With three Grand Slam titles, two Olympic medals and five Billie Jean King Cup victories on her resume, Lucie Hradecka earned pride of place in the Czech tennis pantheon.
To recap, the unassuming lefty combined with compatriot Andrea Sestini Hlavackova to capture doubles majors, at Roland Garros in 2011 and the US Open in 2013, and with another Czech, Frantisek Cermak, to win the mixed doubles title in Paris in 2013.
Across the two disciplines, she reached six more Slam finals, while at the Olympics she and Hlavackova Sestini took home silver at London in 2012, where they fell to the Williams sisters in the final. Later the same season, they reached the title match at the WTA Finals in Istanbul. Four years later, Hradecka joined forces with Radek Stepanek to win bronze in mixed at Rio.
While Hradecka spent the latter part of her career burning her reputation in doubles — she reached No.4 in the world and won 26 titles in all, including three WTA 1000s at Cincinnati — she played singles with distinction, too, reaching seven finals and achieving a career-high ranking of No.41.
Reflecting on her career after an emotional tribute at the Agel Open in Ostrava, where she announced this season would be her last on the Hologic WTA Tour, Hradecka, 37, struggled to pinpoint a highlight among her accomplishments.
“I started playing tennis for fun, because I wanted to be like my older sister, Petra,” she said. “I don’t think anyone thought I would go on to win a lot of titles. I cannot choose one moment, because everything for me is special and has a story around it. I’m proud and thankful for everything.”
Hradecka was just 6 or 7 when her father, Karel, suggested she try hitting her forehand as well as her backhand with two hands. She says she didn’t watch much tennis on TV when she was young and didn’t have an idol, but she does recall having a poster of Monica Seles on her bedroom wall. Something resonated, and the style stuck.
“It became a big advantage for me because it gave me power,” Hradecka said. “But sometimes, especially in singles, it made things tougher because you are giving away a meter of reach.”
For a player who grew up in Prague, in the middle of Europe, it’s noteworthy that Hradecka didn’t compete beyond Czech borders until she was 16 or 17. “My dad was of the view that if I was still losing to local players, why would we go outside? But then finally one year I lost only a few junior matches and he said: “OK, let’s try and play some international tournaments.”
The rest is history, and among all her trophies, it’s clear her country’s tennis legacy holds great meaning for Hradecka.
“It’s unbelievable to be a small part of this,” she said. “When we won our first title as Czech Republic in 2011, I was so nervous. Kveta [Peschke] and I went on court at 2-2, so it was down to the doubles. I was very new to it all, but Kveta gave me what I needed on court, helping me stay calm and focused on every point.
“We won and it was amazing. The first Fed Cup win for our generation. Over the next few years we felt, well, why not do it again? We had a great team with Lucie [Safarova] and Petra [Kvitova] and we took turns winning the important rubbers — that means so much to a player. And every time we played at home, the people lifted us up and I think it was a big advantage for us, too.”
As it turns out, Hradecka’s final home match saw her paired with Linda Noskova, a rising 17-year-old who recently replaced Coco Gauff as the youngest player in the Top 100. The intergenerational Czechs went down to eventual champions Caty McNally and Aljcia Parks in the first round, but Hradecka was philosophical.
“It’s time to say goodbye and put the focus on the younger ones,” Hradecka said. “I’m glad to share my experience. If they learn something from me and one day they remember it, that makes me happy.”
Characteristically modest, and smiling through tears, she added: “I only have one wish that didn’t come true: I wanted to win a WTA title in singles. But I’m pretty happy with my career.”
For now, Hradecka looks forward to more time at home, but it’s clear tennis will play an important role in her next chapter.
“My sister has a tennis school and I love to help the kids — for me, a smile from a child is everything. So, I will help her with coaching and practicing and then we’ll see.”