NEW YORK, NY, USA - A year ago at the US Open, Slovakian teenager Viktoria Kuzmova almost pulled off the upset of the tournament against Venus Williams, pushing the seven-time major champion to three sets on Arthur Ashe Stadium in her Grand Slam main draw debut.
Kuzmova has been busy climbing the rankings ever since, negotiating the tough transition onto the WTA tour while collecting under-the-radar wins at the ITF level.
As a result, she’s blasted into the WTA’s Top 100 and risen to a career high of World No.54, firmly establishing herself as a regular threat on tour.
Back where it all began in New York City, former US Open junior finalist Kuzmova sat down for an exclusive interview with wtatennis.com after her doubles victory to discuss her rapid rise up the rankings, her brainy pre-match rituals and what makes this city so special for her.
1. Kuzmova has a love affair with the US Open, and she’s back at the site of the most treasured moments of her career.
The 20-year-old’s love for New York City goes way back: in 2016 Kuzmova reached the US Open junior singles final, and the year before she claimed the US Open junior doubles title alongside Russian partner Aleksandra Pospelova.
And it was here that Kuzmova qualified for the main draw of a Grand Slam for the first time. Her reward? A first-round battle against Venus Williams on Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“The most amazing moment of my career was for sure the first time that I qualified for a Grand Slam. It was actually here in New York, last year,” she recalled with a grin.
“That was really amazing because I played Venus [Williams] in the first round, on Arthur Ashe Stadium. There was so much emotions, the crowd was amazing - it was an incredible debut.”
Ranked No.135, Kuzmova pushed Venus to three sets before narrowly falling, 6-3 3-6 6-2 to the two-time US Open champion. This year, Kuzmova lost in the first round of the US Open to a resurgent Viktoria Azarenka in straight sets, 6-3, 7-5.
2. In one year she’s cut her ranking by more than half after a string of great results at the ITF and WTA level.
Kuzmova is rapidly becoming a regular fixture on the WTA tour. In 2018, she contested nine WTA main draws, five of them coming from the qualifying rounds, and reached main draw at all four Grand Slams - including her first Grand Slam victory coming at Roland Garros over Francesca Schiavone.
Coached by former Slovakian doubles player Michal Mertinak, Kuzmova is negotiating the tricky transition from juniors and ITF-level play to WTA with much success. A lucky loser at the Hungarian Ladies Open in Budapest, she capitalized on her second chance and reached her first WTA semifinal, and then backed it up in ‘s-Hertogenbosch with another semifinal run.
“Of course the transition is tough, but also the biggest tournaments on ITF are really tough too,” she said. “If you play a 100K tournament, some great players are going to be there. So it’s really tough. The only thing is that at Grand Slams and bigger tournaments, you’re playing the best players in the first round. That’s it.”
She cites her improved mentality as the key behind her success: "When I was younger, I was a bit emotional, but now it's better. I'll even tell myself why I did badly and try to play it better in the next match."
3. She’s a threat on all surfaces - but she prefers hardcourts.
With her pair of WTA semifinals coming on hardcourt and grass - and two ITF-level titles on clay - Kuzmova has proved to be a big threat on all surfaces.
“My favorite surface is hardcourt, but I also like grass,” she said. “But actually, I had a really amazing clay season this year too, so I was like, okay?
“But you know, I can’t say I hate clay or anything because I grew up on clay. Actually we didn’t have any hardcourts in my city [Košice, Slovakia] when I was small. So playing on clay is still pretty natural for me.”
4. Kuzmova sealed a dream Top 100 debut at home in Slovakia - the perfect 20th birthday present.
After starting the year ranked No.131 in the world, Kuzmova’s strong results throughout the season had her on the cusp of a Top 100 breakthrough for weeks.
When the moment finally came, Kuzmova said, it couldn’t have been more perfect. Playing in Slovakia in front of friends and family, days after her 20th birthday, she claimed the ITF Trnava 100K title the week of May 14 to seal her Top 100 debut.
