-4 6-0 to reach the final, where she edged past Neha Uberoi 5-7 6-4 6-3. She finished the year at #8 in the ITF junior-rankings.

2004: Love-Fifteen

Still only 14, Nicole was runner-up in the Australian Open Girls' Singles. Seeded third, she beat Bojana Bobusic 6-2 6-1, Lindsay Burdette 6-2 6-0, Yan Chong Chen 6-2 6-1, seventh seed Ana Ivanovic 1-6 6-1 6-3, and top seed Jarmila Gajdošová 7-5 6-3 to reach the final. But no doubt she would have been frustrated by the relentless retrieving of 13th seed Shahar Pe'er, who beat her 6-1 6-4.
            Nicole was also runner-up in the Girls' Doubles with Czech mate Veronika Chvojková - they were the top seeds. They beat fourth seeds Gajdošová/Pe'er 6-2 6-4 in the semi-finals, but lost the final to second seeds Sun,Sheng-Nan and Chan,Yung-Jan 7-5 6-3.

Nicole was runner up at ITF Midland, beating Selesian player Cory Ann Avants 6-3 3-6 7-6 (8/6), Galina Voskoboeva 6-2 6-4, top seed Martina Suchá 6-0 6-2, and Gisela Dulko 6-4 6-2. She lost the final to Jill Craybas 6-2 6-4.

Nicole won ITF Columbus, beating Svetlana Krivencheva 6-1 6-1, Sandra Klösel 6-3 6-2, Petra Rampre 6-3 6-2, Maria Goloviznina 7-5 6-2, and Peng,Shuai 7-6 (7/2) 7-5. As this was her third tournament counting towards the WTA rankings, she attained an initial ranking of #264 on 1st March 2004.

Nicole made her WTA Tour début at Acapulco, and it was a winning one as Lubomíra Kurhajcová retired at 6-6 in the first set. Then she stunned second seed and world #48 Shinobu Asagoe 6-2 6-3 to reach the quarter-finals, where she lost to eventual champion Flavia Pennetta 6-4 6-3. Kurhajcová got revenge by beating Nicole 6-2 6-4 in the first round at Miami. Nicole broke into the top 200, and this was all before her 15th birthday on 23rd April!

In May, Nicole was runner-up at 26th Citta Di Santa Croce - a junior-tournament at Pisa - and Nicole was the leaning tower as she lost the final 7-5 6-2 to Sesil Karatantcheva. She then attempted to qualify for the French Open, beating Natalia Gussoni 3-6 7-5 6-1 and Xie,Yan-Ze 6-7 6-1 6-2, but falling in the final qualifying round to Teryn Ashley 7-6 6-3.

Nicole tried to qualify for her first Wimbledon, but lost in the first qualifying round 6-2 6-4 to cute crybaby Maret Ani. She said goodbye to junior-tennis by reaching the quarter-finals of the Girls' Singles - losing 7-6 7-5 to Vika Azarenka - and the semi-finals of the Girls' Doubles.

On 14th July, 15-year-old Nicole stunned newly-crowned Wimbledon-champion Maria Sharapova 5-3 in a World Team Tennis rubber! It wasn't literally the first time I ever saw the name "Nicole Vaidišová", but at that point I certainly noted her as a threat for the future! As I write this at the end of 2006, 19-year-old Maria has never lost a match that counts towards the WTA rankings to a player younger than herself! Since it'll have to happen sooner or later anyway, it would be so cool if Nicole could become the first younger player ever to beat Maria in a match that counts.

Nicole won her maiden WTA singles-title at Vancouver, and she won eight matches to do it! In qualifying, she beat Katarina Zoricic 6-3 4-1 retired, Kim,Jin-Hee 6-1 6-2, and cute Anousjka van Exel 6-3 6-3.
            In the main draw, Nicole beat Abigail Spears 6-4 6-4, fifth seed Marissa Irvin 7-5 4-6 6-4, second seed Milagros Sequera (world #74) 6-4 6-1, and third seed Alina Jidkova 7-5 3-6 6-4 to reach the final. There she beat fourth seed and world #82 Laura Granville 2-6 6-4 6-2. Nicole hit a backhand winner down the line on championship-point, and her reaction to winning was so cute, with a little yell as she raised her arms in triumph.
            At 15 years, 3 months and 23 days of age, Nicole became the sixth-youngest player ever to win a WTA singles-title and, at #180, the lowest-ranked player to do so in 2004. Her ranking rose to #126.

Nicole qualified for the US Open by beating Christina Wheeler 6-1 6-3, Galina Voskoboeva 6-1 6-0 and Nuria Llagostera Vives 6-4 7-5.
            But her first-ever main-draw match in a Major Women's Singles was a baptism of fire, as she faced top seed and defending champion Justine Henin-Hardenne! Henin was suffering from an energy-sapping virus that had restricted her to just two tournaments since April, but she had nevertheless just won a Gold Medal at the Athens Olympics. Nicole lost 6-1 6-4 after leading *4-1 in the second set, and Henin was ultimately beaten by Nadia Petrova in the fourth round. Nicole's ranking rose to #111.

Nicole beat Cho,Yoon Jeong 6-3 6-4 in the first round of the Tokyo Japan Open, and in the second round she upset second seed Tatiana Golovin - at #29 her highest-ranked victim yet - 6-4 3-6 6-4. At the time, I was gutted by the loss of the gorgeous Tatiana, as I was considering inducting her into my Eternal Fanship, and was looking forward to her playing another mouthwatering final with Maria Sharapova. Those were the days when Tatiana was a slim, blonde 16-year-old who wore microshorts, before I had ever seen Nicole play, and before I started finding Nicole attractive. It's ironic that in 2006, Nicole was the one I inducted into my Eternal Fanship while Tatiana remained outside it after failing to impress me sufficiently in tennis-terms, and that I now find Nicole more attractive than Tatiana!
            Nicole suffered an anticlimactic 6-3 6-0 loss to #50-ranked Klára Koukalová in the quarter-finals.

Still only 15, Nicole won her second WTA singles-title at Tashkent. She beat Cara Black 6-4 6-3, sixth seed Anna-Lena Grönefeld 6-2 6-3, Selesian fourth seed Arantxa Parra Santonja 5-7 6-4 6-0, second seed and world #47 Meghann Shaughnessy 6-1 5-7 7-6 (7/1) and, in the final, ninth seed Virginie Razzano 5-7 6-3 6-2. This elevated her ranking from #103 to #74, making her the youngest player in the top 100.

Nicole's 2004 ended with a 6-4 7-5 loss to world #27 Amy Frazier in the first round of Philadelphia, which made her ranking drop from a career-high #72 to a year-end #77.

2005: Diamond in the Rough

On 1st January 2005, I saw a documentary about Nicole on Trans World Sport which transformed my opinion of her. It was already obvious by then that Nicole was going to be a very great threat in women's tennis whether I wanted her to be or not, but what I didn't realise before then was that Nicole is charming and sexy - a player to look forward to in the future! That was the day when the thought that I might one day induct Nicole into my Eternal Fanship first occurred to me - and strangely enough, the very day that I inducted the one before her: Vera Zvonarëva!

Nicole started her season at Hobart, beating Tatiana Perebiynis 3-6 7-5 6-4 and upsetting seventh seed Dinara Safina 6-1 4-6 6-3 to reach the quarter-finals. There she lost 2-6 6-4 6-4 to fellow Czech Iveta Benešová - a result that I approved of at the time, simply because Iveta has a prettier face! ;-) Nicole's ranking rose from #75 to #70.

At the Australian Open, Nicole struggled past María Vento-Kabchi 6-7 6-4 6-2 in the first round, upset 31st seed Jelena Kostanic 6-0 7-5 in the second round, and lost to eventual finalist Lindsay Davenport 6-2 6-4 in the third round. Nicole jumped from #70 to #57 in the rankings.

Nicole reached the semi-finals of Memphis, beating Lindsay Lee-Waters 6-2 6-3, Kristina Brandi 6-2 6-2, Jamea Jackson 6-2 6-7 6-4, and losing 7-6 7-6 to Meghann Shaughnessy.

At Indian Wells, Nicole beat Mashona Washington 7-6 6-4, upset 11th seed Karolina Šprem 6-1 3-6 6-1, and lost 6-4 6-4 to Mary Pierce in the third round. My loyalty was to Karolina and Mary at the time - even after the New Year's Day documentary, it was taking me a while to embrace Nicole as a "nice player". Her ranking, which had slipped a bit to #63, rose to #53.

At Miami, Nicole beat Katarina Srebotnik 7-5 6-1 (another result I didn't like at the time) and 18th seed Jelena Jankovic 6-2 7-6 to reach the third round, where she lost to another young player of similar promise, Ana Ivanovic. Nicole burst into tears when Ana broke for 6-5 in the second set, and I found the photo of that really cute. Nicole also did a nice photo-shoot on the beach at Miami, so I think that tournament got my opinion of her going in the right direction again! ;-) And her ranking was certainly going in the right direction, as she broke into the top 50 at #47.
            It was at this tournament that Nicole achieved her first ever match-win in doubles, overturning a 0-4 career win/loss record as she and Ana Ivanovic beat Tathiana Garbin/Tina Krizan 6-3 7-6 (then lost 6-4 6-4 to Maria Kirilenko and María Emilia Salerni to start a 5-match losing-streak that she would snap in November).

On the green clay of Charleston, Nicole edged past Shahar Pe'er 4-6 7-6 (10/8) 6-2, then upset reigning French Open champion Anastasia Myskina 6-3 5-7 6-4 - easily the highest-ranked victim of Nicole's career so far at #6, although it should be admitted that Myskina was going through a pretty bad slump then. "She served pretty well, but that's all she's got," said Myskina - ever gracious in defeat.
            Nicole followed that up with a 3-6 6-4 7-6 (7/2) win over Shinobu Asagoe, and lost to world #13 Patty Schnyder 6-3 6-2 in the quarter-finals. By this time, I was regularly listing Nicole as a "nice player" in my round-ups at the jeldani Yahoo! Group. Her ranking shot up to #34.

Looking back from the end of 2006, I'm surprised at some of the players I preferred to Nicole at the time. When I thought about which players I might induct into my Eternal Fanship, my Passion said Tatiana Golovin and Maria Kirilenko (neither of whom have made it, as of the end of 2006), while my Reason suggested Ana Ivanovic and Nicole as possibilities based on their talent rather than their attractiveness - relative to Golovin and Kirilenko, although I now find Nicole more attractive than Tatiana anyway.

