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Hot Take: Is Liudmila Samsonova set up for a 2024 breakthrough?
The formidable ballstriker has been on the precipice of a breakout result for three years; after reaching two WTA 1000 finals in 2023, can the 25-year-old make a major push next season?
Published Dec 16, 2023
Sporting discourse is rarely satisfied with the present. One eye is typically on the future, while the other is looking back, ostensibly to contextualize what is currently going on but mainly as an aid to predict what (more precisely, who) is coming up next.
Standing out in a tour that is only beginning to transition out of its most chaotic era in over a decade, Liudmila Samsonova has been the rare player on whom most can agree: this is a WTA rising star. But after three years of ascension, is 2024 make-or-break for the 25-year-old?
“As you get older, you feel better, more like you’re growing into yourself,” Samsonova said at the US Open, the site of many a major near-miss, in an English that carries a tonal mix of shyness and surprise at her ability to carry a conversation. “I think I’m learning, and I’m growing up.”
The maturation process has been surprisingly slow given her obvious abilities. Indeed, to build a tennis player in a lab, or to customize one in a millennial-era video game, is to arrive at Samsonova, a technically flawless athlete with an all-court game.
“At her best, Samsonova’s serve and forehand are both Top 5 on tour in the firepower department,” raves Gill Gross, a Tennis Channel commentator and host of the *Monday Match Analysis*.
“Her ability to produce a baseline winner at a moment’s notice consistently keeps her opponents on edge,” agrees Alex Gruskin, Editor-in-Chief of *Cracked Racquets* but more affectionately known by Samsonova as “Super Alex” from his time as a Cleveland on-court announcer. “That combination of power and unpredictability enables her to dictate the terms of engagement in almost every match she plays. Plus, she has the ability to win free points off her serve that few WTA players can match.
“If you can do those three things consistently over the course of two weeks, you can win a major.”
She first emerged as a post-pandemic major contender when, as a 22-year-old qualifier, she blitzed a stacked Berlin draw that included Marketa Vondrousova, Veronika Kudermetova, Madison Keys, and Victoria Azarenka before stunning Belinda Bencic for her first title.
Though history would have suggested Samsonova carry that momentum into an uncertain Wimbledon field, predictions of a breakout run were foiled by eventual finalist Karolina Pliskova in the fourth round.
Barred from the All England Club a year later due to the ban on Russian and Belarusian players, she proved no less formidable once she was back on court—winning a US Open warm-up in Washington, D.C. She spoke at length about work with a sports psychologist and beamed at the prospect of being everyone’s pick to take on Serena Williams in her final major appearance.
“Her ball is so strong, but I think I can do more physically,” she said dreamily. “I think I'm feeling ready physically, you know, to stay there and to play her balls also.”
Every year, I try to learn and improve so I can stay in the Slam mentality for the full two weeks, and everything that that means. There is a lot of stress when you’re at a Slam, it’s amazing how much you feel. Liudmila Samsonova
Again, the fairytale took a detour: as Samsonova plotted her strategy Arthur Ashe Stadium strategy, Williams would instead exit to Ajla Tomljanovic, who rode that wave to a perfunctory win over her flattened challenger on a lifeless Louis Armstrong.
“It was such a strange time,” she reflected last summer, “because I was thinking how I wanted to play Serena, or maybe I didn’t.
“Every year, I try to learn and improve so I can stay in the Slam mentality for the full two weeks, and everything that that means. There is a lot of stress when you’re at a Slam, it’s amazing how much you feel.
Ever optimistic, she added: “Still, it was a special week.”
Would the third time be the charm? She was talking to me in Flushing fresh off a similarly stressful/special week up north, where she weathered literal and figurative storms to finish runner-up at her first WTA 1000 tournament.
“I didn’t like the conditions at all!” she exclaims, eyes wide and gasping in disgust. “The courts were slow and the ball was getting big.”
Reminded that the run in Montréal featured wins over both Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina, she pivots slightly but holds firm.
“Ok, yes, that’s true! I did play amazing,” she laughs, “but if you ask me about the conditions, I didn’t like them! I was feeling free. I was enjoying my tennis, which is something I try to do in every match I play, to be in a place where I love my game.”
That freedom was accompanied by a growing fan reception, a broader understanding that this Russian-born, Italian-based ballstriker was one to watch.
“I’m starting to feel the energy from fans that’s like, ‘Wow, I like her!’ People are impressed by my game, and I love this.”
That growing appreciation could not compete with homegrown Madison Keys, in a decidedly different Armstrong environment: Keys rallied from a set down to outhit and outfox Samsonova in three sets.
What some would call a third strike was instead another lesson for the sport’s most tenacious student.
“I think the experience that I've done also during US Open, the match that I lost during US Open, gave me a lot of experience, a lot of things to learn,” she later said in Beijing.
Applying that experience with aplomb, she drew on the Chinese crowd support to roll into another WTA 1000 final, again defeating Rybakina before bowing out to Iga Swiatek in the final.
“It's the first time for a long time where so many people were cheering for me,” she said after the semis. “It's incredible.”
More incredible still that, for all these false starts, a Samsonova breakthrough still seems inevitable for those who know the sport best.
You’d think for a player with those weapons to never make the Top 10, there would need to be a severe weakness or two—maybe backhand or movement—but with Samsonova that’s not even the case. Gill Gross, Tennis Channel commentator and host of Monday Match Analysis
“You’d think for a player with those weapons to never make the Top 10, there would need to be a severe weakness or two—maybe backhand or movement—but with Samsonova that’s not even the case,” said Gross.
“What happened last year was strange because, statistically, her return game improved from 2022 but her serving actually declined significantly. Bizarre as it may sound, all she needs to do next year is serve like it’s 2022 and return like it’s 2023.”
“As dominant as Plan A can be, she’s yet to develop adequate tools to easily steady herself when things start to go awry,” offered Gruskin. “Her movement has also gotten much better, but she’s still not the most fluid moving in and out of corners.”
On cue, Samsonova metaphorically enters the chat, sharing updates from her off-season training bloc and inviting us all to watch what happens next.