Anastasia Potapova was scrambling behind the baseline at the 2020 St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy, thrilling her home crowd and giving eventual champion Kiki Bertens all she could handle through the first of what would be three consecutive WTA quarterfinal appearances.

At a time when the Russian teenager was asserting herself as a consistent force on tour, she now admits she was holding back.

“I would find myself being just that little bit too careful on the court, as good as my results were last year,” she explained after a dominant first-round win over No. 24 seed Alison Riske at the Australian Open. “I kept feeling like, ‘It’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.’”

Advertising

Potapova bonds with Andreescu through comeback, eyes Serena AO rematch

Potapova bonds with Andreescu through comeback, eyes Serena AO rematch

Getty Images

What she feared was not an ankle injury, but the ankle injury, the one doctors warned her would eventually require surgery when she first twisted it in Seoul several months earlier.

“He told me that the x-rays didn’t look good, and that while I could play on it with braces, it would only be a matter of time, of another fall or ankle roll. At the same time, I never seriously thought about surgery, because once I recovered, I didn’t have any pain. I definitely felt some discomfort, or had a little less range of motion, but it was never painful to move.”

The nuclear option became necessary shortly after the WTA Tour announced a lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I missed a stair, fell, and twisted it again. I heard a crack in that moment, and so I went straight to have an MRI. I’d broken my ankle, completely tore the ligament.

“It’s impossible to describe the pain I felt in the first three days; I was scared to sneeze or cough because any time I moved my body, it was like someone had taken a knife to my ankle.”

Advertising

Potapova makes a point to credit her surgeon and rehab specialist—both Russian—who helped her recover ahead of schedule, but it was still six months before the former junior Wimbledon champion was back on the court.

“I had so much time where I couldn’t play tennis; of course, I watched the US Open and Roland Garros, but otherwise, I got to briefly live a normal life as a teenaged girl in Russia. 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. I was just going for everything: waking up in the morning, having lunch with my friends, dinner with my parents. I even got a dog!

“It just helped me to deal with some problems off the court, and put my mind in such a good place. For me, I’m a different person now. I may have had to lose some points and freeze my ranking, but on the other hand, I gained a lot.”

When she reunited with coach Iain Hughes in Moscow, she discovered she had also gained a new serve, one with a higher toss that helped her win 72% of her first serve points as she dismantled Riske on Monday afternoon.

“When I started to train more intensely, we talked more about the serve, but there was never a conversation about changing it because it changed all on its own. It’s like how it’s so much easier to teach a five-year-old how to hit a shot correctly—because she’s never done it before—than to try and change something about a pro athlete’s technique after years of doing the same thing.

“When I took the racquet in my hand for the first time in six months, I felt like that five-year-old girl. It’s just another plus from having that time off.”

She took that refreshed mentality into an extended pre-season spent in Dubai; arriving in the Middle East before the Australian Open postponed its start date, Potapova took the opportunity to explore the city with good friend and 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu, who herself was working her way back from an injury lay-off.

Advertising

Potapova bonds with Andreescu through comeback, eyes Serena AO rematch

Potapova bonds with Andreescu through comeback, eyes Serena AO rematch

"[Bianca]'s a Blair to my Serena." @anapotapovaa/Instagram

“We’ve known each other for such a long time. We played juniors together, maybe from when we were 10 years old. In Dubai, we got even closer because the pre-season is never easy for an athlete, so to have someone to go for a dinner with after a tough day was incredible.

“We had an idea that was just, ‘Pre-season, but make it fun.’ We would have a day off every Sunday, and would do something different each time. We went to a water park, did some jet skiing, visited the Burj Khalifa. We did all we could to mix up our training with some fun moments because otherwise all of the work would have driven us both crazy!

“Marta Kostyuk joined us later on and the three of us started spending time together and rang in the New Year. We’ve had some fun, but we also worked really hard to get ourselves ready for the Open.”

The youngster hedged on whether Kostyuk clued either of them in on the pandemic protocols they were yet to experience.

“We weren’t talking about tournaments, and when we do, it was only the on-tour gossip!”

Potapova bonds with Andreescu through comeback, eyes Serena AO rematch

Potapova bonds with Andreescu through comeback, eyes Serena AO rematch

Advertising

Getty Images

Potapova would certainly be the talk of this tournament if she can defeat next opponent Timea Babos and replicate the fearless form she displayed against Simona Halep last week in a possible rematch with 23-time Grand Slam Serena Williams, who easily won their 2020 first round encounter.

“I don’t want to set ranking goals. I just want to play quality matches, where I’m not giving away too many cheap points. I want to fight for every point I play, because if I do that, I think that will put me in a great position, not only in the rankings, but also on tour.”

The Russian has been in a boot and back again in under a year, and twice left cities before they saw surges in COVID-19 cases just to get to Australia, a series of unfortunate events that have only strengthened Potapova’s resolve to stay present, keep scrambling, and maybe squeeze in a visit to the Melbourne Zoo.

“I have no idea what’s going to happen when the Oz swing is over and we all go home. I have no idea what is waiting for me there; we may go back into lockdown, or there may be another, more dangerous strain of COVID. I have no idea what awaits us in the future, so I just want to enjoy the moment, here and now, do whatever we want while we still can.”

Potapova bonds with Andreescu through comeback, eyes Serena AO rematch

Potapova bonds with Andreescu through comeback, eyes Serena AO rematch