New partners Vesnina and Karatsev hit the ground running

Russian pair reach mixed doubles final in their first event together with an eye on a possible Olympics call-up

Aslan Karatsev, Elena Vesnina, Roland-Garros 2021, mixed doubles semi-finals© Philippe Montigny/FFT
 - Chris Oddo

Some mixed doubles tandems come together in frantic moments, hours before the draw is made. Aslan Karatsev and Elena Vesnina don't roll like that.

The Russian duo, who will face Joe Salisbury of Great Britain and Desirae Krawczyk of the United States in the Roland-Garros mixed doubles final, have been planning this run for a while. 

Vesnina and Karatsev solidified a partnership that has been more than three months in the works on Tuesday in Paris, as they reached the final by defeating No.3 seeds Demi Schuurs and Wesley Koolhof, 6-4, 6-1.

Karatsev, who achieved breakout success this February at the Australian Open by becoming the first player to reach a semi-final on his Grand Slam singles debut, texted Vesnina not long after his breakthrough in Melbourne, eager to forge a connection with the former doubles world No.1.

Vesnina, a three-time major doubles champion who also owns an Olympic gold medal and a Grand Slam mixed doubles title, was pleasantly surprised to hear from her compatriot. 

The 34-year-old, who gave birth to her first daughter Elizaveta in November 2018, was just beginning her comeback to the tour when her phone started buzzing. 

"I was honestly surprised when I saw the message from him,” she said. “He texted me in February, I didn't even play Doha. He was like 'Oh hey, do you want to play mixed with me at the French?' and I'm like 'Aslan it's only February I don't know where I am right now, the level of my game.'" 

Vesnina, who reached the third round in singles in Paris this year, was eager to test out the partnership that could end up as a possible Olympic pairing this summer at the Tokyo games. 

“I really felt happy that the guy who just did the semi-finals at the Australian Open was asking me to play mixed doubles with him,” she said.

“I knew that I had lot of options, but nobody asked me. He was the first one that asked me, so I was like 'Let's play.'” 

Karatsev had never played mixed doubles before this week in Paris, but he’s coming up to speed quickly thanks to the tutelage of Vesnina. 

Alslan Karatsev, Elena Vesnina, Roland-Garros 2021, mixed doubles semi-final© Philippe Montigny/FFT

"She has a good experience, and sometimes she tells me some advice, just doubles things, where you have to stay, where you have to cover more,” the soft-spoken Karatsev says. “She shares the experience that she has.” 

Vesnina's daughter is currently back in Russia with her in-laws, and the Russian keeps tabs with her via FaceTime, multiple times a day.

She travelled with Elizaveta for tour stops in Antalya, Istanbul, Madrid and Rome, but said that after too much gelato in Rome, it was time for her to sleep in her own bed. 

"It's driving me crazy,” Vesnina said. “First time I left her for more than one day." 

Vesnina calls Karatsev the on-court leader of the pair, but adds that she is in charge when it comes to creating the relaxed atmosphere that can be highly conducive to mixed doubles success. 

"He's a quiet guy, he's not talking a lot, he's more inside himself about his thoughts, about his game. I'm not talking a lot - but just trying to relax the atmosphere just a little bit,” she said, referring to Karatsev’s reserved nature.

"I'm telling him, just play your game, just go with the flow, it's your game, you're playing great and you're the best on the court right now."

With upsets over the No.2 and No.3 seeds in the last two rounds, Vesnina is happy that her comeback is picking up speed in Paris.

Sounds like playing with Karatsev was a good plan, after all.

"It's so amazing to play in a Grand Slam first of all," Vesnina said. "I have a great partner, and I'm really enjoying playing with Aslan, he's so confident, so serious. It's great to play these big matches on the big stage, big points. You need these kinds of matches to grow up and improve your game."