As he recounted his tortuous path from tennis oblivion to Grand Slam champion, Petr Korda spoke most emotionally about his father.
It was the only time Korda choked up today, a joyous day for him at the Australian Open when, at the age of 30, he captured his first major title with a 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 victory over wooden, error-prone Marcelo Rios.
“Deep from heart, I want to thank my father,” Korda said shortly after calling his dad, also named Petr, in Prague to share his moment of triumph. “He was the one who had the most impact on my career. He put the tennis (racket) in my hand. My mother raised me. My father raised me on the court.”
Growing up in Prague, the last male champion to emerge from the old Czechoslovakian regime, Korda endured the divorce of his parents and the strictness of the tennis bureaucrats to join his heroes: Jan Kodes, Ivan Lendl, Martina Navratilova and Hana Mandlikova as a Grand Slam winner.
Nothing about the 85-minute Australian Open final sparkled except Korda’s eyes as he completed a journey back toward the pinnacle of the sport.
Near retirement from relentless pain a few years ago, Korda celebrated his revival by falling to his knees in prayer, cartwheeling across court and climbing into the stands to hug his wife and daughter.
Korda played solidly, if unspectacularly, but that’s all he had to do against the pony-tailed, 22-year-old Chilean, who could barely keep the ball on court and could never pressure Korda.
Korda produced 32 winners, mostly off his forehand, compared to Rios’ mere seven.
Korda, who will move from No. 7 to a career-high No. 2 in the next rankings, is the first Czech man to win the Australian title since Lendl in 1989 and 1990. In his family home in the Czech Republic, Korda still has a poster autographed by Lendl. Only one other Czech man, Kodes, ever won a Grand Slam title.
Korda also is the oldest Grand Slam winner since Andres Gomez, a few months older, captured the French Open in 1990.
Rios, a career-high No. 5 in the next rankings after coming in No. 8, was the first South American to reach the Australian final since Guillermo Vilas won in 1978 and 1979, and the first Chilean in a Grand Slam final since Luis Ayala was runner-up in the French Open in 1958 and 1960.
Korda, who lost to Rios in straight sets in the first round of last year’s Australian Open and fell in the first round two years ago, ruled this match from the sixth game of the opening set, when he broke Rios for the second time for a 4-2 lead.
Korda then held at love and broke Rios for a third straight time to close out the set in 27 minutes. Rios put up little resistance in the second set, going down by the same score in the same amount of time. By then it was clear Korda would have no letdown, and Rios would have nothing in him to claw his way back as he believes he’s learned to do.
“I was waiting for this a long, long time,” Korda told the crowd. He gave special thanks to his wife, Regina, saying, “What we went through was unbelievable… . I didn’t believe it could happen. It’s a dream come true.”
Regina, holding their 4-year-old daughter Jessica, radiated with delight as much as her husband. This was not a time for tears, but one for broad smiles.
“I don’t want to look back to the bad times, but to think just how well he was playing today,” said Regina, a former pro on the women’s tour. “It was so frustrating when he couldn’t really play, for nearly two to three years.”
It was Regina, Korda said, who kept him going through the despair of one operation after another, one rehab after another, through early morning exercises and late-night matches.
“That’s what a family is for,” she said. “That’s how it works. I always knew he could play unbelievable tennis, but I really did not think how far he could go. Today, I just had my fingers crossed.”
As big as this victory was, Korda didn’t know how much longer he would play.
“I’m very hungry at the moment, so there’s a big chance I’ll be back in 1999,” Korda said. “But I don’t want to rush my decision. I just want to enjoy this moment.
“I could have retired happy even without the slam, because I gave 100 percent. I just put all the pieces together for this tournament. It was really a very enjoyable ride for me.”