MADRID, Spain - Speak softly and carry a big stick. That's what 20-year-old Viktoria Kuzmova has done over the last 12 months to rise into the Top 50. The Slovakian was ranked outside the Top 100 this time last year. Now making her Mutua Madrid Open main draw debut ranked No.46, the clean-striking talent is into the Round of 16 to face two-time champion Simona Halep.
"It's my first time in Madrid and I'm so blessed that I can be here and playing the main draw," Kuzmova told WTA Insider after her second-round win over Carla Suárez Navarro. "Playing the second round on the center court was amazing."
Kuzmova's rise through the rankings to add her name to the list of dangerous young up-and-comers on the tour has been a steady one, marked by razor-thin wins and losses this season. After suffering a number of narrow three-set defeats last season, Kuzmova has been a match-point saving comeback star.
En route to the quarterfinals at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, Kuzmova saved match point to defeat Kiki Bertens to notch her first Top 10 win. One match later she pulled her off her Houdini act once again, defeating Sofia Kenin after saving three match points.
"Last year I had a couple matches against amazing players and it was really tough losses for me," Kuzmova said. "I lost, I did some mistakes, and I mostly lost because it was in my head.
"This year, I tried to delete that from my head and just focus on my game. When I won my first match like this it was an amazing feeling and I really realized that I can play against anyone. It's possible to play against every single player. That's what I have now in my head and I'm really going for it."
Kuzmova's growing confidence has helped her pull her powerful game together in a big way. Armed with a big serve - she served 20 aces in a three-set win over Kenin in Auckland en route to the semifinals - and big, clean power off the baseline, Kuzmova is not short of the very type of weapons that are supremely effective on the WTA Tour.
"My father was a player, so he introduced me to tennis," Kuzmova said. "I was playing since I was three. I don't really remember that but I was really little, but there are photos and videos and stuff. My parents were always saying that the first thing when I woke up in the morning I wanted to go play."
"My father always taught me to play aggressive. That's also what I'm working on with my coach now, to go more for volleys, because I can. I just had some good results in doubles, I just won Prague, so that's in my head and I think maybe we'll work on that also and include that in my matches."
So does her game-style match her personality?
"Sometimes," she said with a laugh. "I'm a calm person but I can explode sometimes, to be honest."
"Once I heard somebody my game to Daniela Hantuchova. I hear that sometimes. Ana Ivanovic as well."
Told that some reporters have mentioned similarities to a hypothetical "right-handed Petra Kvitova", Kuzmova's eyes widened with excitement.
"Yeah? Well, that would be awesome!"
When she's not serving aces - Kuzmova sits at No.5 on the WTA Ace Leaderboard behind only No.7 Kiki Bertens, No.5 Karolina Pliskova, No.2 Petra Kvitova, and No.1 Naomi Osaka - Kuzmova has not problems keeping herself occupied. She is currently studying International Relations and Diplomacy at a Czech university with a campus in Bratislava.
"I'm reading so many books," Kuzmova said, when asked about her free time away from the courts. "I always loved school since I was a little kid.
"Because of tennis, I didn't go to university after I graduated. I took two years off and then realized I can actually try and see what will happen. So far it's working and I really like it.
"I like politics, philosophy, and law. I like that kind of stuff."
Kuzmova is one to watch on all surfaces. While her game is set up perfectly for faster surfaces, she's not a foreigner on clay.
"I prefer hardcourt for sure because with my serve I can get points from that," Kuzmova said. "And grass is amazing, I love to play there.
"Clay, for my game, is maybe not that amazing, but I cannot say I don't like it because I was growing up on it. Until I was 15 I was only playing on clay, so I cannot say I don't like it. I can play on it."
Kuzmova has certainly proved as much this week and she'll get a chance to test herself against the best player on the surface in reigning Roland Garros champion Halep. Kuzmova says Halep, along with Angelique Kerber and Serena Williams, is on the short-list of players she is dying to play for the first time. The key for the youngster, who turns 21-years-old on Saturday, is to maintain the belief that has been growing inside her.
"It was all the experiences I had, and I realized what I did and what I had to change and I did that," Kuzmova said. "I think ever since that match against Venus on Arthur Ashe Stadium (2017 US Open), which was amazing, it was the first time I qualified at a Slam. I played against her and it was great. Also against Kiki Bertens in Dubai, I won that.
"All that together, now I believe I can play against players like this."