Nicole made her Fed Cup début in April as Czechia defeated Japan 3:2 in the first round of World Group II. Nicole celebrated her 16th birthday with a 6-3 6-1 win over Aiko Nakamura, but lost to 6-3 6-2 to Akiko Morigami.

Nicole was runner-up at Istanbul, beating Ivana Abramovic 6-2 6-3, fifth seed Anna-Lena Grönefeld 7-5 7-6, and third seed Anna Smashnova 4-6 6-1 6-0. In the final, she lost 6-3 6-2 to top seed Venus Williams. This pulled her ranking back up from #39 to #35.

At the French Open, Nicole won 4-6 6-0 6-4 over fellow Czech Lucie Šafárová - a lucky loser who would not get past the first round of a Major until the US Open 2006. I find Lucie really cute, so I felt neutral about Nicole's victory. In the second round, Nicole lost to 22nd seed Francesca Schiavone 6-2 7-6.
            Nicole enjoyed a successful start to her mixed-doubles career as she and Mark Knowles defeated Emmanuelle Gagliardi/Martín Rodríguez 6-4 6-3 (then lost 7-6 2-6 6-3 to Samantha Stosur/Paul Hanley).

It was at Birmingham that I first saw Nicole play. I didn't pay her the attention that I now know she deserves, as I had Fanship-duties to Maria Sharapova and Daniela Hantuchová, and I still thought that the next member of my Eternal Fanship would most likely turn out to be either Tatiana Golovin or Maria Kirilenko (both of whom were playing in the tournament, and both of whom failed to impress me in the way that they played).
            I caught the last two games of Nicole's 6-3 6-2 win over Stéphanie Cohen-Aloro. It was my first time to see her play, and I was immediately amazed by her serve and forehand! And she looked and sounded so sexy and relaxed as they interviewed her just metres away from me. But I was disappointed that she lost 6-4 6-2 to Eleni Daniilidou in the second round, thus missing out on a mouthwatering quarter-final against Maria Sharapova. I only watched it casually, on a court with a bad view as I ate my lunch, so I can't remember anything about the match (I didn't expect it to be Nicole's last of the tournament). I did observe Nicole and Daniela chatting and laughing like good friends after they practised together.
            Nicole's second-round finish was enough to push her into the top 30 for the first time at #30.

I didn't go to Eastbourne that year, so I missed out on a mouthwatering match between Nicole and Vera Zvonarëva. Nicole led 3-1 in the first set, but Vera adapted better to the windy conditions, and used her far greater grasscourt-experience to ease to a 6-3 6-2 victory. This was Nicole's only first-round loss of the year! And it dropped her to #33 in the rankings.

At Wimbledon, Nicole beat Jelena Kostanic 6-3 3-6 6-3 and fellow Czech Michaela Paštiková 7-5 6-3. Then she lost a tough third-round match to Svetlana Kuznetsova 7-5 6-7 (5/7) 6-2. It was my first time to see a Nicole-match on TV, and to sit down and watch one properly. It was an uplifting experience to watch this tall and sexy girl overpowering the muscular fifth seed at times, but Nicole's movement left much to be desired, and she was in trouble whenever she or Kuznetsova hit a dropshot. When my father asked me if I was going to induct Nicole into my Eternal Fanship, I replied, "It's a distinct possibility."
            Nicole broke back into the top 30 with a career-high ranking of #28.

In July's Fed Cup World Group play-offs, Italy beat Czechia 3:2 to win promotion to World Group I for 2006, but at least Nicole won both her singles-rubbers, beating Roberta Vinci 6-3 6-4 and Francesca Schiavone 6-2 7-5. Nicole and Kveta Peschke lost the deciding doubles-rubber 6-4 6-4 to Schiavone/Vinci; thus Czechia remained in World Group II for 2006.

For the second year in a row, Nicole defeated the newly-crowned Wimbledon-champion in a World Team Tennis rubber! On 14th July 2004, she had beaten Maria Sharapova 5-3, and on 23rd July 2005, she beat Venus Williams 5-2!

At Toronto, Nicole was due to face Anna Chakvetadze in the first round; unfortunately cute Anna withdrew with a left-groin strain, so Nicole beat lucky loser Shenay Perry 6-3 6-2 instead. Nicole then upset tenth seed Nathalie Dechy 6-2 6-4 to reach the third round, where she beat another lucky loser - fellow Czech Hana Šromová - 6-2 6-2.
            In the quarter-finals, Nicole lost 7-5 7-6 (7/4) to fourth seed Justine Henin-Hardenne. Reportedly it was a very high-quality match from both players, with some great rallies. Henin said, "Nicole played very well; she played like a top-ten player tonight."
            Nicole had dropped out of the top 30 after the points from her Vancouver 2004 title came off (the tournament wasn't held in 2005), but she broke back in at a new high of #27.

At the US Open, Nicole reached her first-ever Major fourth round by beating compatriot Kveta Peschke 6-3 6-1, Zheng,Jie 6-3 6-0, and Ivana Lisjak 6-1 7-6 (7/2).
            In the fourth round, Nicole lost to ninth seed Nadia Petrova 7-6 7-5 (7/4). In the first set she was 5-2* up, and also *3/1 and 4/2* in the tiebreak. In the second set she broke for *2-1, only to be broken back immediately. She was so frustrated that she threw her racket across the court, followed by a bottle of Gatorade!
            Nicole enjoyed some more success in mixed doubles as she and Mark Knowles defeated Nicole Pratt/Cyril Suk 6-1 1-6 11/9 (then lost 6-3 7-6 to second seeds Rennae Stubbs/Bob Bryan).
            Nicole's singles-ranking rose to a new career-high of #23.

At this time, I saw six candidates for my Eternal Fanship. My Passion suggested Tatiana Golovin, Maria Kirilenko and Anna Chakvetadze, but my Reason suggested Nicole, Sania Mirza and Ana Ivanovic in terms of tennis-qualities rather than superficial attractiveness. Looking back at the end of 2006, it is clear to me that Nicole has the best combination of the two (although Anna's tennis-qualities improved dramatically from 2005 to 2006, so I have inducted her as well).

After the US Open, Nicole embarked on a winning-streak of 18 matches and three titles! She won her first WTA singles-title of the year - and the third of her career - at Seoul. She beat Emma Laine 6-4 6-0, Akiko Morigami 6-2 6-1, eighth seed Marion Bartoli 6-4 6-1 (two Selesian players in a row), and Catalina Castańo 7-5 6-4 to reach the final, where she overpowered top seed Jelena Jankovic from the baseline and with a flurry of aces to win 7-5 6-3. Her ranking rose from #24 to #21.

Nicole's second title in this winning-streak came at the Tokyo Japan Open - her first Tier III title. She beat Akiko Morigami 4-6 6-1 6-1, Rika Fujiwara 6-4 6-2, Sofia Arvidsson 2-6 6-3 6-2, and ultracute Maria Kirilenko 6-4 6-2 to set up a mouthwatering final with 17-year-old Tatiana Golovin - it was the eighth-youngest final in the Open Era. Nicole and Tatiana were the two leading candidates for my Eternal Fanship at the time, and my loyalty was to Tatiana because she is still looking for her first WTA singles-title.
            But the ending was a desperately sad one, as Tatiana retired with left-Achilles tendonitis when Nicole was leading 7-6 (7/4) *3-2 (30/15). Tatiana had been struggling with her Achilles tendon since the US Open, and it had stiffened up while she received treatment for a broken toenail on that foot at 1-3.
            Nicole looked absolutely beautiful as she posed with the trophy. "We played a pretty good match, but I feel really sorry we couldn't finish it. I'm sad for Tatiana."
            Nicole broke into the top 20 for the first time at #18.

Nicole won her third title in a row - and the fifth of her career - at Bangkok, making her the first player since Lindsay Davenport in August 2004 to win three titles in consecutive weeks, and the last to do so until Jelena Jankovic in October 2008. She beat Abigail Spears 7-5 6-2, Suchanan Viratprasert 6-3 6-1, and ageing Wimbledon 1994 champion Conchita Martínez 6-3 6-0 to set up a mouthwatering semi-final with the pretty Gisela Dulko, who served for the match at 5-4 in the third before Nicole squeezed out a 3-6 6-0 7-6 (7/3) victory.
            In the final, Nicole avenged her US Open defeat with a sweet victory over #9-ranked top seed Nadia Petrova, who was looking for her first WTA singles-title at the age of 23, while Nicole won her fifth at the age of 16! Only Tracy Austin, Andrea Jaeger, Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati and Martina Hingis had previously won five titles before their 17th birthdays.
            Nicole dominated a nervous Petrova in the first set, winning 12 points in a row at one stage. But Petrova snuck the second on a tiebreak, and scored the first break of the third set en route to 4-2*. But Nicole battled back with three games in a row, before finally breaking Petrova in the 12th game for a 6-1 6-7 (5/7) 7-5 victory which gave me a joy not normally associated with players outside my Eternal Fanship. And the look on Petrova's face at the presentation-ceremony was priceless!
            This elevated Nicole's ranking to #17, more than compensating for the non-defence of her Tashkent 2004 title.

Nicole extended her winning-streak to 18 matches with a run to the semi-finals at Philadelphia - her first Tier II (or higher) semi-final. She beat Vanessa Henke 6-1 6-1, fellow Czech Klára Koukalová 4-6 6-1 6-4 and Lisa Raymond 6-4 6-1 before losing 7-5 7-5 to world #4 Amélie Mauresmo - the only two breaks in the match were against Nicole at *5-6 in each set.
            This pulled her ranking back up from #19 to #16, and on 14th November she reached a career-high and year-end ranking of #15 as Svetlana Kuznetsova lost points from the 2004 WTA Tour Championships.
            Nicole also enjoyed a career-breakthrough in doubles at this tournament. She came in with a 1-9 career win/loss record in women's doubles, but she and Maureen Drake beat Julie Ditty/Hana Šromová 2-6 6-1 6-2 and fourth seeds Corina Morariu/Kveta Peschke to reach the semi-finals, where they lost 6-3 6-4 to top seeds Cara Black/Rennae Stubbs.

Had Nicole won the Philadelphia singles-title, I was going to order the final from Tennis Videos International and evaluate Nicole for a possible January 2006 induction into my Eternal Fanship. As it was, she had five more months to wait...

2006: The Number of the Beast

Nicole had her best year yet, albeit with fewer titles as she was now concentrating on Tier I/II tournaments. After a relatively quiet first four months, she won her sixth WTA singles-title at Strasbourg, followed by a sensational run to the semi-finals of the French Open with wins over Amélie Mauresmo and Venus Williams, whereupon I inducted her into my Eternal Fanship (on 6th June - 6/6/06). She followed that up with solid if unspectacular results for the rest of the year (including another win over Mauresmo at Moscow), and became the 12th-youngest player ever to break into the top ten.

