Doing it for Dad: Anisimova forges a new path

After a semi-final run in 2019, tragedy struck for Anisimova. Now she's even more determined to make her father proud.

Amanda Anisimova, Roland-Garros 2020©Nicolas Gouhier
 - Danielle Rossingh

As an unseeded and 17-year-old, Amanda Anisimova lit up last year’s Roland-Garros with an extraordinary run to her maiden Grand Slam semi-final.

On a hot spring day in Paris, the American played near-flawless tennis as she dispatched Simona Halep, the defending champion, to become the first player born in the 2000s to reach the last four at a major.

Although Anisimova’s run was halted by the eventual champion, Ashleigh Barty of Australia, she became one of the hottest commercial properties in the sport.

Guided by Max Eisenbud, the agent of her idol Maria Sharapova, she has since signed a host of lucrative multi-million deals with the likes of Nike and Gatorade.

Seventeen months later, Halep beckons once more, this time in the third round of an autumnal Roland-Garros.

“It was one of the best matches I ever played,” Anisimova said in a phone interview in March. “It took a lot of focus and concentration, and I think my tennis really showed that day. It was a great day for me, and a great performance. I try to look back on it and try to focus on things in practice, play like I did there.”

Breakout year takes tragic turn

Born to Russian parents in Freehold, New Jersey, Anisimova moved to Miami at the age of three. She got into the sport through her tennis-playing older sister, Maria Anisimova-Egee, who is now an investment banker in New York.

Anisimova, whose game style and looks have often drawn comparisons to Sharapova, had an outstanding junior career, winning the US Open girls’ title in 2017.

Amanda Anisimova Roland-Garros 2019©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

But just as she was zooming up the pro rankings last summer, her momentum was tragically halted by the sudden death of her father and coach, Konstantin, at the age of 52 shortly before the US Open.

“It took a little bit of time for me to enjoy the game again,” she said. “Getting back on court always brings me good memories and I try to make him proud. So hopefully this year, I can win a couple of tournaments and dedicate those to him.”

Halep wary of what to expect

Just as Anisimova was building momentum again at the start of this season after a few months away from tennis, the pandemic shut down the sport for five months. Since tennis resumed, she has played four events, winning four matches.

But after a second-round loss on the clay in Rome and an opening-round defeat in Strasbourg, things have started to click into gear in Paris for the 25th-seeded American, who has dropped just four games in two matches.

Halep is well aware of the danger.

“I'm going to talk with the coach, I know it's going to be tough because she's hitting the ball strong and flat,” the top-seeded Romanian told reporters after winning her second round. “I remember the match from last year, I remember also that I didn't play what I wanted, so I will do some changes and I will just try to play better and to take my chances.”

Feeling the love for clay

Although Anisimova’s game was mostly honed on US hardcourts, she feels very comfortable on the red dirt.

“Everyone tells me they think I am a good hard-court player, they never even mention clay,” she said. “But ever since juniors, I’ve always won tournaments on clay. I never practised on it when I was a kid, because I was always on hard court, so it’s kind of strange, but I think I just have more time on my shots and it lets me play my game a little bit better.

"But it requires me to practise on it a little bit more and a little bit more preparation before the tournament. When I have that, I think I am very good on it.”    

Amanda Anisimova, Roland-Garros 2020©Nicolas Gouhier

Much to learn from Barty defeat

After her straight-sets defeat of Halep last year, Anisimova lost to Barty a nail-biting three-set match full of momentum swings.

“It was very rough,” recalled Anisimova. “I was very nervous, it was obviously my first Grand Slam semi-final and I wanted to do very well. But once I shook off those nerves, I started to play a little bit better.”

She now looks back on it as a learning experience.

“It obviously wasn’t a good match for me but you can always learn from it and the harder times, they motivate you for the next tournament. Getting to play Ash was a really great experience, I was very thankful for that. Hopefully, I can learn from the experience, and I can do better.”