CINCINNATI, OH, USA - This time last year, Anna Karolina Schmiedlova was well in the middle of what would become a nine-match losing streak. Ranked just outside the Top 50 at the time, she would finish the year at No.73. Flash forward 12 months, and the 20-year-old from Kosice, Slovakia will be seeded at a Slam for the first time in her career at the US Open.
Since the start of February, Schmiedlova has tallied a total of three finals, including the first two titles of her career at the Katowice Open and Bucharest Open. Last week she made her first Premier quarterfinal at the Western & Southern Open, pushing her ranking up to a career-high No.32.
With such a drastic turnaround in 12 months, surely something must have changed for Schmiedlova. But the soft-spoken Slovakian struggled to come up with any cause-and-effect rationale for her success.
"I dont know," Schmiedlova said, somewhat bashfully. "I really don't know. I already had this coach for five years, I didn't do anything new. Last year was not easy. This part of the year I lost nine matches in the first round. Now I appreciate every win."
What's clear is the newfound confidence that comes from ticking off a new career milestone each month. Schmiedlova points to her run to the final at the Rio Open in February as a key moment to her season. "It was the first time I got to the final," she said. "It was something incredible. I never got to the semifinal before, or even quarterfinals maybe. It was where I started to believe that I could be a great player."
The key shot in Schmiedlova's game has always been her backhand. She strikes it confidently and is able to generate some incredible short-angles from outside the court to get her opponents on the run. But the forehand has always been the weaker shot. With the help of her coach Milan Martinec, she can now use the forehand as a weapon.
"I did not have a very good forehand so everyone was playing to that side," she said. "But now I feel that the backhand and forehand are pretty similar. I'm also moving better, I think."
Despite her rise up the rankings, Schmiedlova's goals remain modest. Based in Bratislava at the National Tennis Center, her biggest ambition is to make the Olympic team next year. In the meantime, she's hoping she can get a spot at the WTA Rising Stars Invitational in Singapore at the end of the season.
"I got to Top 100 pretty early," Schmiedlova said. "That I didn't expect at all. Then last year was not easy for me. I didn't have much confidence on court. But I came back and I'm pretty happy with my ranking. I didn't expect it. At the beginning of the year I had really small goals. Just stay in Top 100 and maybe get to Top 50."
Quick hits with Anna Karolina Schmiedlova:
Q: Who were your idols growing up?
Schmiedlova: "I really like Novak Djokovic, but I really don't have anyone special."
Q: How did you get started in tennis?
Schmiedlova: "My parents introduced me and we had some friends but they didn't want me to be a professional. It was just a game."
Q: When did you realize you might be good enough to make it a professional career?
Schmiedlova: "Probably when I came to the National Tennis Center, because before I was practicing and I was playing but I didn't see professional tennis in my city. Then when I came there and I saw the professional coaches and players, that was something important to me."
Q: Has your family had an opportunity to see you play this year?
Schmiedlova: "My mom was with me for both titles that I won. It's not easy though because I have a younger sister, 18, and younger brother, 16, and my father works five hours from Bratislava. So we are not all the time together."
Q: So how would you sum up your year so far?
Schmiedlova: "I would like to play better at majors. Roland Garros is my favorite tournament because it's on clay and this year I lost to Alison Van Uytvanck and I had so many set points and chances that I still think about it. I don't know if I will ever get such a good draw."
Q: You've been achieving a lot of "firsts" in your career this season. Name a player you haven't played yet that you'd love to face off against.
Schmiedlova: "I played a Top 10 player just once, Agnieszka Radwanska in Miami. So maybe one of them. But not in the first round! I like Petra Kvitova so maybe I'd like to play her. But she's such a good player. I never want to play Serena," she said, laughing.
Q: You're going to be seeded at the US Open. How do you feel about the tournament?
Scmiedlova: "I like that the hotel is in the downtown so we can have dinner and see some museums with my coaches and my friends. It's probably my favorite place. I like the courts there and I think I have good chances this year."