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Marta Kostyuk growing up on court with career run at Roland Garros
The former teen prodigy discussed overcoming teenage expectations, her close kinship to her mother and coach, and surviving a harrowing COVID-19 battle ahead of an revelatory week in Paris.
Published Jun 05, 2021
If you woke me up in the middle of the night and asked me how old I am, I would probably say 22 or 23, because that’s about as old as I’ve been treated,” Marta Kostyuk tells me as she tugs on her corduroy bucket hat. “Not like the 18-year-old that I am.
The Ukrainian teenager indeed opines—often at length—with a maturity that speaks to a dense four years in the public eye that started in 2017, when she became the second-youngest player ever to win the Australian Open junior title. Through the trials, frustrations, and even a bout with COVID-19 that followed, Kostyuk is into the third round of Roland Garros for the first time—and hasn’t lost her sense of humor.
“It was terrible!” she blurts out of her first trip to this tournament. “I had just won the Australian Open, so I was coming in with a lot of pressure from everyone. Looking back, I can’t even understand why I had that pressure; who was expecting me to win two junior Slams in a row? Why would that even happen? I was only a junior!
“I also had some issues outside the court; we didn’t have the proper hotel to stay at because they were all so expensive, and as a junior it’s not as easy to afford a 200 euro/night hotel. I lost in the second round and so my tournament was over by Monday. I’m sitting in the [Court Suzanne] Lenglen restaurant with my mom and she says, ‘This was the quickest tournament you’ve ever played.’”
Things only went faster for Kostyuk when she returned to Melbourne the following year and reached the third round as a qualifier. At 15 years old, she fell into the Catch-22 often occupied by the precocious athlete, and struggled to reconcile adult expectations with her teenage training wheels.
“I was one age in theory and another in practice,” she muses. “I especially felt pressure from the Age Eligibility Rule and the number of tournaments I was allowed to play. I know there are girls for whom the rule works fine, and they can say, ‘Ok, I have this number of tournaments per year,’ but I was putting a lot of pressure on myself where I couldn’t let things go.”
As contemporaries like Bianca Andreescu and Iga Swiatek appeared on the tour later, only to surpass her, Kostyuk relied on a close relationship with her mother—herself a former player who also serves as her coach—before her 18th birthday finally brought her out of limbo.
“I never get tired of saying what an unbelievable woman she is, with the life she’s had and has, she’s an amazing fighter and one of the strongest people I know. I feel like I had to lose some things in life to realize what my mom means to me, because we were always close but there would be times where I just wouldn’t want to see her or talk to her. When she wasn’t coaching me, it was real tough times, so I’m extremely thankful that my mom has been so open to learning.
“She changed and has learned so many things in the last 20 years, and I think I’m a big part of that change because we travel together and see different people, and this is an opportunity for us to grow every day. I’m just happy she’s by my side because there are a lot of parents who coach their kids on tour, but I believe we have one of the best relationships because we never say bad or terrible words to each other. We’re obviously both emotional, and, of course, there are times when we fight, but she understands me, I understand her, and we always come out of it.”
Officially a young adult, Kostyuk moved into her own apartment and immediately got to work on living up to her potential. A run to the US Open third round a few months after turning 18 foreshadowed a long-awaited Top 100 debut, and she began 2021 with a semifinal finish in Abu Dhabi.
The global pandemic, however, proved to be one last demon from her pre-adult years, stalking her from Australia—where planned practice partner Paula Badosa tested positive—back to Ukraine, where she ultimately caught it just before the Miami Open.
“I was already not feeling great in practice; I was running and my heart was racing. I felt like I was getting sick, and I almost never get sick. I got my positive result on Tuesday evening and the next day I had a fever and woke up at 5 A.M., freezing with a terrible headache.
“After a couple of days, I went to the hospital because I was out of breath and needed to check my lungs to see how they were. I never did the proper scan, but I know the x-rays didn’t really show the extent of the damage. I ultimately had to take antibiotics because I was diagnosed with a bacterial infection on top of COVID, and so I was out of breath all the time, barely walking and barely breathing.”
It took most of the clay-court season—and some much-needed advice from mom—to help her rediscover her rhythm in time for Roland Garros, where she backed up the biggest win of her career against former world No. 1 Garbiñe Muguruza with another straightforward victory against Zheng Saisai. On Saturday, she'll play Varvara Gracheva for a spot in the fourth round.
“Before today’s match, I was nervous and told her, ‘Can you please calm me down and take the pressure off?’ She joked, ‘Listen, if you lose, you won’t have to defend so many points.’ And then she said, ‘You have to win to the level you’re at, so you can easily defend that result next year.
'If you reach a certain level just because you won without playing well, it won’t help or bring you anything, so rely on your level. If the level is there, you’ll do it.’”
Beyond her family’s fervent support, the friendly and accessible youngster has made plenty of friends on tour, but remains wary of how these relationships will evolve as success continues to come her way.
“At tournaments, people think that we constantly see and talk to each other. Honestly? I saw Bianca Andreescu here twice in the last week because we practice and play and different times. I’ve been able to see Paula every day because we’ve been based in Lenglen most of the time, but everyone is mostly doing their own thing. We’re all so young yet that, with time, there’s still a possibility we’ll all go different ways because we’re all big competitors. We all want to be Top 5, No. 1s in the world, and win Slams.
If you can keep a friendship through this whole tennis life, it would be an unbelievable achievement because this isn’t something that happens very often.
“Everyone just needs to have pure intentions in the heart; if you feel like you can support a person 100 percent, it’s important to say it to their face. You should be able to say, ‘I can’t be your friend because I see you too much as a competitor.’ It would absolutely be uncomfortable for me to have a friend that I wouldn’t want to see succeed.”
A realistic (if a little bleak) perspective from the world-weary teen, who nonetheless flashes a bright smile as she bounds off to her next media engagement. Though she tries to set aside her youthful enthusiasm, it’s hard not to imagine some of it is still there, waiting to emerge with a result that proves all that her 14-year-old self thought she was, and all that her 18-year-old self still believes she can be.