Nicole began 2006 as she had finished 2005: with a Tier II semi-final - this time at Sydney. She beat Samantha Stosur 6-4 4-6 6-1 and Yuliana Fedak 6-3 6-3 to set up a mouthwatering quarter-final against Daniela Hantuchová. Unfortunately, Daniela had to retire with gastrointestinal illness when serving at 3-6 1-3 (0/30), and Nicole lost 6-4 6-3 to Francesca Schiavone in the semis.

Nicole continued to break new ground with a fourth-round appearance at the Australian Open, beating Anastasiya Yakimova 6-1 6-3, Anna Chakvetadze 6-2 6-1 and Flavia Pennetta 6-4 6-2. But against eventual champion Amélie Mauresmo, she self-destructed 1-6 1-6 with a W:UE ratio of 14:34 to Mauresmo's 7:1.
            Having slipped one place to #16 in the rankings on 9th January when the WTA decided to remove all quality-points (points based on the rankings of defeated opponents), Nicole moved up to a new high of #14.

Nicole kept up her solid progress with a quarter-final at the Tokyo Pan Pacific Open, beating Rika Fujiwara 6-3 6-1 and Saori Obata 6-4 6-4, and losing to eventual champion Elena Dementieva 3-6 6-1 6-2. She moved up to #13 in the rankings.

But she crashed out in the first round at Memphis, losing 7-6 2-6 6-4 to world #138 Victoria Azarenka. Her ranking dropped to #14 on 6th March when she was overtaken by Svetlana Kuznetsova. She pulled out of Miami with a right-shoulder injury.

Nicole began her claycourt-season with a 6-4 6-4 win over Laura Pous Tio at Amelia Island, but lost 6-1 4-6 6-4 to Czech mate Lucie Šafárová in the third round. At Charleston she lost her opening match to Catalina Castańo 7-5 6-2, and dropped from #14 to #15 in the rankings.

In World Group II of the Fed Cup, Czechia defeated Thailand 4:1 to advance to the World Group play-offs in July. Nicole thrashed Montinee Tangphong 6-0 6-2, then celebrated her 17th birthday with a 3-6 6-2 6-0 victory over Suchanan Viratprasert.

Moving onto the red clay of Europe, Nicole's results continued to be somewhat modest as she beat Emma Laine 5-7 6-1 6-3, then lost 7-5 6-3 to comeback-queen Martina Hingis. She dropped to #18 in the rankings as her points from reaching the final of Istanbul 2005 came off.

Nicole won her only WTA singles-title of the year - and the sixth of her career - at Strasbourg. She beat Timea Bacsinszky 6-3 6-2 and Zheng,Jie 6-4 4-6 6-2, and was leading Jelena Jankovic 6-2 1-0 in the semis when the latter retired, complaining of dizziness. In the final, Nicole beat #70-ranked Selesian player Peng,Shuai 7-6 (9/7) 6-3.
            "This is the best preparation for Roland Garros," said Nicole, who climbed back up to #16 in the rankings. "To win an event on the same surface is the best preparation you can have."

Nicole pulled off two sensational upsets back-to-back to reach her first Major semi-final (and even quarter-final) at the French Open. She opened with routine 6-1 6-3 wins over Marta Domachowska and Sun,Tiantian, and was on the verge of doing the same to Aravane Rezaď when leading 6-1 5-3. Nicole left the court in tears after dropping the second set 7-6 (8/6), but regrouped to take the third 6-0.
            In the fourth round, Nicole stunned world number one Amélie Mauresmo 6-7 (5/7) 6-1 6-2. The momentum turned in Nicole's favour as she fought back from *2-5 to 5-5 in the first set; even though she lost that set, she just surged to victory in the last two, although things did get a little tight from 4-0* up in the third.
            That victory put me very close to inducting Nicole into my Eternal Fanship, and her quarter-final win over five-time Major champion Venus Williams - by the very similar score of 6-7 (5/7) 6-1 6-3 - sealed the deal for me. Nicole played spectacular tennis as she surged to a *4-1 lead in the first set, but could hardly get a ball in the court as she choked on that lead and dropped the first set. But once again, she regrouped magnificently to win the last two sets, which were closer than the scoreline implies. "I'm so excited I could like scream right now!" said Nicole.
            Nicole blew a golden opportunity to reach her first Major final as she lost 5-7 7-6 (7/5) 6-2 to US Open 2004 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in the semis. Kuznetsova was the one who appeared to be shackled by nerves as she lost the first set after leading *5-3, and was broken at the start of the second set - a break which held until Nicole was serving for the match at 5-4. But Nicole's forehand winner at 0/15 was called 'out' by the umpire after checking the mark, and she was broken to 15. In the second-set tiebreak, Nicole was two points from victory at *5/5, but lost a rally in which she had the initiative. Nicole had nothing left for the third set, and left the court in tears.
            "I don't think I went crazy-nervous or started shaking," said Nicole. "It's not like I had match-point. Even if you're 5-4 up and serving, you're still so far from winning."
            Nicole moved back up to her career-high ranking of #13.

Nicole went into Wimbledon without any grasscourt-warmups after pulling out of Eastbourne - much to my disappointment, as that had been my one chance to see Nicole in the flesh that year. "I don't want any possibility of injury," she explained.
            Nicole reached her fourth Major fourth round in a row at Wimbledon, but her whole campaign went almost unnoticed by the media (especially BBC television - even with a Freeview-box!), much to my surprise, disappointment and anger. She started with a tight 7-5 7-5 win over fellow Czech Klára Koukalová, who broke back once in each set. Then she eased past Wimbledon 2004 Girls' Singles champion Kateryna Bondarenko with as little resistance as the 6-1 6-1 scoreline implies.
            Nicole won a mouthwatering third-round match over Karolina Šprem. Karolina broke first, but Nicole broke back immediately, and broke again in the 12th game to take the first set. In a serve-dominated second set, Nicole squandered four match-points at 5-4*, but broke two games later to win 7-5 7-5.
            Nicole was upset by 27th seed Li,Na in a low-profile fourth-round match. Nicole broke in the very first game of the match, but never again as she went down 4-6 6-1 6-3 by two breaks in each of the last two sets.
            Nicole moved up to a new career-high ranking of #12.

In the Fed Cup World Group play-offs, France beat Czechia 3:2 to win promotion to the World Group for 2007, while Czechia remained in World Group II. This was in spite of Nicole winning both her singles-rubbers: she beat Tatiana Golovin 6-1 3-6 11-9 and Nathalie Dechy 6-2 6-3.

Nicole made a good start to her North-American summer hardcourt-season, reaching the semi-finals of Stanford: she beat Sybille Bammer 6-1 6-4 (without being broken) and Samantha Stosur 6-4 6-2. In the semis, she led top seed Kim Clijsters *3-1 in the first set, and had a set-point at 5-4* - saved by Clijsters with a second-serve ace that caught the outside edge of the centre-line! "I played fairly well in the first set, but a serve is a big part of a game to be missing," said Nicole.

Nicole also made the semis at San Diego, but this time it was a Tier I with a 56-player draw. Nicole thrashed Virginia Ruano Pascual 6-1 6-0 to set up a mouthwatering third-round match against Daniela Hantuchová. Nicole won 6-4 6-2, but it could have been a different story if Daniela hadn't wasted all 7 of her break-points while Nicole broke 3 times from 4 BPs. Nicole served 16 aces!
            This set up another mouthwatering match: a quarter-final against Anna Chakvetadze. Nicole was in desperate trouble at 3-6 *0-2 (30/40), but she fought back admirably to seal her first-ever places in a Tier I semi-final and the top ten!
            In the semi-finals, Nicole lost to Kim Clijsters again, this time 6-2 7-6 (7/0) after Nicole had fought back from 0-3* in the second set! This extended Clijsters' winning-streak in North-American summer hardcourt-tournaments to 24 matches.
            Nicole became the 12th-youngest player ever to reach the top ten of the WTA Singles Rankings, moving up from #12 to #9.

At Montréal, Nicole survived a two-hour marathon against Czech mate Lucie Šafárová, winning 3-6 7-5 6-1 - up to this point, it was always a three-setter when Nicole played Lucie!
            The draw had opened up nicely for Nicole to win her first Tier I tournament (she's never even reached a final above Tier III), but she pulled out before her third-round against Nicole Pratt, citing right-shoulder tendinitis: "This morning I hit some balls, and it still felt a little sore. I'm not injured - I'm just preventing it from getting injured. It's too close to the US Open to risk anything further."
            Nicole dropped one place in the rankings to #10.

Nicole says that the US Open is her favourite Major, but it was the only one where she failed to make the fourth round in 2006. She started with a 6-4 6-3 win over Chanda Rubin: a talented 30-year-old who was playing only her second tournament of the year after injury. Then she struggled past Alina Jidkova - another injury-plagued veteran - 6-2 3-6 6-3.
            In the third round, Nicole was upset by in-form 19th seed Jelena Jankovic. Nicole fought back from 1-5* down to win the first set, but still lost 5-7 6-3 6-2. (Jankovic went on to reach the semi-finals, where she led Justine Henin-Hardenne 6-4 *4-2 (40/30), then lost every game in the rest of the match.)

Nicole's poor form continued at Beijing, where her chances of qualifying for the Sony Ericsson Championships were dealt a further blow when she lost her opening match to Ai Sugiyama: 6-4 1-6 6-3. She also dropped from #10 to #12 in the rankings when the points from her Seoul 2005 title came off, then went back up to #11 despite her Tokyo Japan Open 2005 title coming off also (Lindsay Davenport dropped out of the top 11 as she didn't defend the Filderstadt 2005 title).

At Moscow, Nicole enjoyed her best tournament since the French Open, repeating her win over world number one Amélie Mauresmo to reach her second Tier I semi-final.
            Nicole started with a 6-3 6-3 win over 15-year-old Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova: Girls' Singles champion of the Australian and US Opens. I saw some of that match on video. Nicole was using an abbreviated backswing on her serve - I understand that her right-shoulder injury was the reason for this retrograde step.
            Nicole stormed back from 1-4 down to beat Samantha Stosur 6-4 6-1, then in the quarter-finals she scored her second win of the year over Mauresmo (or indeed any top-ten player). Nicole was 1-6 *2-5 down, but saved one match-point at 30/40 in that game, another at *4-5 (30/40), and another in the third set at *5-6 (30/40), before winning 1-6 7-5 7-6 (7/3)!
            In the semi-finals, she lost to Nadia Petrova - on form but struggling with injury. Nicole saved six match-points in a marathon game at *4-5 in the third, but missed a break-point of her own in the next game (5-5). Nicole went on to lose 6-0 4-6 7-6 (7/3).

