By Charlie Pinkerton
About two years after a life-altering illness almost brought an end to the professional tennis career of one of the country’s once most-promising young players, she’s again contemplating retirement from the sport and what could come next.
Petra Januskova’s life in tennis was pre-set. Both of her older sisters, Eva and Erika, picked up the game ahead of her, with Petra following them at about the youngest she could properly swing a racquet – age 4.
She would go on to choose a similar path to Eva by competing in the sport in Division 1 of the NCAA, but not before lining Tennis Canada’s record books with her name as a youth competitor.
Januskova won the outdoor doubles championship at the Rogers Junior National Tennis Championships as both a U14 and U16 player, as well as the indoor championship in U14. In her two years in that division, she was ranked Canada’s 2nd and 4th best women’s player at the year’s end. As a 15- and 16-year-old she kept a 3rd place ranking in her age group in Canada.
Once she joined Penn State, Januskova perhaps even surpassed the high expectations that she’d set for herself. She was twice named to the All-Big Ten first team and before her sophomore year became the first Nittany Lion in more than 20 years to register a preseason ranking. To cap her career with Penn State, where she studied marketing, Januskova was awarded the Ernest B. McCoy Memorial Award for her high level of achievement in athletics as well as academics.
Months after graduating in the spring of 2013, Januskova turned pro. She cracked the Top 10 year-end rankings for Canadian women’s tennis players for the first time at the end of the next professional season. Recently-crowned Rogers Cup champion Bianca Andreescu debuted in the Top 10 of the Canadian women’s rankings just two spots ahead of Januskova that same year. By the end of the next season, 2016, Januskova had climbed a spot on the Canadian rankings as well as 185 spots in the world rankings.
ILLNESS FOILS RISE
But that accomplishment was dwarfed by a career tragedy for the then-25-year-old. Januskova had to retire midway through the first set of a quarterfinals matchup in a Croatia-held tournament in what would be her final match of that year. She was hospitalized, where she found out that she had rheumatic fever, which can be described in simple terms as an extreme escalation of the strep virus.
“It was almost a miracle that I was still alive,” Januskova said.
During her recovery she also developed shingles, deepening her need to take a period away from competitive play.
“I had to pretty much re-learn how to walk,” Januskova said.
The time she took away from playing competitively stretched to almost half a year and she says her game has never fully recovered.
After returning to tennis, Januskova did experience some immediate success, but not at the heights she had become accustomed to competing at. At the National Capital Tennis Association’s City Championships in 2017, she won both the singles and doubles division.
What followed for her was realizing the unfortunate reality that tennis players on the cusp of professionality face.
“If you want to make it in tennis you need money,” she said.
And the money she did have didn’t cut it to adequately sustain the lifestyle of a pro. Changes to professional tennis’ ranking system made earlier this year further diluted how much players with a ranking like her are paid, putting her in an even more difficult financial situation.
“Not everyone can be Jessica Pegula,” Januskova said, in reference to this year’s winner of Italy’s Citi Open, whose parents own the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres.
This season, Januskova had expected to be one-half of Canada’s doubles team at the Pan American Games in Lima, with her and partner Layne Sleeth appearing on an early entry list for the tournament, before another duo was shoed in in their place. After their entry to that tournament fell through, Januskova said she had hoped to play in the Rogers Cup for what could be a send-off on a high note. Instead, Sleeth and similarly-ranked fellow Canadian Louise Kwong were selected for the wild card slots in the top Canada-held event ahead of her.
“That was unfortunate,” Januskova said.
Heartbreaker at Gatineau IT event
Januskova’s also spent some time coaching in the last month, lending instruction to competitive junior players here in Ottawa, as well as playing close-to-home in recently held tournaments in Gatineau and Granby.
Her best recent showing was advancing to the quarterfinals of the Gatineau Challenger in the doubles’ division with Sleeth, and coming within a 2-point tiebreak of knocking off the top seeds.
Like she did in the singles division in Gatineau, she was eliminated in the round of 32 in Granby. She and Sleeth were knocked out in the round of 16 in the Granby Challenger.
“It could be possibly my last tournament if I decide not to play any during school. It’s crazy,” Januskova said.
When Januskova spoke with the Ottawa Sportspage in mid-August she had been accepted to Durham University in the United Kingdom and was awaiting the approval of her visa. Once it’s approved, which she had been under the assumption that it would be, she’s expecting to make a decision about whether or not to continue competing in tennis.
“I just live day-by-day, I’m not thinking about it too much, and that’s one of the reasons I think why I decided to go back to school. I think it will be a better transition for me because I know if I’m working or teaching tennis, I know I’m going to want to go out there and play again. I know it’s going to be really tough on me,” Januskova said.
She said that once she’s on foreign soil and has begun her masters program that only then will she determine what her tennis future will be. In reflection, she said she owes tennis for giving her the opportunity to travel the world. She also reflects fondly on high-level events she’s had the opportunity to participate in, like the Rogers Cup, which she played in the two years before falling ill.
“It’s really nice playing the big tournaments, you feel like you are someone,” Januskova said.
She’s plans to study marketing at Durham University, which is the career route she says she’d like to pursue. That – and maybe doing a little bit of tennis coaching on the side.
“It’s been a lot of fun and I’ve seen a lot of the girls and boys really improve,” Januskova said. “So it is really satisfying.”