Five things to know about Elena Vesnina’s Indian Wells "miracle"
Russia’s Elena Vesnina got the better of compatriot Svetlana Kuznetsova to win a topsy-turvy Indian Wells final 6-7 7-5 6-4, securing the biggest title of her career to date at the ripe old age of 30.
A hard-won victory
“This sounds like a miracle, for everybody, for you guys, for me, for all the girls out there,” said Elena Vesnina in the wake of her unexpected Indian Wells triumph. “I think nobody would have picked me at the beginning of the tournament that I could win this title. Me, also — I couldn't pick myself.” Having arrived at Indian Wells as the world No15, Vesnina was a rank outsider when the tournament began and had to earn her surprise title the hard way. After kicking off with a win over the USA’s Shelby Rogers, who had beaten her in their two previous meetings, the Russian then saw off Timea Babos, the winner of last month’s Hungarian Open. Lying in wait for Vesnina in the last 16 was none other Angelique Kerber, who reclaimed the world No1 spot on Monday. After disposing of the German, Vesnina then accounted for Venus Williams, a recent runner-up in Melbourne, and then claimed the scalp of Kristina Mladenovic, one of the form players on the Tour in recent weeks, having won in St Petersburg and finished runner-up in Acapulco. The biggest hurdle of all then came in the final, when the Russian edged out compatriot Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-7 7-5 6-4 in a gruelling battle that lasted a minute over three hours.
From zero to hero
Ranked 122nd in the world as recently as February 2016, Vesnina fell in the first round of the qualifying event at Indian Wells last year, the starkest possible contrast to her experience at the 2017 tournament. In the 12 months since that deflating loss, she has become a different player entirely, reaching a final in Charleston and a semi-final at Wimbledon last season before showing her remarkable resilience in the Californian desert. And resilient she needed to be in coming from behind not once but twice to see off world No8 Kuznetsova, a far more experienced campaigner than her when it comes to closing out finals. In doing so, Vesnina claimed the third and most important singles title of her career, the first two having come in Hobart and Eastbourne. After coming back from a set and 4-1 down and then 4-2 down in the deciding set, the world No15 fell to the floor in disbelief. “Tennis is awesome,” she later laughed.
A doubles specialist
As her locker-room colleagues would agree, Vesnina is a likeable sort, someone who plays the game with a smile on her face and does not take herself too seriously, even if she does feel she has something to prove as a singles player. “I’m the world No15, but I still get referred to in Russia as an ‘excellent doubles player.’ I just wanted to show that I’ve got more strings to my bow.” The fact is, however, that Vesnina is (also) a formidable doubles specialist, as her career record of 16 titles suggests. Those wins include the 2013 French Open and 2014 US Open crowns and the 2016 Olympic and WTA Finals titles, all four of which were secured in association with Ekaterina Makarova. “I think that doubles has helped me develop my singles game,” she explained. “Winning titles and matches and reaching finals gives you the chance play and train at the end of the day. I’ve come on as a singles player in these last two years. I can feel it as I get older. I calmed down and began to realise that I could play better.” Vesnina has made effective use of her doubles skills in taking her singles game to a new level, a point she proved in hitting 46 winners and venturing up to the net 32 times against a Kuznetsova playing her very best attacking game.
The fruit of her labours
“Thirty is the new 20 in tennis,” said Vesnina jokingly, picking up on the prevailing theme of the new season: the value of experience. After Serena and Venus fought it out for the Australian Open title, the second big final of 2017 also pitched two thirtysomethings together, with Kuznetsova a year older than Vesnina at 31. A great admirer of Steffi Graf, the newly crowned champion has been coming to the Indian Wells Tennis Garden since she was 16. Recalling her very first trip to this part of the world, which was also her first to the USA, she said: “I didn’t make the qualifying event. As soon as I came here, though, I looked around me and said to myself: ‘My God! I want to live here!’ I stayed in the house of a very nice old lady. She had two cars, one of them a soft top, and a garden with orange and grapefruit trees. It was so pretty.”
Aside from her mother tongue, Vesnina, who has been on the Tour since 2002, speaks fluent English. And as her social media followers can vouch for, she often posts messages in flawless French whenever she is in Paris. “I honestly know just a few words,” she explained. “One of my goals is to really learn the language though.” The person responsible for introducing her to the language of Suzanne Lenglen is none other than Andrei Chesnokov, the most Parisian of Muscovites and an occasional training partner of hers in Russia. “He speaks perfect French,” she added, full of admiration.
@rolandgarros Merci— Elena Vesnina (@EVesnina001) 15 août 2016