Nicole went into Zürich with her chances of qualifying for the Sony Ericsson Championships hanging by a horsehair: she had to win Zürich, Linz and Hasselt! And that horsehair was snapped ruthlessly by the gorgeous Tatiana Golovin, who overturned a 0:3 head-to-head to thrash Nicole 6-2 6-0 in the first round! Nicole looked tired and unwell (I suspect she would have withdrawn from the tournament, were it not for her SEC-chances), while the on-form Tatiana served great, and Nicole had no answer to her trademark forehand winners down the line. "Tatiana played great. I had an off-day. Put those together and that's pretty much what happened," said Nicole, who finished #11 on the Race to the SEC.

Nicole continued her post-US Open bad-tournament/good-tournament pattern with a run to the semi-finals at Linz. She beat Mara Santangelo 7-6 6-0 (dropping only 9 points in the second set), then avenged her US Open defeat with a 5-7 7-6 (7/5) 6-4 win over Jelena Jankovic, hitting 20 aces and 55 winners! Nicole won the third set on the strength of a single break of serve (in the third game).
            The day after that three-set marathon, Nicole lost 6-1 6-2 to Nadia Petrova in the semi-finals. She then withdrew from Hasselt with an unspecified illness. Her run at Linz elevated her ranking from #11 to a year-end #10.

2007: Operation Grand Slam

In a year plagued by numerous injuries and mononucleosis (glandular fever), Nicole actually achieved some decent results in the 14 tournaments (excluding Fed Cup and exhibitions) that she played, but without winning a title - or even reaching a final - since Strasbourg 2006; thus 2007 was the first year of her career that she didn't win a title.

Her best results came in the Majors: she reached her second Major semi-final at the Australian Open, and quarter-finals at the French Open and Wimbledon (where she blew a golden opportunity with three match-points to reach the semi-finals).

With the exception of her retirement to Renata Vorácová at the end of the year, Nicole didn't lose in 2007 to anyone that I wouldn't describe as a star. She reached a career-high ranking of #7 for two weeks in May - but that was largely on the strength of ranking-points from 2006, and she was down to #12 by the end of the year.

Nicole chose the Watsons Water Champions Challenge exhibition-tournament in Hong Kong to start her year, and it began with a freak-accident as she slipped in the shower with a blade in her left hand and cut the middle finger, which affected her two-handed backhand. She pulled out of the doubles, but was fit enough to play singles the next day, and served 11 double faults as she lost 3-6 6-3 6-2 to world #8 Elena Dementieva in the first round (quarter-finals). This put Nicole in the "Silver Group semi-finals", and she lost 7-5 6-3 to Selesian player Yan,Zi: a doubles-specialist ranked #166 in singles.
            To add insult to injury, Nicole slipped from #10 to #11 in the rankings as Dinara Safina won the Gold Coast title.

Nicole put Hong Kong behind her with three stunning victories to reach the semi-finals of Sydney. She thrashed Daniela Hantuchová (who would rise from #17 to #9 in 2007, having been as high as #5 in 2003) 6-1 6-4 in the first round. Nicole served extremely well, and didn't give Daniela a single look at a break-point. In the second round, Nicole thrashed cutiful qualifier Yuliana Fedak 6-3 6-1.
            This set up an intriguing quarter-final with Ana Ivanovic, whose rivalry with Nicole could be one of the most important in women's tennis over the next 5 to 10 years (19-year-old Ana would rise from #14 to #4 in 2007). I have to say: in this match, Nicole looked the hottest she's ever looked, in a low-cut orange and white dress! And her play was hot too, as she beat a stressed-looking Ana 6-4 6-2 in 1h08m. Nicole said: "Ana's a great player; she's very dangerous; I knew I'd have to be playing my best today. She had chances to get back into it at the start of the second set, but I managed to step up."
            In the semi-finals, Nicole lost 6-4 4-6 6-4 to the other high-flying Serb of 2007: Jelena Jankovic (who would rise from #12 to #3). Nicole had some leads in the third set by virtue of serving first, but Jankovic - who struggled with lower-back pain throughout the match, and admitted there were moments when she didn't believe she could win - scored the crucial break at 4-4.
            Nicole's finger was still taped during that tournament, and to add insult to injury, Jankovic overtook her in the rankings, pushing her down to #12.

Still only 17 years old, Nicole reached her second Major semi-final at the Australian Open. She began with a 6-4 5-7 6-1 win over Jill Craybas: a tough match in the heat of the day, which can exceed 40°C in Australia! Nicole said: "I could have won in straight sets, but at the end of the second set, I hit many unnecessary unforced errors and I gave Jill this set. But in the third set, I had the match in my control."
            In the second round, Nicole had a straightforward 6-2 6-1 win over world #95 Milagros Sequera, whose barefoot medical time-out extended the match-duration to 55 minutes. Nicole faced a couple of 15/30 tests on her serve at 2-0 and 5-1 in the second set, but came through with flying colours. Nicole said: "I had full control of this match from the beginning to the end - nothing could complicate my win. It had to be horrible - playing in this big heat, it was really extreme."
            In the third round, Nicole beat Katarina Srebotnik 6-4 6-4 with a performance of spectacular statistics: 12 aces, 34 winners, she won 89% of points when she got her first serve in, and won 13 of 14 points at the net. The only real hiccup was Nicole getting broken back from *4-3 in the first set after squandering two break-points in the previous game. Nicole said: "I served pretty well. Got the breaks where I needed them. Was the better player on the crucial points. When I served at score 5-4 in second set, it started gently raining, and I prayed that they didn't interrupt the match. I think we got all the delays we could possibly have. We had the rain, we had the heat. Just waiting for a tornado to come or something!"
            In the fourth round, Nicole scored an impressive 6-3 6-3 win over Elena Dementieva, ruthlessly exploiting the 7th seed's weak serve. Nicole said: "I don't think I'm surpassing my expectations, because I knew I was playing well. I had a good off-season, also a good run in Sydney."
            In the quarter-finals, Nicole played Lucie Šafárová to determine who would be the first Czech lady to reach the Australian Open semi-finals since Jana Novotná reached the final in 1991. Nicole 'Czechmated' the world #70: 6-1 6-4. The second set got rather tight, with Nicole saving two break-points at 3-4 that would have left Lucie serving to win the set 6-3! But Lucie - a flairsome shotmaker who runs like the wind - was playing with her right thigh heavily strapped, and was only a shadow of the player who had knocked out defending champion Amélie Mauresmo 6-4 6-3 in the previous round.
            Nicole said: "It's great for Czech tennis to have two quarter-finalists - one in the semis. We know each other. We played the Fed Cup together. We say, 'Hi,' but we're not very close friends. Of course you don't want to play your friend, but I'm just happy I got through it. I'm really happy with the way I returned her serve. She's tricky. She's a lefty. She can have those weird-rotation slices. I read it well."
            Lucie said: "I knew it would be tough, because she has a similar game to me: fast and flat. I knew if I would like to win, I would have to serve well - and that was the difference: she was serving so well, and I wasn't able to. She was hitting the returns, and she was more aggressive today."
            This set a semi-final against Serena Williams: the dominant force in women's tennis in 2002/2003, but ranked #81 and looking very much out of shape after only playing four tournaments in 2006 due to a left-knee injury. But she pulled off a remarkable return to form at this Australian Open, going on to win the title by thrashing top seed Maria Sharapova 6-1 6-2 in the final!
            Nicole served for the first set at 5-4 and had a set-point, but Williams is nothing if not a fighter, and ground out a 7-6 (7/5) 6-4 victory - though not before Nicole fought back from 1/5 in the tiebreak and then *1-5 in the second set, saving five match-points. Both players claimed not to have noticed that a young man in Williams's box was using his watch to reflect the sun into Nicole's eyes as she served.
            Nicole said: "I had my opportunities and I didn't use them. That was the big difference. I needed to keep the ball in play much more than I did. I was trying to go for a winner or easy shot too early. I think that was a little mistake."
            Williams said: "She played some incredible points on match-points. She got relaxed - she reminded me a bit of myself. I almost did a 'gagarooney' there. Basically, you know, gagging. I never saw the glare. Vaidišová said she never saw the glare. What more is there to say? As of now, I'm not answering any more questions about a God-dang watch!"
            Nicole's Australian Open semi-final was rewarded with an elevation from #12 to her then-career-high ranking of #9 (where she would stay for five consecutive weeks before dropping back to #10).

In the first round of Paris, Nicole thrashed the very talented but erratic Aravane Rezaď 6-2 6-1 in 50 minutes, dropping just 10 points on serve. Nicole even dug for a break at 6-2 4-1* (0/40)! Nicole said: "I kept very focused the whole time. Contrary to the French Open, I didn't let up and let her into this match. The surface suits me, and the indoor game is perfect for me: no wind, no sun - the conditions are ideal."
            However, Nicole came crashing back down to Earth in the second round, as Czech mate Lucie Šafárová avenged her Australian Open defeat with a stunning 6-4 6-2 victory over Nicole. Lucie, just four days after her 20th birthday, exploited Nicole's long swings with deep groundstrokes of flairsome power on the fast indoor court, returned Nicole's big serve with ease, and also employed some net-rushing tactics. Lucie said: "There was a bit of tension because we know each other very well."
            I was disappointed with Nicole's loss at the time, but Lucie more than made up for it by reaching the final with two more top-ten scalps in straight sets: Svetlana Kuznetsova and Justine Henin - the first of only four losses in Henin's year! Lucie is such a joy to watch that I inducted her into my Eternal Fanship in January 2008.

After a month off, Nicole reached the quarter-finals of Indian Wells, starting with two wins over American wild cards ranked in the 120s: in the second round, she had a low-profile 6-4 6-1 win over Bethanie Mattek, and in the third round, she was leading Ahsha Rolle 6-3 4-1 - without having faced a break-point - when Rolle retired with gastrointestinal illness. Nicole said: "She served pretty well; at first I had a little trouble with that, but otherwise, I think I was pretty much in control."
            In the fourth round, Nicole overcame Selesian player Marion Bartoli (who would go on to reach the Wimbledon-final with a sensational upset of Justine Henin!). Nicole had to wait until 4-6 4-3* to break serve, but hit back for a 4-6 6-3 6-2 victory.
            In the quarter-finals, Nicole lost 4-6 6-3 6-4 to world #4 and eventual finalist Svetlana Kuznetsova, to worsen their head-to-head to 0:3. But all three matches were tough three-setters, and this one was decided by a single break against Nicole at the start of the third set (in which Nicole saved three match-points at *3-5). Nicole said: "I played a great first set. I lost my rhythm in the second set: a few mistakes here and there, then she was able to take advantage of it."
            With no significant points to defend until May, Nicole pushed on up the rankings from #10 to a new career-high of #8.

