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Superwoman Elena Vesnina unveils second comeback, Olympic dream, and final tennis farewell
The former WTA doubles No. 1 is in the midst of an intense pre-season in Miami as she plans a return to action after giving birth to second daughter Anna in 2023.
Published Jan 12, 2024
Even from the passenger side, Elena Vesnina is in the driver’s seat.
“Налево, налево!” the former WTA doubles No. 1 says mid-story, gently directing husband Pavel leftward through Miami traffic and a list of errands that includes talking to me, a trip to FedEx, and, oh yes, planning an elite tennis comeback while raising two children—set to begin next month in the Middle East.
Vesnina, 37, has been off the court since claiming a second Olympic medal—silver in Tokyo’s mixed doubles tournament with countryman Aslan Karatsev—that served as both the pinnacle and the unexpected conclusion of her 2021 comeback from maternity leave and the birth of first daughter Liza.
“After the Olympics, I honestly wanted to play some more tournaments, but I had so many injuries,” she explains over the phone in between navigating and tending to daughters Liza and Anna, 5 and just seven months, respectively. “I was so exhausted and so tired from playing all three at the Olympics, singles, doubles and mixed doubles. It was way too much, and the conditions there in Tokyo was really difficult. It was so humid and hot that my body was completely broken.
In addition to her mixed success, Vesnina fell just short of a medal in women’s doubles with Veronika Kudermetova, with whom she had also finished runner-up at Wimbledon a month prior. Less than six months into her return from nearly three years off tour, the 2016 Olympic doubles champ and 2017 BNP Paribas Open singles winner had reached two major finals in doubles and the third round of Roland Garros in singles, culminating with a wild week at the Tokyo Olympics. She was ready for a break.
This is it. I have to try. It’s either this or complain all your life that you never tried. Elena Vesnina
“I decided to skip the whole season and maybe get ready for the next season,” she reasoned. “But during the winter, I fell down on the ice near my home and I injured my arm really badly, you know, with blood all over. So, I was like, ‘Ok, this is the sign, maybe, that I have to stop. Maybe this was it.’
“I had wanted to have a normal season to have a proper goodbye to my career, to my friends and fans. But then I got pregnant!”
Welcoming second daughter Anna last spring, the dream of a comeback had been permanently postponed as recently as last fall when, just before decamping to Miami for the holidays, she received an email from the WTA about her still-available protected ranking.
“I was here in Miami, just for vacation,” she insists, briefly pausing to comfort a crying Anna, “to see my friends, and spend some time with them. One of my friends is Georgy Chukhleb, and he’s working in Miami as a coach. He asked if I wanted to hit sometime, and I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, I haven’t been on the court for a year! I need to start working out.’
“But I called Georgy back, he was telling me about Limitless Academy in Hallendale Beach. It’s run by Borna Coric’s coach Liam Smith, and they could provide me with all the services I need. They have courts, fitness coaches supplied by Cassiano Performance. I’ve known Cassiano Costa for many years; he was a physio for Victoria Azarenka and Vera Zvonareva. It’s a really good team here, and they make me feel like home.”
A former No. 13 in singles Vesnina shared her progress on Instagram, clips that caused questioning whether another comeback was in the works before making it official just before New Year's.
“To be honest, at first all I wanted was just to feel back in shape. I slowly started working out, and it was so difficult. I wanted to quit on the second or third day, thinking, ‘I’m not going to make it ever, ever in my life!’ But I pushed myself. You know how it is, when you’re an athlete, doing it for so many years, you’re not a quitter. You think you might quit, but something in you makes you keep going.
“The more time I spent on the court, I couldn’t deny how much I love this game. I love watching tennis, commentating tennis. I’m really enjoying myself on the court, so I started thinking, ‘Why not come back?’”
She cited fellow mom of two Caroline Wozniacki, who made an impressive return to action last summer and became the latest in a growing line of touring mothers, among her biggest role models.
“I got inspired by Caroline, Kim Clijsters, Serena Williams, Tatjana Maria, Kateryna Bondarenako, all these great moms who came back after having babies," she says, paying homage to the “OGs." For me, they are heroes, because I know how much energy it takes. Oh my god, being a mom, it’s the most difficult job in the world. It’s 24/7. You don’t get any money, you’re just spending it! You have to be in charge of so many things, so it’s the toughest job, but also the best and more rewarding.”
Much like her last comeback, Vesnina plans to return for tournaments in Doha and Dubai—first in doubles before evaluating where she may fit in the singles tour—with all the major stops highlighted and without the traveling difficulties presented by the then-still-lingering COVID-19 pandemic. The Russian will instead travel under a different cloud as an Olympic hopeful uncertain of her eligibility due to the ongoing war in Ukraine.
“The last comeback gives me a lot of confidence because I know what to expect,” she said, looking forward to showing her daughters various stops on the WTA tour. “At the same time, I’m not going to put any pressure on myself to do anything: not to win certain matches or a Grand Slam. It’s going to come slowly because I know it’s a process and for me.
“I really enjoyed my last comeback and maybe that’s why it was so successful: I didn’t put any pressure on myself there, either. I really enjoyed my time on the court, seeing all the girls and the fans again. Even though it was during the COVID time and it was so difficult to travel, and now it’ll be a different kind of difficulty to travel, but it’s a happy time. I’m going to set goals for myself, and regardless of whether I get there, I’ll get somewhere, and it’ll motivate me for the comeback.”
With her focus firmly back on the court, getting fit, and picking among potential doubles partners, Vesnina has at least one eye on the future and her next chapter, mainly as the director of her very own academy in her home city of Sochi but also teases a “Plan C" in media, as an analyst or TV host.
“They’re going to start building [the academy facilities] next year, so that’s going to be my third child! I’ve been working on this for a few years now, non-stop. There’ve been lots of Zoom calls, arranging and planning everything from the courts to the locker rooms. I hope to one day be able to host international tournaments there in Sochi, even for the WTA or ATP. Sochi is such a beautiful resort city, next to the sea. You can see the mountains from there and it’s only 10-15 minutes from the airport. It’s such a nice place that I want to make it right and comfortable for everyone. It's been a long, long process, so when the time comes I’m really going to be dedicated entirely to this.”
But first, that trip to FedEx: Vesnina bids farewell and ticks two more items off her to-do list, no task too big for this tennis supermom.