Older and wiser Anastasia Potapova curbs rebellious streak for career-best seasonBy Oct 04, 2022
Meet Florian Zitzelsberger, the performance coach bringing new mom Naomi Osaka back to Grand Slam shapeBy Nov 08, 2023
Ohio State football coach Ryan Day finds inspiration on the tennis courtBy Oct 20, 2023
Andrey Rublev is learning that sharing his kind heart with everyone needs to include himselfBy Oct 20, 2023
Boy Meets World: Alex Michelsen's ascent from No. 1,022 to No. 110, in one yearBy Sep 28, 2023
Five Minutes With… Linda Fruhvirtova: Czech teen describes Gen Z binge-watching habits amid up and down 2023 seasonBy Sep 28, 2023
Four decades ago, Terry Holladay was the WTA's pioneering momBy Sep 21, 2023
50 years ago, John Newcombe rallied from near-retirement to become US Open championBy Sep 10, 2023
With US Open title in sight, the party is on hold for soon-to-be No. 1 Aryna SabalenkaBy Sep 06, 2023
Dana Mathewson, America’s top wheelchair tennis player, is ready for impact at US OpenBy Sep 05, 2023
Older and wiser Anastasia Potapova curbs rebellious streak for career-best season
The 21-year-old recommitted to tennis after dealing with severe burnout, earning a maiden WTA title and Top 50 debut in the process. In an unfiltered interview from the US Open, Potapova opens up about a once precarious work-life balance and the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Published Oct 04, 2022
WATCH: Potapova's nine-match winning streak—which featured a maiden WTA title in Istanbul—ended at the Mutua Madrid Open against former No. 1 NaomI Osaka.
Anastasia Potapova was 15 years old when she played her first tour-level match in 2017. Eight months removed from a maiden major triumph at junior Wimbledon, she spoke quickly after defeating future world No. 2 Maria Sakkari in Miami Open qualifying and giggled at the thought of facing Nick Kyrgios in 1:1 basketball—her grandmother coached a regional team at home in Russia.
Now 21, Potapova was already feeling time’s effects over half a decade into her pro career, so she surely felt ancient against 15-year-old Mirra Andreeva in the first round of the inaugural Jasmin Open in Tunisia.
“It’s just a thing where, everyone will ask me on tour how old I am, and no one believes me when I tell them I’m still only 21,” she exclaims at the US Open. “They’ll tell me that I’ve been on tour for a while now, and it’s true!”
Potapova speaks more deliberately now, though her bubbly syncopation remains. She had just beaten former junior colleague Claire Liu for her first major main-draw victory of what has been both her best and worst season since turning pro.
“It’s funny how, in tennis, everything can turn around,” she says, smiling in the small interview cubicle a few meters from the one in which she and I first spoke in 2016.
And indeed, there was plenty to celebrate. She had reached two WTA finals in the last three months—winning one—and, after briefly dropping out of the Top 100, made a long-overdue Top 50 debut.
After so many years of this lifestyle, it didn’t feel special to be on tour for some reason. It’s really stupid, and such a big mistake for a player of my age...At the end, we all know why I’m here and why I have such a beautiful life. It’s only because of tennis. Anastasia Potapova
Slam results proved more elusive: her spring surge came too late for the Roland Garros main-draw cut-off and she fell in qualifying. Wimbledon was also off the table due to the tournament’s ban on Russian and Belarusian players, leaving Potapova grateful just to be back at a major by August.
“At the moment, I’m really enjoying it out there. I’m playing really good tennis, I’m in a good shape, and practicing a lot. None of it makes me feel tired, and that’s a good, positive thing, so I can put even more on the practice courts and I can work that much harder.”
The improved stamina, which she attributes to new physical coach David Andreas, came in handy against Andreeva on Tuesday. Recovering from a second-set lapse, she rallied from a break down in the third and won the last five games score her 32nd victory of the year against her overawed countrywoman.
Of those 32 match wins, 26 have come since April, when she stormed to her first WTA title in Istanbul.