Nicole also reached the quarter-finals of Miami, albeit without beating a player ranked above #55. In the second round, she edged past 18-year-old Michaëlla Krajícek 4-6 7-5 6-2 in an error-strewn match in which Nicole was saved by her serve - and possibly by a rain-delay at 4-6 *4-4. In the third round, she overpowered fellow 17-year-old Victoria Azarenka 6-3 6-3. In the fourth round, she saw off #101-ranked qualifier Vera Dushevina 6-2 6-4 without dropping her serve.
            Nicole's quarter-final was a huge step up, as it was against Australian Open champion Serena Williams, who had humbled top seed Maria Sharapova 6-1 6-1 in the fourth round. :-o Nicole did a little better than Maria, as Williams beat her 6-1 6-4 and went on to win the tournament (inflicting the second defeat of Justine Henin's 2007 in the final). It could have been a very different story had Nicole converted one of three break-points at 1-6 4-3* (40/0).

Having not lost all year to anyone other than an eventual champion or runner-up, Nicole started her claycourt-season at Charleston. But she suffered the ignominy of becoming the first #1 seed in the 35-year history of the tournament to lose her opening match, as #54-ranked wild card Michaëlla Krajícek avenged her Miami-defeat with a similarly tight 4-6 6-4 6-3 second-round victory over Nicole. Nicole served particularly badly, losing the third set by three breaks to one - two of which were to love, including at *3-5. "I didn't feel in any part of the match that I really played well, or I got into the rhythm at all," said Nicole.

In World Group II of the Fed Cup, Czechia beat Slovakia 5:0 to qualify for the World Group play-offs in July, with Nicole beating fellow 17-year-old and world #123 Dominika Cibulková 3-6 6-4 7-5 in the second rubber (Nicole got away with not serving it out at *5-4 in the third), and Daniela Hantuchová 6-2 6-7 (1/7) 6-3 in the third rubber. Nicole celebrated her 18th birthday (and Daniela her 24th) the day after this tie.

But the rest of Nicole's build-up to the French Open was scuppered by a pulled tendon in her right wrist that forced her out of all tournaments from Berlin (week of 7th May) to Strasbourg (week of 21st May). "My wrist is still bothering me, and it is not enabling me to compete at 100%," is what she said when pulling out of Strasbourg, which meant that she had gone a whole year without winning a title. After seven consecutive weeks at #8, Nicole rose to a career-high ranking of #7 on 14th May when retired world #5 Kim Clijsters was removed from the rankings, but Nicole dropped to #10 on 28th May when the Strasbourg 2006 points came off.

Nicole returned to defend her semi-final at the French Open, but could only manage a quarter-final this time. In the first round, she overpowered world #110 Emmanuelle Gagliardi 6-4 6-3 (the only match of Nicole's French Open campaign that BBCi deigned to televise). Nicole looked rusty, but served well and showed no signs of the wrist-injury. "Had some weeks off thanks to injuries, so, you know, no big expectations from myself now, no pressure," she said. "I don't have to think anymore about the wrist, if [playing] is going to hurt it or not hurt it. I don't have to have it in the back of my mind."
            In the second round, Nicole had an even easier time against #210-ranked qualifier Akgul Amanmuradova. Amanmuradova is the tallest player on the WTA Tour at 6'3", and has a big serve, but Nicole won 6-2 6-4.
            Some experts had tipped Samantha Stosur to upset Nicole in the third round. The serve-volleying Stosur would indeed have been dangerous for Nicole on a faster surface, but here Nicole simply extended her head-to-head against the 27th seed to 4:0 with a 6-4 6-4 victory - the only hiccup coming when she failed to serve out the first set at *5-2.
            In the fourth round, Nicole could have been facing a very tough match against Nadia Petrova, but Petrova lost in the first round, and it was 19th seed Tathiana Garbin who came through that weakened section of the draw, and Nicole scored an easy 6-3 6-1 victory in 1h06m, without dropping her serve.
            In the quarter-finals, Nicole faced a very tough opponent in fourth seed Jelena Jankovic. Although Nicole went into the match leading their head-to-head 4:2, Jankovic was arguably the second-most in-form player of the year so far, with titles at Auckland, Charleston and Rome. So it was no shame when Nicole lost 6-3 7-5, saving one match-point at 4-5* in the second and three more in the last game. "Almost every game on her serve, I had break-points and I just didn't make those," said Nicole. "But overall, I played a pretty good, solid match - especially in the second set."
            I thought Nicole very definitely played top-ten tennis at the French Open 2007. But for failing to defend her semi-final, she dropped from #10 to #14 - having been #7 just three weeks before. This organisation does not tolerate failure.

My theory that Samantha Stosur would be tougher for Nicole on grass was put to the test immediately, as the pair faced off in the first round of Eastbourne. Nicole was broken three times in the first set, but hit back for a 3-6 6-4 6-4 victory. "I think I hit a little too fast at the beginning," said Nicole.
            In the second round, Nicole had an easy 6-3 6-2 win over #412-ranked British qualifier Elena Baltacha, who said: "In the middle, there must have been three or four games where she just kept hitting winners."
            But Nicole's quarter-final opponent was world #1 Justine Henin: fresh from winning her fourth French Open crown, and also the defending champion here. I saw the match on BBC 2, and it was a perfect illustration of why grass is Nicole's worst surface, and how Henin magnifies her opponents' weaknesses. Henin jerked Nicole all over the court with awkward spins and placements, making Nicole look very ungainly, and forcing her to have a bad day at the office. Nicole's footwork left much to be desired as she failed to adjust to the slight variations of the bounces on grass, and lost 6-2 6-2 in 57 minutes.
            Nevertheless, the close gaps in the rankings meant that even this modest result was enough to raise Nicole from #14 to #10.

Nicole reached her first-ever Wimbledon quarter-final by upsetting defending champion Amélie Mauresmo. In the first round, playing in swirling wind and light rain, Nicole struggled on a greasy grass-court against world #65 Karin Knapp. In the first set, Nicole broke for *2-1, only to be broken back, and had to serve to save the set at 4-5 and 5-6 (saving one set-point). Nicole saved a second set-point at 5/6* in the tiebreak, but swiftly turned the tide in her favour to win 7-6 (8/6) 6-2.
            Nicole said these words about playing on grass: "I am not a fan of it. But I like the challenge; I like something different. It is a question of just getting used to it."
            The second round was the battle of the Nicoles, as Vaidišová beat Pratt 6-3 6-2. Our Nicole had a 3-game wobble from 5-0* in the first set, but the second was plain sailing against the 34-year-old veteran.
            Nicole started her third-round match against 17-year-old Victoria Azarenka on Saturday. Again, Nicole stuttered in the first set, letting a 4-0* lead become *4-3. But she was in the comfortable position of 6-4 *3-2 when play was rained off for the day, meaning that they had to resume on Monday. Nicole came back and duly won the last three games (dropping just four points) to win 6-4 6-2.
            Nicole upset fourth-seeded defending champion Amélie Mauresmo 7-6 (8/6) 4-6 6-1 in the fourth round. It was Nicole's third victory in a row over Mauresmo, and she now leads their head-to-head 3:2. It was particularly satisfying to beat Mauresmo on Nicole's worst surface, when Mauresmo has the kind of game to jerk Nicole around like Justine Henin did at Eastbourne. Nicole's footwork was much better than against Henin, she got down well to Mauresmo's low sliced backhands, and played with plenty of variety: dropshots, drive-volleys, punch-volleys and drop-volleys.
            In a first set of break and counterbreak, Nicole fought back from *3-5 to force a tiebreak in which Mauresmo had three set-points at 6/3*, only for Nicole to win five points in a row to take the set. The second set was decided by a single break against Nicole in the fifth game as Mauresmo won it 6-4, but the third set was all Nicole as she raced through it 6-1 (she even had a break-point in the game at 3-0*, which Mauresmo won). Mauresmo was angry with her "s***ty" performance, and deliberately hit a ball out of the stadium in the last game of the match.
            Nicole said: "I'm not a huge fan of grass... of course I like it now! I'm tall, so getting low on the ball is a challenge moving around. It's fun to challenge yourself with the surface once in a while. I just came out there hitting and fighting for every point. In the end, it worked out for me."
            This set up a mouthwatering quarter-final against sixth seed Ana Ivanovic (recent runner-up at the French Open), and Nicole squandered three match-points at 5-3* in the third as Ana won 4-6 6-2 7-5. This match had everything: as a contest, and in terms of tactical variety, with unbelievably ambitious play from both girls at the most crucial moments.
            Nicole won the first set 6-4 on the strength of a single break in the first game, as her off-forehands repeatedly stretched Ana wide to net her backhand. Nicole also broke in the first game of the second, but was broken back in a long game at *1-0, and that proved to be the turning-point. Ana started playing extremely well, and Nicole decided at 2-4* (0/40) to save herself for the third.
            Nicole's sacrifice appeared to pay off as she broke for *2-1 in the third set and led 5-3*. Nicole had three match-points in that game (the first at 15/40). There was also an amazing rally at 40/40 with both girls at the net, won by Ana. Nicole played a horrible game when she served for the match at *5-4, and ended the match on a double fault at *5-6 (ad Ana). But it was certainly the most entertaining match of Wimbledon 2007.
            Ana said: "I was really intimidated when I first stepped on the court. But then as the match went on, I tried to focus on my game more. I wanted to win so much. In the third set, even when I was a break down, I just knew I could do it. I had the feeling I could win this match."
            Nicole said: "I'm a very emotional player and person. I think it can go both ways - I think it can be my strength, but it also can be my weakness. But of course there's a limit to it. Something you have to work on."
            Nicole's fine Wimbledon-campaign was not rewarded with a further rise in the rankings, although the valuable ranking-points secured her #10 ranking for a further three weeks.

Nicole pulled out of Czechia's Fed Cup World Group play-off tie against Spain with mild mononucleosis (glandular fever), and the Czechs lost 1:4 in her absence to remain in World Group II for 2008. Nicole also pulled out of Toronto with her illness, and thus went into the US Open with no match-play since Wimbledon; there were even media-reports that she might miss the US Open itself. In this time, her ranking deteriorated from #10 to #15.

