MASON, Ohio — Andrea Petkovic is living out the adage that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
Petkovic, a former top-10 player working her way back from injury, has been stuck playing ITF-level tournaments and low-level WTA events and trying to qualify for the tour’s biggest tournaments. She qualified for the Western & Southern Open this week, the first time she’s reached the main draw as a qualifier this year after failing to do so at Indian Wells, Madrid and the French Open.
“I get so stressed in qualifying because I feel like I have to qualify,” Petkovic told SI.com after beating Karolina Pliskova 7-5, 6-2 in her final round of qualifying on Sunday.
While the players in the qualifying tournament aren’t playing for big bucks (a first-round winner at the Western & Southern Open makes $2,670 and a main-draw qualifier is paid a little more than $9,000) or a bunch of rankings points (a player earns 30 for qualifying here), it’s the practical effects of qualifying that play on Petkovic’s mind.
“It’s so stupid, but you think of these things: If you win, you get 10 days free of hotel, you get a car,” she said. “For me, of course I can pay it, but it makes a huge difference having 10 nights paid because I have my physiotherapist with me, I have my coach with me, and I have to pay their rooms. And we get a car. In Mason, Ohio, you have to have a car,” she said, laughing.
“That was all in my mind, so I get so stressed,” she continued. “It’s every time and I know it and I cannot help it. But I was happy when I talked to Laura [Robson] and she told me she felt the same way in qualifying. So I think it’s that way for a lot of players, especially if you’re used to being in the main draw and then you have to qualify. You’re stressing out so much.”
Petkovic, 25, considered herself the happiest woman in the draw after qualifying, simply because she finally felt part of the tournament.
“I’m quite self-confident, but [being in the qualifying tournament] makes me insecure, like I’m not appreciated like a whole player,” she said. “Ivo Karlovic told me the same thing. He played qualifying at a tournament after his injuries. They asked him, ‘Are you a player or a qualifier?’ It’s just these little things that make you feel really bad.”
After handling her nerves in qualifying at the Western & Southern Open, Petkovic went on to defeat Daniela Hantuchova 2-6, 6-4, 6-1 in the first round. She lost to Roberta Vinci 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-3 on Wednesday.
Petkovic injured her knee at Hopman Cup in January, causing her to miss the first three months of the season, fall out of the top 150 and deal with yet another setback in an injury-plagued career. She had a few encouraging results early in the spring, but after losing to 156th-ranked Yi-Miao Zhou in the second round of qualifying for the French Open, Petkovic realized that she was putting too much pressure on herself.
“I was heartbroken for two days, but that was the first time I realized I was going back to my old behavior [of pushing too hard],” Petkovic said. “That was really good for me because I immediately relaxed and I just thought of how grateful I should be for having this second chance.”
She immediately started back at the bottom and began to get better results. In a three-week span, she won an ITF tournament in France, reached the final in Nurnberg, Germany, and lost to Sloane Stephens 8-6 in the third set in the second round of Wimbledon. Two weeks ago, she advanced to the final of the Citi Open, and her ranking is back up to No. 50.
“It was mental,” she said of her improved play since French Open qualifying. “I didn’t change as a tennis player.”
During Sunday’s interview, Petkovic also talked about her path to the pro tour, her favorite road eats, her big off-the-court priority at the U.S. Open and her favorite hot spot in Germany.
SI.com: When did you first realize you were good at tennis?
Petkovic: Probably when I was 13. Before that, I never played tournaments. I didn’t have a German passport so the German federation wouldn’t send me to tournaments and my parents didn’t have enough money to send me to tournaments. I got my German passport when I was 13 and I went to play ETA; it’s like junior under-14 in Europe. I won the first tournament out of qualies. Then the second one I was a special exempt and I won that as well. And I was like, “Wow, man. I might be good.”
After that, I played terrible again and I lost to everybody because I never practiced [enough]. I went to school and I practiced after school and I loved it, but it wasn’t enough. Back then, it was getting really professional, with players my age going to [tennis] academies. I think now it’s even worse. So I sucked. If you don’t practice, you just suck. But that was the first time I realized that “Man, if I practice, I might be good.”
SI.com: When you’re at a tournament, who do you call to go to dinner?
Petkovic: Every tournament is different. We went to a couple of dinners with Jarkko Nieminen in Miami because he’s Finnish and he doesn’t have friends [laughs]. I go to dinner with Feliciano Lopez, obviously. We are friends and go to dinner quite a lot. And then the German girls. Sometimes if we can plan it out, we go all together. It’s always really nice.
SI.com: Tennis players get to travel the world. What’s your favorite restaurant?
Petkovic: I eat so healthy when I play that I really like the restaurants that are not healthy. One is Robbie’s Roadhouse Bar & Grille in Encinitas, California. It’s kind of hipster-esque. All the surfers are hanging around, good meat, cool ambience. And I really love Halls Chophouse in Charleston, South Carolina. Oh, my God, it’s the best food.
SI.com: Where have you experienced the most extreme case of culture shock?
Petkovic: Definitely Beijing. It’s really a culture shock because of the language. Even the gestures are different. If I couldn’t speak English to an American, I could somehow get along with gestures. You cannot do that in China. It’s just so overwhelming.
SI.com: Name a celebrity you want to meet.
Petkovic: Ryan Gosling.
SI.com: I knew you were going to say that.
Petkovic: Easy one [laughs].
SI.com: With the U.S. Open coming up, what’s your favorite thing about New York City?
Petkovic: The art galleries. I love the energy in museums. I feel like there’s something creative going on, some creative force. The only problem I have with the museums is that they’re so crowded in New York. So it’s really tough when it tires you out.
Also, there’s this one street [Greene Street] around SoHo with tons of art galleries with lots of pop art and Andy Warhol, which I really like. I’m moving now to a really nice house and I have a big wall where I want to put a nice picture. I put it in my head that I have to buy it in New York. I just want to say it’s from New York. So this is my challenge for New York City.
SI.com: You’re moving to a new house?
Petkovic: I’m still with my parents, which is kind of embarrassing, being 25 years old. So I’m moving in with my little sister — well, she’s not so little, she’s 23.
SI.com: Still in Germany?
Petkovic: In Darmstadt, so it’s 15 minutes from my parents.
SI.com: Let’s say someone is visiting Germany for the first time. What advice would you give to ensure the quintessential German experience?
Petkovic: Go to a club in Berlin called Berghain. They don’t let tourists in, so this is the challenge. They let in transvestites, people who are tattooed from here [points at face] to here [points at waist] or extreme hipsters. You go inside and you don’t see anything. It’s all black. But they have the best electronic deejays. I don’t really like electronic music, but if they’re good deejays, they know how to pull it off somehow. And you don’t go there before 4 a.m. because it’s just empty. You party until 1 p.m.
SI.com: So they’re probably not going to let in the nice Midwestern dad wearing a hip pack and a baseball cap.
Petkovic: Probably not [laughs]. For them, tourists are people who are not living in Berlin. So even for us, you have to look really Berlin-esque to get in. We’re all dressing up crazy and drawing tattoos and we’re like, “Please let us in!”