“When you want something really bad, you want to do whatever it takes,” she said at the time.
But Potapova later concedes that she didn’t begin 2022 with that mindset.
“I think my slow start was only because of myself,” she tells me. “It was my mistake because I wasn’t practicing hard enough to get the win.”
It was a startling admission from a player who, if anything, wanted to win too much in years past, and one who had just had an extended break from tour. Potapova underwent ankle surgery during the tour’s 2020 lockdown and spent her subsequent recovery leading a largely normal life.
“When someone invited me to a birthday party, I could actually go, because in the past, I would usually have tournament to play, but suddenly, I didn’t even have a practice!” she boasted last January.
That refresh led to back-to-back career breakthroughs at the 2021 Australian Open and Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, where she reached the third round and quarterfinals, respectively. After bringing aboard former ATP No. 18 Igor Andreev as her new coach later that summer, however, Potapova reveals she took the return of some ankle pain as an excuse to take her whole foot off the gas.
“It became more about the vacations, going to restaurants, to the beaches and parties,” she explains. “The tennis itself became low priority. I was still practicing but not as hard as I used to.
“After so many years of this lifestyle, it didn’t feel special to be on tour for some reason. It’s really stupid, and such a big mistake for a player of my age.”
I hit a point where I wanted to put tennis on the second hand, which was a mistake, but I have no regrets. I had a great time! I enjoyed it, even though I was losing on the court. Every athlete hates losing, so after some amount of defeats, I wanted to change something. I started with myself first. Anastasia Potapova
While she insists the COVID-19 lockdown helped more than it hurt, perhaps it reminded Potapova of exactly what she was missing.
“I didn’t get this life as a teenager, this freedom. I didn’t do much, and never really enjoyed it. At the end, we all know why I’m here and why I have such a beautiful life. It’s only because of tennis.”
A sit down with her team saw her turn the Sunshine Swing into the pre-season she’d shrugged off in December, and the results were almost immediate. She won nine straight matches between Istanbul and Madrid and reached a trio of WTA semifinals in the post-Wimbledon summer, crushing then-No. 2 Anett Kontaveit en route to the Prague Open final.
“I hit a point where I wanted to put tennis on the second hand, which was a mistake, but I have no regrets. I had a great time! I enjoyed it, even though I was losing on the court. Every athlete hates losing, so after some amount of defeats, I wanted to change something. I started with myself first.”
That tunnel vision has drawn criticism in light of global events. Though she was among the first to address Russia’s invasion into Ukraine on Instagram, she made no comment when it was reported that she had requested the removal of a fan draped in the Ukrainian flag when she played in Cincinnati.
“I keep getting the messages, but I have no reaction to it because I know I didn’t do it,” she says, categorically denying that she had incited umpire Morgane Lara to confront the fan, who had been watching her play fellow Russian Anna Kalinskaya. “I didn’t post anything because at this point, I’m a bad girl no matter what I say.
“I don’t know what the referee said to the woman, and I really feel sorry for her because it was unfair to ask her to leave. The match wasn’t interrupted and she wasn’t stopping our match.”
Reaffirming her initial statement, Potapova continues, “We’re obviously all against [the war]. We don’t want this happening; we don’t want it at all.
“But there’s nothing I can do personally. I can’t stop this, nor can I call someone up and ask them to stop this. I feel sorry for the people affected and I hope this can all end really, really soon.”
With her Bad Girl era behind her, Potapova hopes the wisdom she’s earned at her supposedly advanced age will not only fend off inspired teenagers like Andreeva, but also spark a further ascent up the rankings. With few points to defend in the next six months, a Grand Slam seed may yet be up for grabs.
“Learning to understand the balance really comes with time, because when you’re really young and you get your first big prize money, of course your mind goes blurry with, ‘I want to buy this, go there, do everything!’
“But it’s fine: we’ve all been there. At the end, it’s about your goals and what you really want. If you want to be a Grand Slam champion, you can’t get caught up in this kind of life.”