You never know what to expect from a player who goes into a Major with no match-play for seven weeks, but Nicole made light work of Alla Kudryavtseva in her US Open first-round match, beating the world #64 in a low-profile match: 6-1 6-2 in exactly an hour. Of the US Open, she said: "It's crazy, but in a good way. It's like a show instead of just tennis, but it's a lot of fun."
            The second round was considerably tougher against the talented and gritty Flavia Pennetta: Nicole won 6-2 7-6 (7/0), but not before losing her temper and smashing her racket after wasting chances to close out the match before the tiebreak.
            Nicole said: "I had six match-points and I didn't make one of them, so I think that deserved it! I'm not gonna lie: I was p***ed. I was expecting to be in the locker-room by that time. I think the first couple of match-points you have, you're kind of like, 'Whatever, I'll get the next one.' But then by the fourth or fifth, you're like, 'What's happening here?' But I tried to forget about it at 6-6: I think I got it out, and in the end I was able to focus, and just go out and play again."
            It looked like Nicole was on course for her first-ever official showdown against Maria Sharapova, whom the 15-year-old Nicole had beaten 5-3 in a World Team Tennis rubber just nine days after Maria won Wimbledon 2004! But Maria's title-defence came to a shocking end against Agnieszka Radwanska in the third round, and Nicole was so upset that she lost 6-4 3-6 7-6 (7/5) to 18th seed Shahar Pe'er (who also beat her in the Australian Open 2004 Girls' Singles final) in the night-session on Arthur Ashe Stadium.
            Nicole said: "She's such a great defender. She gets so many balls back - more balls than the other girls would. My consolation is I didn't play tennis for two months, and to play such a tough match in such a great atmosphere: I'm just happy with my performance."
            The US Open may be Nicole's favourite Major, but it's the only one where she has yet to get past the fourth round, having reached a semi-final and two quarter-finals in the other three in 2007. Nevertheless, she rose one place to #14 in the rankings, and stayed there for four weeks before rising to #13 in absentia.

Nicole pulled out of Stuttgart (week of 1st October) with a left-hamstring injury, then played Moscow the following week. In the first round, she beat #89-ranked qualifier Yaroslava Shvedova 7-6 (7/3) 6-3. The second round was a little more straightforward against #54-ranked wild card Elena Vesnina: 6-3 6-4.
            Nicole's quarter-final was anything but straightforward as she lost 6-4 7-6 (9/7) to Australian Open champion Serena Williams in a battle of nearly two hours. Williams put constant pressure on Nicole's serve, although Nicole did take the momentum in the second set, and broke for *5-3. Williams broke back, and Nicole had a set-point at 6-5*, before bowing out on a tiebreak in which Williams needed four match-points.
            For failing to defend her Moscow 2006 semi-final, Nicole dropped from #13 to #15 in the rankings.

Nicole reached the semi-finals of the Tier I at Zürich. She started with a 6-4 6-2 first-round win over Katarina Srebotnik, serving 11 aces and saving two break-points. Nicole said: "The serve was definitely the key, and I thought I returned pretty well. She has a big serve too, but after a couple of games, I was able to step it up and hit some good shots from that.
            "I missed four tournaments after Wimbledon, and then I pulled my hamstring after the US Open. It's disappointing because I played well and had a good ranking and a big chance to reach the [Sony Ericsson] Championships. I was really looking forward to it. Then, in the second half, I almost didn't play at all. But these are things I can't do anything about, and now I'm just trying to enjoy the fact I'm on the court healthy."
            In the second round, Nicole upset world #3 Jelena Jankovic 6-4 6-4 to take a 5:3 lead in their head-to-head. In the first set, Nicole converted both break-points she had, whilst saving 3 of 4 against her own serve. In the second set, Jankovic broke first, but Nicole struck back with two breaks. In the quarter-finals, Nicole saw off Amélie Mauresmo's conqueror Alyona Bondarenko 6-1 6-4.
            This set up a semi-final against world #1 Justine Henin, who was 18 matches into a winning-streak that would extend to 32. At least Nicole gave Henin her toughest match since losing to Marion Bartoli in the Wimbledon semi-finals: Nicole fought back from *3-5 and two match-points down in the third set before bowing out 3-6 6-3 7-5 in 2h18m.
            Henin said: "She pushed me a lot in the first set, and I was reacting. I put a lot of useless pressure on myself at several break-points, for some reason. She, on the other hand, had one break-point and converted it. I'm sure she's going to be giving us a lot of trouble over the next few years."
            Nicole said: "I had my chances, definitely. Being able to play so close and so well against the No.1 player in the world is a positive thing, but right now, all I can see is that I lost, so I'm not happy. It sucks right now."
            Nicole's ranking rose one place to #14.

Nicole also reached the semi-finals at Linz - and came within one point of reaching her first final since Strasbourg 2006. In the first round, Flavia Pennetta gave her an even tougher match than she did at the US Open: Nicole won 4-6 6-3 7-6 (7/4) despite converting only 3 of 16 break-points, and being broken to love when she served for the match at 5-4 in the third.
            Nicole said: "Flavia is hard to beat, so I am proud that I won. I think she played a great match and stepped up her game. I'd never played before in this arena, and had troubles adapting to the circumstances. I was a little tired today and had a lot of unforced errors, but was able to pull it out and that's what counts."
            Nicole bounced back the following day with a 6-3 6-1 drubbing of local wild card Yvonne Meusburger. "I kept my concentration well, and that's why I didn't get in trouble against Yvonne," said Nicole.
            In the quarter-finals, Nicole upset fourth seed Dinara Safina 6-3 7-6 (9/7), although Safina had just slipped to #16 in the rankings that week - two places below Nicole.
            This set up a mouthwatering semi-final with world #10 Daniela Hantuchová, against whom Nicole had a 4:0 record. And it looked as though Nicole would make it 5:0 as she led 4-1* in the third set. But Daniela fought back, saved a match-point at *5-6 with a service-winner, and won 2-6 6-2 7-6 (7/3) on a double fault by Nicole. Daniela said: "I actually didn't know what the score was during the third set, because I was just trying to focus on every point."
            Daniela needed to win the tournament to qualify for the Sony Ericsson Championships - and she did!

Nicole, on the other hand, suffered an inglorious end to her season in the first round of Québec City. She had just split sets 6-2 3-6 with a fellow Czech - #114-ranked Renata Vorácová - when she retired with a right-wrist injury: the same wrist that had ruined her preparations for the French Open. It was the third time Nicole had been the top seed at a WTA tournament in her career, and she's lost her opening match all three times.

On 15th/16th December, Nicole played the "Beauty Challenge" exhibition-tournament at Santiago, Chile. In the semi-finals, she lost 6-4 6-4 to #51-ranked 18-year-old Dominika Cibulková. In the third-place play-off, she thrashed unranked 15-year-old Camila Silva 6-0 6-1 in 50 minutes.

Nicole had risen to #12 after Linz, and she held that ranking continuously to the end of the year.

2008: Quo Vadis?

Nicole suffered a mainly disastrous 2008, compiling a win/loss record of just 19:19 (including 11 opening-round losses) in singles and 3:6 in doubles (in which she was winless since February), reaching just one semi-final (Sydney), and suffering a drop from #12 to #41 in the rankings after finishing 2005, 2006 and 2007 in the top 15.

There was so much talk and speculation about Nicole's off-court distractions: namely her relationship with ATP Tour player Radek Štepánek (they were already an item by the end of 2007, after his engagement to Martina Hingis had ended, and there have been quite plausible rumours that he and Nicole are engaged), and the fact that her stepfather Aleš Kodat ceased to be her coach in April, when she replaced him with David Felgate.

Whether these off-court issues were to blame or not, Nicole's on-court attitude since March has left much to be desired, as she tanked sets and matches on several occasions (most notably in her losses at Miami, the French Open and Birmingham, and in her second-round win at Wimbledon).

Nevertheless, we must not forget that injury has also been a major factor in Nicole's slump. In 2008, she suffered a right-wrist injury, with which she pulled out of Amelia Island, Linz and Québec City.

Nicole's 2008 was not without its highlights! She started the year very well, beating world #9 Daniela Hantuchová and #3 Jelena Jankovic to reach the semi-finals of Sydney, and was very impressive at the Australian Open before running into Serena Williams in the fourth round. She also won all three of her rubbers as Czechia beat Slovakia 3:2 in Fed Cup in February.

The other good part of Nicole's year was, ironically, the grass-court season. Grass had been her worst surface in years prior to 2007, but it does reward her big serve and forehand, and doesn't punish the lack of patience that was her undoing on clay- and hard courts this year. She snapped a six-match losing-streak en route to the quarter-finals of Birmingham, and then returned to the quarter-finals of Wimbledon with a mouthwatering fourth-round win over world #8 Anna Chakvetadze: her third top-ten scalp of the year, the tenth of her career.

Nicole's poor form was characterised by missing many returns of serve - just from what I saw of her in the grass-court season.

Nicole started her year on the Gold Coast. In the first round, she overcame a scare before seeing off #86-ranked wild card Casey Dell'Acqua 5-7 7-5 6-0 - Nicole faced three break-points at 5-7 *4-4, then Dell'Acqua choked! "It's a relief to go through, plus she played some good tennis," said Nicole after winning her first-ever match as the top seed at a WTA tournament.
            The second round was much simpler, as Nicole scored a 6-4 6-2 victory over world #89 Tatjana Malek. In the quarter-finals, however, Nicole was upset 6-3 6-3 by world #29 Li,Na. Li was playing her first tournament since June 2007, having suffered a stress-fracture in her right rib, but amazingly went on to win the title! Li played outstandingly, although Nicole sustained a left-ankle injury midway through the first set and took a medical time-out at 3-5.
            "She played a great game, and she was up before that happened, so it's definitely not my excuse for losing today," said Nicole. "I don't think it's going to be something huge, but it just distracts you."

Nicole reached her only semi-final of 2008 at Sydney, beating world #3 Jelena Jankovic in the quarter-finals. Nicole started in the first round with a rather complicated 6-1 2-6 6-2 win over #89-ranked qualifier Camille Pin.
            This set up a mouthwatering match with Daniela Hantuchová in the second round - which is actually rather insulting, seeing as Daniela and Nicole were ranked #9 and #12 at the time! Nicole won 6-4 6-2 to extend her head-to-head against Daniela to 5:1 - in fact Nicole has now knocked Daniela out of the last three editions of Sydney! Daniela won 4 games off Nicole in 2006, 5 games in 2007 and 6 games in 2008. This pattern won't continue in 2009, though, as Nicole isn't going to Sydney.
            In the quarter-finals, Nicole recovered from 0-2 in the third set to upset world #3 Jelena Jankovic 6-4 4-6 6-4. With this win, Nicole leads their head-to-head 6:3. Jankovic would go on to finish 2008 ranked #1 despite never having won a Major.
            In the semi-finals, however, Svetlana Kuznetsova continued to be Nicole's nemesis, the world #2 winning 7-5 7-6(4) to extend their head-to-head to 4:0. Nicole had two set-points at 5-4* in the second set, and also led *3/0 in the tiebreak - only to lose 7 of the last 8 points.

