MADRID -- Striding briskly into the interview area, Barbora Strycova smiles and deftly, almost unconsciously, shifts her burden from right hip to left and executes a proper handshake.
She and that precious cargo, son Vincent, have been joined at the hip for 19 months. He is blond-haired and blue-eyed with the sweet, exquisite features of a Hummel figurine. On Thursday afternoon at the Mutua Madrid Open, he was wearing a pair of red-striped overalls, working on a pacifier and playing with the gold necklaces around his mother’s neck.
Strycova, an accomplished professional tennis player, is still wrestling with the vagaries of motherhood. What has she learned about herself?
“Oh, my God,” she said, laughing, “so much. I was not a patient human being. So I had to be much more patient with this guy. And my life, everything was planned. From morning until evening, I knew what was going to come.
“Now, it’s not happening.”
Playing for the first time in 26 months on Tuesday, Strycova lost to Elisabetta Cocciaretto in straight sets. Afterward, she was ebullient despite the loss. The 37-year-old from the Czech Republic fought her way into a second-set tiebreak and saved four match points.
The last time she was in Madrid, three years ago, Strycova left a champion. She and Hsieh Su-wei won the doubles title. Strycova has been a doubles champion 31 times, including 2019 Wimbledon with Hsieh, and the No.1-ranked player. In singles, she’s been as high as No.16 and was a 2019 semifinalist at Wimbledon. She’s won more than $12 million in prize money and played a combined 1,748 matches.
There will be at least one more in Madrid, where she’s paired again with Hsieh.
Strycova is part of a movement on the Hologic WTA Tour. Serena Williams was famously pregnant when she won the 2017 Australian Open, the last of her 23 Grand Slam singles titles. Victoria Azarenka reached the final of the 2020 US Open four years after giving birth to son Leo. Back in October, Elina Svitolina and husband Gael Monfils announced the birth of a daughter, Skai. The Ukraine player is back in the draw here in Madrid.
Three-time major champion Angelique Kerber became a mother when daughter Liana was born in February and has plans to return. Naomi Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam singles champion, is on maternity leave but has said she’ll come back, possibly as soon as 2024.
Even after Strycova played her last tournament, the 2021 Australian Open, she had an inkling she might return. Pregnancy and the presence of COVID, she said, forced her hand.
“I had in the back of my head that I would like to come back and retire on my terms,” Strycova said. “I needed to close this chapter on my terms. I felt it like I had to do it -- and I needed it still. That’s why I came back to play some tournaments -- just the ones I like.”
When Strycova and her longtime partner Petr Matejcek welcomed Vincent into the world in October 2021, everything changed -- but in a good way, she stressed. There is no nanny, but her mother, Ilona, is a constant presence.
Eyeing a comeback, Strycova set strict parameters on time devoted to tennis. She has been practicing three times a week, for two hours a session and doing four hours of fitness work in the gym. That’s 10 hours a week -- a long day for today’s professionals.
“But when I use this time, I have to say, I was using it fully,” Strycova said. “I went for it. I didn’t want to get into the rhythm of playing every day. You accept [the compromise] because of him. Because I didn’t want to cheat the time.
“With kids, you can plan but it changes a lot. Because he doesn’t sleep at this time, you have to change this and that. I mean, he takes one nap in the afternoon. One hour, maybe, and he’s not a good sleeper so it’s even tougher. The day before the match, we slept like five hours.”
Going into the first round, Strycova was worried she’d be thinking about Vincent during play. And while he typically occupies her thoughts during practice, her competitive mindset kicked in and she was able to focus on the match.
No.2-ranked Aryna Sabalenka is among Strycova’s peers who marvel at this level of multitasking.
“She’s given us belief, if we go for baby we still have chances to come back and compete on the high level,” Sabalenka said. “I think it’s really tough to balance. You spend a lot of energy on the court, then off the court you have a little kid who also needs your attention, your energy.
“Probably if one day I will go for baby and, planning to come back, I will go and ask, ‘Give me some tips how to stay focused, how to stay strong and balance it.’”
The hardest part, Strycova says, is leaving Vincent those three times a week she heads to practice. He cries every time, she said, and it hurts because they’re “really, really connected.”
After doubles in Madrid, she plans to play singles and doubles in Rome, then a full grass-court schedule in Birmingham, Eastbourne and Wimbledon. There’s a home event in Prague in early August and the possibility of playing in Cincinnati.
Her last professional match as things stand now, she confirmed, will be the US Open.
“When I’m thinking about all the tournaments I’m going to play it makes me feel joy,” Strycova said. “I am enjoying every minute of being on court. So it does not scare me because I know the life without tennis already.”
So, this is a victory lap?
“Yeah, yeah,” she said, nodding her head. “Farewell.”