Andrea Hlavackova and Timea Babos are riding a six-match winning streak into the Mutua Madrid Open quarterfinals; find out what Hlavackova and fellow Czech Barbora Strycova make of the shifting doubles field ahead of the clay court season.
WTA Insider David Kane
April 10, 2017

Andrea Hlavackova and new partner Timea Babos won their sixth straight match on Wednesday. The pair followed up their first title as a team at the Grand Prix de SAR La Princesse Lalla Meryem with two more wins at the Mutua Madrid Open, advancing into the quarterfinals where they’ll face Kiki Bertens and Johanna Larsson.

“It was something special,” Babos said of their 6-0, 3-6, 10-3 win over wildcards Lara Arruabarrena and Sara Sorribes Tormo. “I obviously just started playing with Andi, and so far it’s been really nice. I really enjoy playing with her. We’re 6-0 since we started, but it’s only going to get more challenging.

“We have a lot of fun on court, which is the most important thing.”

Despite quickly becoming one of the teams to beat, don’t expect them to come up with a nickname any time soon.

“I think we’ll wait a little while to come up with one,” Hlavackova joked with WTA Insider back in April. “In my last partnership, we didn’t end up needing one in the end.”

That last partnership was with Peng Shuai; together, they were one of the best teams to start the 2017 season. Runners-up at the Australian Open and Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, the pair briefly led the Porsche Race to Singapore doubles leaderboard before splitting after the Miami Open.

“I had no idea until she told me that she would like to split up right after the semifinal match in Miami. We had sat down to talk about the match and she told me she had been thinking of splitting up. That was news to me and she confirmed with me the same night that she hadn’t changed her mind.”

When Peng agreed to play doubles with Hlavackova at the end of last year, the former Chinese No.1 was ranked outside the Top 100 after missing most of the last two seasons due to a back injury. Three months into their partnership, she was back in the Top 40 after reaching the Taiwan Open final and the fourth round at the BNP Paribas Open.

“She's been doing very well since the beginning of the year and is very busy with singles. Given her back surgery she wants to keep an eye on her body and so she told me that doesn’t think she can play singles and doubles full time.”

Hlavackova is a former Top 60 singles player, but has enjoyed her best results in doubles, winning three major titles in women’s and mixed, and qualified for the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global for the last two seasons with former partner Lucie Hradecka.

“I expressed my goals for the season and we agreed to play together for the whole season, obviously with goals to make it to the masters and aiming for another grand slam title.”

Still ranked No.2 on the PRTS leaderboard with her former partner, the doubles specialist offered Peng a reduced schedule to avoid having to start from scratch with a new one.

“It's very tough, I have to say. Obviously I've reached many goals and won Grand Slam titles. Singapore, next to Grand Slam titles, is one of my biggest goals and being so close to it only to have to go again from zero is tough.

“It's a new challenge, and who knows? Maybe I’ll make it to Singapore with two partners this year!”

Given how many points she already earned with Peng, it’s not impossible to see Hlavackova representing two teams in the Top 8, though she’d ultimately have to pick between her and Babos at season’s end.

“Timea came to my mind because she's one of the players I like. I looked at the rankings, and chose her because she's one of the girls who doesn't have a steady partner at the moment,” she said of the Hungarian youngster, who has also made it to Singapore in back-to-back year - albeit with two different partners in Kristina Mladenovic and Yaroslava Shvedova.  

Babos began 2017 with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, winning the Apia International Sydney title and playing the biggest tournaments of the first quarter together.

“She plays on the backhand side, she’s nice girl, and we get along well. I went through a list of criteria and she was one of the top two girls I asked and I was very lucky that she still hadn't set up for the rest of the season.”

There has been plenty of indecision to go around thus far, as two of the Top 4 PRTS teams have already split. Former No.1 Martina Hingis parted with CoCo Vandeweghe and paired with Chan Yung-Jan after she and sister Chan Hao-Ching parted ways on the doubles court. Reigning French Open champions Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic ended their partnership after the Middle East swing, and Hlavackova’s own countrywoman Barbora Strycova saw the sun set on her hitherto successful combination with Sania Mirza.

“At the beginning of the year we didn't set doubles for the whole year,” Strycova told WTA Insider by phone from the Ladies Open Biel Bienne. “We said that we'd see how it goes and reassess after the hardcourts.

“After Miami we sat down and she told me she wants to play with someone who is playing only doubles, because it was tough for her to wait for me when I'm playing singles, and we don't practice so much with each other, which I completely understood.”

Though Mirza and Strycova made the final in Miami, their road featured more than their fair share of late matches to accommodate the Czech veteran’s dueling schedules.

“We are fine, and didn't have any fight! We’re still friends, and it was good conversation.”

After a season that largely featured stable partnerships - aside from the monumental Santina split from Hingis and Mirza - the clay court season has been a veritable reset for the field as new teams abound in the Madrid draw, including Strycova and new partner Julia Goerges.

“Miami was the tournament of splitting teams! I think it's because it's in the beginning of April, and there still you have a chance to find someone else. This is the right time to do it, because it would be tough to do it in the middle of the season.

“I think this was the last chance for the top players to switch partners.”

Hlavackova thought the Olympic tennis event might prevented more splits last year; after all, it was the initial impetus for multiple mono-country partnerships, including her own with Hradecka, who has since found success with Katerina Siniakova.

“Obviously for the fans, the media ,and everyone it would be much simpler if there were steady teams throughout the year. The two times I split with Hradecka, it was a big deal for our fans because most of them know us together, and it was disappointing, especially here in Czech Republic.

“I felt I was building something similar with Peng Shuai; we’d started to create this fan club, and now I’m sure it's kind of like they’re watching me for the first time, it feels different for them. They’ll come to me like, 'Oh, you were playing very well with Peng' and all that.”

The switches also bring their own tactical intrigues, allowing fans the opportunity to see multiple permutations of their favorite doubles players.

“Take Kiki and Caro. They split up and Kiki teamed up with Svetlana Kuznetsova, so obviously they were another strong team who we faced first time in Indian Wells and didn't do as well. But we learned a lesson for the next one, and played much better to beat them in Miami.

“It takes a couple of tournaments, a couple of matches against these new teams to get under their skin, to get to know them and be able to face them.”

Hlavackova initially envisioned she and Babos hitting their stride by the grass season, but six wins into their new partnership, the duo are looking like ones to watch ahead of the second Grand Slam of the season.