Nicole reached the fourth round of the Australian Open. In the first round, she scored a very impressive 6-3 6-0 victory over cute 18-year-old world #57 Ioana Raluca Olaru. Nicole wasn't broken in the match, although she had to save a break-point at *4-3 in the first set.
            In the second round, Nicole beat #62-ranked Australian Alicia Molik 6-2 6-3, this time without facing a break-point. Sadly, Alicia went on to retire in September 2008, aged just 27.
            Nicole: "I am definitely happy with my performance. Alicia is the hometown-hero here and had all the support, but I think I played really well."
            Alicia: "Nicole played great. She served out of a tree: not just first serves but second serves as well. I guess that's the best serve I've played against the last six to nine months."
            In the third round, Nicole beat 32-year-old world #41 Ai Sugiyama 6-3 6-4. Although Nicole's statistics were less impressive than in her first two rounds, she saved all seven break-points against her to go into the fourth round unbroken in the tournament!
            This set up a repeat of Nicole's Australian Open 2007 semi-final against Serena Williams in the fourth round, which was really bad luck for Nicole after her dominating form of the first three rounds. Nicole lost 6-3 6-4 to the #7-ranked defending champion to go 0:4 down in their head-to-head. Nicole had the early break-points in the first set, but Williams scored the only break as she won it 6-3. Nicole recovered an early break in the second set, only to get broken for 4-5* on a double fault. Nicole threw her racket, and Williams served out to love.
            Nicole: "I think I had my chances, especially in the second set. Didn't choose the right shot, maybe went for too much. She pushes you to do that. That was the difference. [In] the points that were very important, she went out there and played a great point."
            Nicole also reached the third round of the doubles with Barbora Záhlavová Strýcová. They beat ninth seeds Lisa Raymond/Francesca Schiavone 2-6 6-4 6-2 in the first round, Hsieh,Su-Wei/Alla Kudryavtseva 6-3 6-4 in the second round, then lost 6-4 6-1 to seventh seeds Yan,Zi/Zheng,Jie.
            Nicole's stepfather and then-coach Aleš Kodat expressed concerns about Nicole's fitness, admitting that she had put on weight, which limited her mobility.
            For failing to defend her Australian Open 2007 semi-final, Nicole dropped from #12 to #15 in the rankings.

Nicole won all three of her rubbers as Czechia beat Slovakia 3:2 in World Group II of the Fed Cup on 2nd/3rd February. Slovakia may have been missing Daniela Hantuchová, but beautiful 18-year-old Dominika Cibulková, who would rise from world #48 at the time to #19 at the end of 2008, won the first tie over Petra Cetkovská 7-5 6-3. Nicole levelled at 1:1 with a 7-5 6-4 win over gorgeous 19-year-old Magdaléna Rybáriková, who would rise from world #207 at the time to #59 at the end of 2008. Nicole then gave Czechia 2:1 by beating Domi 3-6 6-3 6-1, but Magda levelled at 2:2 by beating Cetkovská 6-4 6-3. Nicole then teamed up with 32-year-old Kveta Peschke to win the deciding doubles-rubber 6-1 2-6 6-4 over Domi and 33-year-old Janette Husárová.
            On 13th February, it was announced that Nicole had quit the Czech Fed Cup team in order to concentrate on improving her ranking, although she did have plans to play Fed Cup again sometime in the future. But her absence from April's tie against Israel didn't hurt too much, as Czechia won 3:2 to be promoted to the World Group for 2009!

Nicole's ranking dropped to #16 on 11th February - just for failing to defend second-round points from Paris 2007 - although she moved back up to #14 on 18th February, as Dinara Safina and Nadia Petrova's quarter-final points from Antwerp 2007 came off.

Nicole thrashed #110-ranked Selesian qualifier Aiko Nakamura 6-3 6-0 in the first round of Dubai, then embarked on a six-match losing-streak. In the second round of Dubai, she lost 6-4 6-0 to world #2 Ana Ivanovic - a far cry from their amazing Wimbledon 2007 quarter-final. Ana now leads their head-to-head 3:1, and would go on to win the French Open and rise to #1.

In the second round of Indian Wells, Nicole lost 6-1 3-6 6-4 to world #56 Casey Dell'Acqua. I think we can blame the wind for that one, but Nicole's 6-4 6-0 loss to #83-ranked qualifier Alisa Kleybanova in the second round of Miami was truly shocking. That match went with serve until *4-5, then Nicole tanked the second set. She let Kleybanova serve 13 aces.
            For failing to defend her Indian Wells and Miami quarter-finals from 2007, Nicole's ranking dropped from #14 to #15 to #17.

Nicole pulled out of Amelia Island (week of 7th April) with a right-wrist injury, and on 9th April, it was announced that Nicole's stepfather Aleš Kodat was no longer coaching her.
            Nicole: "It was ten years [with Kodat], so that's hard. But I think we each gave it our all. The fact was the excitement-part was gone. We'd seen each other every day, and we wanted to switch that. It just stopped working, so we just parted."
            Kodat: "At this time, this is the best decision for us to make. It can help us both professionally."
            Nicole's manager: "Contrary to what some people are saying, Nicole and Aleš remain very close to each other, and people that know Nicole personally know how important her family is to her and always will be."

On 10th April, it was announced that Nicole had hired David Felgate as her coach. Felgate is best known in Britain as a long-term coach of Tim Henman, who retired in 2007 having reached six Major semi-finals and lost them all. Henman stuck with Felgate until 2001, even though the media often suggested that he should fire him long before then.
            Nicole: "What I really want is a different perspective, a different way of approaching the game. For eleven years, I've been doing the same thing with my stepdad as my coach, and it's time for a change. More motivation and new ideas. And it's working well so far."

On 14th April, Nicole's ranking climbed from #17 to #15 as Dinara Safina and Vera Zvonarëva lost points from Charleston 2007; however, Vera pushed Nicole back down to #16 a week later by reaching the final of Charleston 2008.

Nicole returned to action for the red-clay season, starting at Berlin, where she lost in the first round 4-6 6-1 6-2 to world #48 Gisela Dulko, who had won the Tier IV claycourt-title at Fčs two days previously. Nicole's ranking dropped one place to #17 as Dinara Safina won Berlin.

And it didn't get any better for Nicole at Rome. Her match against #72-ranked lucky loser Ekaterina Makarova was suspended overnight at 4-6 2-1, and Nicole went on to lose 6-4 4-6 6-2. Her ranking moved back up to #16 as world #1 Justine Henin abruptly announced her retirement and asked to be removed from the rankings!

Returning to the scene of her first Major semi-final two years previously, Nicole's losing-streak extended to six matches in the first round of the French Open, where she lost 7-6(2) 6-1 to #70-ranked qualifier Iveta Benešová, who just happens to be her best friend. Nicole led 3-1* in the first set, but Iveta fought back and won it on a tiebreak, and Nicole just seemed to give up as soon as she was broken for 1-2* in the second set, in which she won just 11 points. Nicole finished the match with a self-destructive W:UE ratio of 9:38.
            Nicole: "It's always hard to play your best friend. I have to give her credit: she played a great match. She started the tiebreak well, and I just have to give her credit. I looked to my box for support. I always do that and I did it today.
            "I've been changing things, and obviously it's not going to pay off right away. I'm happy with the decisions I took. They are not distracting me. I'm more independent than I was two years ago. I make my own decisions. I think I have grown up a lot. Obviously, right now I'm bummed because I lost, but tomorrow I'll wake up and be ready to go and practise and improve. I'm not going to be depressed or sad about this."
            Iveta: "It was a difficult draw for both of us, as we're very good friends. We were a little upset about it, but that's life. You have to play each other.
            "The key point of the first set was the tiebreak; I started well and it just went from there. I knew I had to attack. I was going for the big shots, and it was working. After a difficult first game in the second set, I played well again, and I don't think she was as focused in that set.
            And Iveta added a telling comment about Nicole's attitude: "She's in love, so she's happy."
            For failing to defend her French Open 2007 quarter-final, Nicole dropped from #16 to #19 in the rankings.

Nicole returned to some semblance of form at Birmingham in front of Yours Truly! In the second round, she trounced world #91 Nathalie Dechy 6-1 6-3. 29-year-old Dechy looked like a weak shadow of her former self, but Nicole looked very impressive as she overpowered the French veteran with her huge serves and forehands to win in just 51 minutes and extend their head-to-head to 3:0 (for the loss of 6, 5 and 4 games respectively).
            In the third round, Nicole edged past world #62 Ekaterina Makarova 6-7(5) 6-2 6-4 to avenge her Rome-defeat. It was a tough match for Nicole, played on a cold, windy evening against a left-handed opponent who served very well - although Nicole did make a lot of cheap return-errors, which would return to haunt her in the quarter-finals.
            The first set resembled one of those serve-dominated men's matches on grass in the mid-1990s, albeit with an exchange of breaks as Makarova broke for *5-4 but failed to serve it out. Nicole looked very upset when she lost the set on a tiebreak in which she had led 4/1*. Nicole stormed through the second set and led *5-2 in the third, but threw away her first chance to serve out the match with two double faults in a row. But she managed it at *5-4, despite missing an easy volley at 30/15 and putting her hand over her mouth.
            Nicole: "I feel good about today: it was a hard match, and it's always good to go through when you don't play your best tennis and you still find a way to win. I'm just going to continue to try to play my best moving into my next match."
            But Nicole came crashing down to Earth in her next match: a 6-3 6-0 quarter-final loss to world #81 Bethanie Mattek in 52 minutes. In cold, windy conditions on Friday the 13th of June, Nicole self-destructed in a hail of unforced errors: particularly her returns of serve, and particularly her forehand. Nicole didn't move her feet properly, and struggled with short balls from Mattek that she would punish when playing well. All Mattek did was to keep the ball in play, to a good depth, and not make any errors herself. At least Nicole looked upset when she lost, which shows that she still cares about her tennis after Iveta Benešová's "She's in love, so she's happy" comment at the French Open.
            Nicole: "I think Bethanie played a great match, but I didn't. I definitely had chances to come back, and didn't take them. I was tired and sore, and nothing really worked as I wanted it to today. It has been a good week, though. I think I just played a better player today than the ones I played earlier in the week, and I wasn't able to have the same result."
            Nicole's Tier III quarter-final was rewarded with a rise from #19 to #18 in the rankings.

