It wasn't enough for Marie Bouzkova to make her long-awaited ascent into the Top 100. The 21-year-old Rogers Cup semifinalist had more mountains to climb, opting to repeat a successful off-season where she combined practice in sunny Florida with an intense training block in the Pyrenees.
"I spent a week in the mountains to change the scenery and feel all of the conditions: from the extreme heat to extreme cold," she explained over the phone. "It went really well last year so I decided to do it this year, as well. Having all these tough practices where you’re at an altitude of several thousand feet, it’s great."
She joined fitness coach Mariano Hontecillas along with a coaching team that includes Cristian Requeni and father Milan in the hopes of capitalizing on the rapid improvements that helped the former US Open girl's singles champion catch up with fellow 2014 junior Slam winners Daria Kasatkina and Jelena Ostapenko.
"We’ve been working on getting more strength while also staying explosive. I think that was the biggest focus, along with having more endurance overall. It was a little bit of everything.
"Obviously, the workouts are different from what you’re used to doing throughout the season. You’re able to get a lot of workouts and practices that actually end up being quite fun!"
Bouzkova had plenty of fun on court in 2019, moving up over 60 spots in the rankings (peaking at World No.53) in a year that showed promise from the first week, qualifying for the Brisbane International and upsetting 2011 US Open champion Samantha Stosur as the clock struck 2019.
"I tried to construct my pre-season similarly to how I did last year; I think it worked really well because I was prepared for the tournaments in Australia. This year I had a good start in Brisbane, so hopefully I can reconnect there as well and start as strongly as I did last year."
Her results only got stronger after the Australian summer, with a runner-up finish at a WTA 125K tournament in Guadalajara and a maiden main draw appearances at Roland Garros - where she pushed future US Open champion Bianca Andreescu to three sets - and Wimbledon, where she reached the second round as a lucky loser.
"This season was beyond what I expected. I wanted to break into the Top 100, but I didn’t set any goals as high as where I finished. I’m really happy, and I gained a lot of experiences that I’ve been trying to learn from in the off-season. I hope to take all of that into the next year, and I’ve been excited to get back on court since the pre-season began. I’m just really happy to be a part of the tour now."
It all came together in August, when the WTA Breakthrough Player of the Month qualified for the Premier 5 tournament in Toronto and scored back-to-back wins over Sloane Stephens (her first over a Top 10 player) and Ostapenko, a full circle victory over a player she'd last beaten en route to her US Open junior title.
"It can be tough sometimes, but I always believed that the road I was taking was supposed to be like this, that I just needed more time: maybe to mature or get stronger, physically. I never really panicked or felt behind; I was just motivated by the other girls who were a similar age to me. Now that I could face someone like Aljona in Toronto, it felt really nice that I could see myself on the same level as her, even if she’s accomplished so much already. It’s been nice to see myself catch up and hopefully I’ll keep seeing them around!"
She outlasted an injured Simona Halep to reach the semifinals, where she nearly upset 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams with a stunning 6-1 first set, Williams' most lop-sided start to a match in over four years.
"The more I think of it, the more I think how amazing that moment was, even despite the loss. I was up for about a set and a half, so that’s really something I need to look at and take only positives from that match. I know that, even if I’m feeling down, I can think of that week in Toronto and the strengths I was able to come up with. That’s something that can push me through tougher moments in the next season."
Advice from veterans like Mirjana Lucic-Baroni also keep Bouzkova going. The two became unlikely sparring partners when they trained in Florida; in an interview at the 2017 Connecticut Open, Lucic-Baroni once recalled telling Bouzkova about her 1998 Australian Open doubles win with Martina Hingis, to which a giggling Bouzkova replied, "That's the year I was born!"
"Mirjana has always such a nice friend to me," she said from Florida on Friday. "She spent so many hours on court with me when I barely had any ranking and she was in the Top 50. She helped me so much to grow up as a player and as a person too."
Mature as she's become, Bouzkova hasn't outgrown some of her favorite holiday traditions, which she's eager to celebrate with her family this Christmas.
"The last time I spent Christmas at home, I was maybe 10 years old, but we still keep our Czech traditions and have our Christmas dinner. In Czech, we open presents on the 24th instead of the 25th, and so my brother is always shocked that Santa comes to our house a day earlier than he does for the other kids!
"We always watch Home Alone, and The Polar Express. It’s always these kinds of movies. I don’t think we could do Christmas without them!"
Bouzkova plans to kick off her 2020 season at the Brisbane International.