“It’s like the biggest tournament we have in Slovakia for women, so that was really amazing,” Kuzmova gushed. “The only Slovakian player who won this before was [Anna Karolina] Schmiedlova, so it was amazing to win there. And I played really well there. I prefer to play more on hardcourts, and this was a clay tournament, so that was even better. I really enjoyed that week.”
After being on the edge of a breakthrough for a while, Kuzmova went into Trnava knowing that a deep run would send her into the Top 100 - but it didn’t add any pressure, she said.
“I was never really looking at the points and the rankings, because I don’t want to think about it too much,” she admitted. “But of course, sometimes when you’re on your phone you can see the articles, so you know that [reaching the Top 100] is possible.
“It’s hard to avoid this one, so I knew. But I didn’t really think about it. I didn’t really feel any more pressure.”
5. Playing tennis was always in the cards for Kuzmova.
When asked to recall her earliest memories of playing tennis, Kuzmova drew a blank. With her father a tennis player - and later the owner of a tennis club - Kuzmova has been playing the sport since infancy.
“I don’t remember this, but my mom is always telling me that when I was little, I was the first one awake in the morning and saying to [my dad], ‘Come on, let’s go play!’” she laughs.
“I don’t really remember the first time I picked up a racquet, because I wasn’t even three years old. My father used to play, and we kind of started to play in the house, like with racquets and stuff out in the garden. And then later he took me to the courts - I think I was about five when my dad started his tennis club, so that’s where we would go play.”
Her father took up the role of coach when Kuzmova started to show signs of talent on the court and, according to the Slovak, the rest was history.
“I think I knew I wanted to be a tennis player from the very beginning. I always loved to play tournaments, I loved competing. I never really thought about doing something else.”
6. She’s a bit of a brainiac, when she’s not playing tennis.
But if she had to pick a career away from the tennis courts, Kuzmova says she would hits the books.
“I kind of love school, so I guess I would do something like maybe study psychology and become a psychologist or counselor or something like that,” she said. “Or also be a lawyer. Some tough school, because I really enjoy studying and learning.”
Kuzmova also enjoys reading, which she does avidly before every match instead of having any protracted pre-match rituals.
“Right now I’m reading some fantasy book, but I also love Shakespeare and stuff like that, like the classics. I love to read anything - it’s like, up to what’s my mood. I also really like detective novels too.”
7. She also has a passion for photography - and she loves to play tourist.
With the nature of tennis sending players to far-flung locales for weeks at a time, Kuzmova makes sure she is taking it all in by taking time to do a bit of sightseeing, and she’s happy to play tourist in cities like New York.
“If I’m not reading a book, I like to go out and take photos, just like take my camera and go sightseeing,” she said. “I’ve done a lot of this in New York - we are staying like 100 meters from Fifth Avenue!
“My favorite place so far has been Long Island City. There’s the most amazing view: you can see like all of Manhattan over there and the river.”
8. Now that she’s achieved her Top 100 debut, she’s keeping it realistic with her new goals.
When she first filled out her WTA Player Information Sheet over a year ago, Kuzmova put down ‘reaching the Top 100’ as a first big career goal.
Now, with her Top 100 debut in the bag and main draw appearances at all four Grand Slams, Kuzmova is aiming a little higher with her new short-term goals - but not too high.
“Right now I’m ranked like 56 or something like that. So lets say Top 50 is my new goal now,” she laughed. “Top 50 because I’m not trying to push myself too much or give myself pressure. If I keep working on my serve and staying aggressive, I think I can reach this.”
Also on the bucket list for next season? A debut appearance at the BNL Internazionali d’Italia, which Kuzmova said is one her of her dream tournaments to play.
“I always wanted to play Rome. Everyone is always saying it’s so beautiful, but I never went there because… I’m not sure if it was that I was in qualies of a different tournament, I’m not sure. Or the schedule didn’t work. But I didn’t go there this year. Hopefully next year I will play.”