In the first round of Eastbourne - again in front of Yours Truly - Nicole lost 6-2 6-4 to world #36 Olga Govortsova. Another disappointing loss for Nicole, as her groundstrokes (particularly her forehand) misfired again and again, and she was unhappy with her serve. At least she played twice as well as she did in her last match at Birmingham, and again looked pretty upset when she lost. Govortsova seemed very confident throughout the match, and Nicole just couldn't put any pressure on her serve in the second set, which was decided by one bad service-game from Nicole at 4-4.
            Nicole: "I had a pretty good week last week, so I expected a little more from myself today. It wasn't my day today. Everything felt flat. My serve wasn't working and that is a major part of my game, and she used her opportunities more."
            For failing to defend her Eastbourne 2007 quarter-final, Nicole's ranking fell from #18 to #22 - one of those places due to Nadia Petrova reaching the Eastbourne 2008 final.

Nicole defied her slump to reach the quarter-finals of Wimbledon for the second year in a row. In the first round, she thrashed #184-ranked qualifier Zuzana Ondrášková 6-2 6-2 in 43 minutes. Nicole served magnificently, winning 100% of points when she got her first serve in, and never facing break-point. She won the first 12 points of the second set to go 3-0* up.
            In the second round, Nicole beat #98-ranked wild card Samantha Stosur - on the comeback-trail after being sidelined from September 2007 to April 2008 with Lyme-disease - 6-2 0-6 6-4 to extend their head-to-head to 6:0. It was a very strange, up-and-down performance from Nicole, as both players' confidence fluctuated wildly throughout the match.
            Nicole started the match looking like a world-beater, overpowering Stosur with her big serve and groundstrokes, whilst barely making an unforced error. She was making none of those cheap return-errors that I saw at Birmingham. Stosur, on the other hand, was dreadful: she had only 31% of first serves in at one early stage, and her lack of confidence in her serve affected her whole game. That's how it was until Nicole led 5-1*.
            But there was a distinct change in the complexion of the match as Stosur found two great serves from *1-5 (15/30), and Nicole made a cheap return-error to have to serve for the first set at *5-2. And although she ultimately succeeded, she lost a lot of confidence in that game as she squandered four set-points including 40/0, and threw her racket.
            Nicole carried this loss of confidence into the second set, as cheaper errors began creeping into her game. The game at 0-2* seemed to break her spirit, as she squandered four break-points with cheap return-errors, and threw her racket twice more. And Stosur was full of confidence as she broke again for 4-0.
            By this stage, Nicole's on-court demeanour was very distressing to watch. It's one thing to tank a second set to save yourself for the third, but Nicole was not only rushing between and during points, she was staring around wildly as if she didn't want to be on court at all - she looked for all the world as if she was going to tank the whole match!
            I didn't see the third set, because Freeview BBCi stopped televising it, but Nicole looked to be heading for the dreaded double bagel at *0-3 and break-point down. But in an amazing turnaround, she won five games in a row to lead 5-3*, and served it out to 15 at *5-4.
            Nicole: "It was tough. The wind was swirling, and conditions were getting hard, but I think I just let it slip a little bit, and she picked it up, so I'm glad I got through that."
            The third round was much simpler, as Nicole avenged her Indian Wells defeat by beating a nervous Casey Dell'Acqua 6-2 6-4. Nicole only faced (and saved) one break-point in the match, and her main difficulty came from a rain-delay when she was up 6-2 *4-3 (30/30).
            Nicole: "It's always tough being in the lead, coming back after an hour or so. But I think I handled it very well. I made some changes in my team - a new coach - but the changes needed some time. It doesn't come overnight, so I'm definitely happy it's paying off and I'm showing some progress. I'm a pretty positive person, so I always kind of believe it's going to come back eventually."
            This set up a mouthwatering fourth-round match against eighth seed Anna Chakvetadze. Both girls came into Wimbledon in a slump, but that didn't stop them producing the match of the Championships!
            Anna scored the only break of the first set to take it 6-4, and came within a game of victory at 5-4* and 6-5* in the second set. But Nicole held both those service-games easily, and Anna suffered an emotional breakdown as she lost the second-set tiebreak 7/0 (not to take anything away from Nicole, who hit a return-winner and two aces on the last three points).
            Anna had break-point in the first game of the third, but Nicole saved it with an ace, and Anna double-faulted to go 0-2* down. But there was still plenty of excellent tennis to come as Anna survived a game of seven deuces and four break-points at *0-3, and Nicole's service-game at *3-1 was full of winners from both girls. But Anna couldn't get the break back, so she ended up losing 4-6 7-6(0) 6-3, and walked off the court in tears. Nicole now leads their head-to-head 3:0.
            Nicole: "She was the better player first set. I just tried to grind, and the second set, keep in the game and played a great tiebreak, and it just went from there. Got my confidence from the second set."
            Anna: "She's a good player, and she deserves definitely this win. Maybe I didn't use my opportunities in the second set. But still, she served really well today, and it was tough to return."
            Nicole might have expected to face top seed Ana Ivanovic in the quarter-finals, but instead found herself facing Ana's conqueror: #133-ranked wild card Zheng,Jie! Nicole lost 6-2 5-7 6-1 in a disappointing, erratic performance, but credit to Zheng: she knew exactly how to jerk Nicole around with precise, intelligent placement on her early, flat, low-bouncing groundstrokes.
            Nicole made a slow start with some sloppy errors, and couldn't convert any of six break-points as she lost the first set 6-2. In the second set, Nicole made fewer errors, Zheng's level dropped, and Nicole won the last three games after serving to stay in the match at *4-5.
            Nicole had a little opening at 1-1* (30/15*) in the third set, but didn't win another game after that. At *1-2, she hit three winners in a row to lead 40/15, but a double fault followed by three errors saw her broken for 1-3*. She was broken again for 1-5* after a long service-game of three deuces, and seemed to have given up as three quick errors gave Zheng three match-points at 40/0. Nicole saved the first two, but the final point (40/30) was an appropriate epilogue to Nicole's recent on-court struggles: she netted a cheap forehand return off a second serve.
            Nicole: "I have to give her credit: she played great. I think I just tried to keep the ball more in play [in the second set]: don't give her so much opportunities to really put it away."

Sadly, Nicole went back into her slump after Wimbledon, despite the change to hard courts, which are supposedly Nicole's favourite surface. She struggled past #133-ranked 18-year-old Selesian player Ayumi Morita 6-7(5) 6-3 6-1 in the first round of Los Angeles, then embarked on a four-match losing-streak, starting with a 6-4 6-0 second-round loss to #59-ranked wild card Bethanie Mattek, who took full advantage of Nicole's notoriously fragile temperament as she lost her head in the second set and sprayed balls all over the court.
            Mattek: "She's a great player, and I expected her to come out and start hitting big. I think she got frustrated when she couldn't break me straight off in the second set."
            Nicole rose one place in the rankings to #21.

Nicole lost to #33-ranked 33-year-old Ai Sugiyama in the first round of Montréal. Nicole led *3-0 in the first set, but Sugiyama won the next 8 games to lead 6-3 2-0*. Nicole won 6 of the next 7 games to take the second set 6-3, but suffered a vital break to go 1-3* down in the third, and lost 6-3 3-6 6-2.
            On 11th August, Nicole's ranking rose one place to #20 as Nadia Petrova's Los Angeles 2007 final came off.

At the Beijing Olympics, Nicole lost in the first round to #18-ranked 18-year-old Alizé Cornet. On Sunday, she won the first set on the strength of a single break in the first game, but seemed to tank the second set after going *1-4 down. At the end of the second set, play was suspended overnight due to rain.
            They played the third set on Monday. Nicole broke first for *3-1, but was broken back immediately, and again for 3-4*. Nicole broke back for *4-4, but Cornet broke again for *5-4, and Nicole squandered four break-points before losing 4-6 6-1 6-4.
            Nicole also lost in the first round of the doubles: 4-6 7-5 6-1, but not before she and Iveta Benešová led 6-4 *3-1 and 4-3* against eventual Gold-medallists Serena and Venus Williams!
            Nicole's singles-ranking went back down to #21 as Nadia Petrova won Cincinnati.

Nicole lost to Alizé Cornet again in the first round of New Haven: this time 6-3 7-6(8). And her ranking fell back to #22 as Caroline Wozniacki won the title.

In the first round of the US Open, Nicole thrashed world #66 Petra Cetkovská 6-1 6-2 in 47 minutes, winning 95% of points when she got her first serve in. "I feel like my game is picking up," she said. "Today, in my first round, I played great. So I really feel like it's turning around."
            Nicole also talked about the difference that her coach since April - David Felgate - had made so far: "He definitely has got me thinking more positive. We're more working on strategy than technique, and it's a refreshing thing to do that, and be more excited again for practice and stuff."
            Nicole crashed out of the US Open in the second round, losing 7-5 6-3 to #121-ranked wild card Séverine Brémond, who went on to reach the fourth round.
            Nicole's ranking dropped from #22 to #23 as Lindsay Davenport reached the third round; however, this change was reverted on 15th September as Davenport's Bali 2007 title came off.

Nicole crashed out in the first round of Stuttgart as world #30 Li,Na inflicted a 6-1 6-2 hurting. Li went on to beat #1-ranked US Open champion Serena Williams in the second round.

Nicole lost in the first round of Moscow 6-1 3-6 6-3 to #77-ranked wild card Vera Dushevina, who was celebrating her 22nd birthday (6th October). For failing to defend her Moscow 2007 quarter-final, Nicole's ranking dropped from #22 to #26, and when her Zürich 2007 semi-final came off, it plunged to #34.

Nicole ended her year on that three-match losing-streak, as she pulled out of Linz (20th October) and Québec City (27th October) with a right-wrist injury. For failing to defend her Linz 2007 semi-final, her ranking fell 6 more places to #40, and after Bethanie Mattek reached the final of Québec City, it settled at a year-end #41.

Nicole was quoted with some very encouraging words on 12th November: "It's [the wrist] better and there is no pain. I have not started hitting the ball much, but it seems a lot better. I did lot of exercises and rehab-programme with my coach. It was a tough period, but hopefully I will do better now. I will go back to Florida, and have one-and-a-half months to prepare for the season ahead."
            And on 30th December, she summed up her 2008 season: "It was just a year for me of transition, a lot of changes, and it took a toll. I'm just ready for next year. I took some time off and did a lot of rehab, and I feel as well as I can be."

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