SINGAPORE - Defending BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global champion Andrea Sestini Hlavackova surely knows how to navigate the sometimes-tricky surface at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, perhaps because she and partner Barbora Strycova grew up gliding on something much more slippery as children in Plzen, Czech Republic.
“Bara was always the leader among the kids,” Sestini Hlavackova explained ahead of Tuesday evening’s doubles draw ceremony. “My mom saw her figure skating, so she said, ‘Ok, we need to do figure skating!’ We got on the ice, and by the time I got into it, she left because she had to concentrate on tennis. I stuck to it for another one or two years. We could only do single jumps.”
“We tried doubles!” Strycova chirped, recalling with a laugh. “We couldn’t, but we were trying. We had a tough coach.”
Both in floral-themed dresses for the draw ceremony, the “Angry Birds” still take to the ice when they can, occasionally taking lessons from compatriot and former European Figure Skating champion Tomas Verner.
“I love figure skating,” Sestini Hlavackova said. “I think it gets in your blood, and when we talk about it, we have the same opinion that when we get on the ice, it’s a magical feeling. You feel very special when you know how to grab the ice a little.”
Born within five months of one another, the Czech veterans have been friends and rivals as long as either can remember, Sestini Hlavackova spending years trying to match Strycova, a talented junior who beat Maria Sharapova to win the girl’s singles title at the 2002 Australian Open.
“My memory from childhood...was that Bara was always eating a lot!”
Strycova agrees and they dissolve into laughter, folding into one another from their seats.
“My mom wanted me to eat the same so I could be as strong and as good as her,” Sestini Hlavackova continued. “She was always better than everyone at our age, playing girls who were three, four years older.
“We would say, ‘Yes, Bara is in the other category, under-16, under-18, when we were all under-12! But it’s ok!’ I caught up! I fought hard, and I caught up, at least on the tour level.”
While Strycova continued to excel in singles - peaking at World No.16 last year - Sestini Hlavackova was even more prolific in doubles, winning the WTA Finals with Timea Babos, three major titles in women’s and mixed doubles, and a silver medal at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London.
Qualifying for the WTA Finals in the last three years with two different partners, Sestini Hlavackova began 2018 with then-World No.1 Latisha Chan before sending Strycova a message during the Middle East Swing.
“I didn’t have anyone, and she finished with Latisha. We thought about it, figuring, ‘Why not try it? Maybe it’s the right time.’”
Their match at the Miami Open was their first as a team since a decisive Fed Cup rubber in 2014 against Spain. Before that, an ITF Challenger tournament all the way back in 2008.
“We have so many memories,” Strycova countered, “not only in tennis, but we’ve experienced so much together, going on vacations, sleepovers at my home.”
They soon took flight during the clay court season, making the semifinals of Roland Garros and the Mutua Madrid Open, finishing runner-up at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia, and picking up a nickname along the way.
“My coach came up with it in Madrid, because he saw us acting a bit feisty on the court, which, we maybe need to be a bit angry on the court,” Sestini Hlavackova said. “He said we were acting like two little angry birds, and then he said, ‘That’s actually catchy, because Angry is like Andi, and Bird is like B.’
"That’s when we started the hashtag, and we had a very nice swing in Madrid, Rome, Paris. We won so many matches, almost like now, in Asia. It was trending, and it was going, so we stuck with it.”
For Sestini Hlavackova, partnering Strycova required a tactical shift after years of being the steadier half of power-finesse partnerships with Babos and Lucie Hradecka.
“In Bara, I found a master of movement, the short game at the net. All of that means I had to adapt a little, and take on different things and start to play more wildly because I had to be the one who goes for the bigger shots. With such a good player, it’s a good thing.”
A slower summer nearly forced the Angry Birds out of their nest, with a much-needed turnaround coming at the Connecticut Open in New Haven. Since winning there, they've catipulted to a 14-3 record in North America and Asia, including a second title at the China Open.
Having twice fallen just short of qualifying for the WTA Finals - successful third quarter partnerships with Sania Mirza and Lucie Safarova lacked the requisite mileage to earn a Top 8 point total - Strycova sees landing in Singapore as a full circle moment, one she and Sestini Hlavackova hope to parlay into a perfect ending - before putting their season on ice.
“I think that I’m a pretty good doubles player that, if I never experienced this here, I would have been disappointed.
"I’m happy that I could be here with her because it’s like a story. We grew up together, and now we’re playing here, the best tournament in the world, among the Top 8 teams. It’s great."