Elena laughs at the end of our 30-minute interview, her first in English since 2018.
“I knew you would be the first one to reach out.”
Few could have done so faster. When, at the end of last year, rumor first ran through Russian channels that the reigning Olympic doubles champion was planning a return to action after giving birth to daughter Elizaveta, I immediately sent a text to ask whether it was true. Having seen her in light competition at a St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy exhibition in February, a comeback was certainly plausible; the 34-year-old had lost nothing—least of all her inimitable “Aiya!” grunt—in 20 months away from tennis.
Though she froze her spot atop the WTA doubles rankings when her maternity leave first began, nothing about the well-documented life she went on to lead indicated a forthcoming return.
“For the longest time, I didn’t think about coming back,” she concedes early on. “I felt so good at home—and I still do—that traveling isn’t the thing I’ve really missed that much.”
Athletes are often analyzed vis-à-vis more traditional modes like technique, results or even on-court demeanor. Elena Vesnina is ultimately best examined through a feminist lens, and in that way proves to be an endlessly rich text.
Western society holds “woman” and “athlete” in such diametric opposition that it took Billie Jean King to ensure they would never be put asunder. Born in the feminist wave that followed King and the Original 9, Vesnina effortlessly occupies both individual aspects of the woman athlete to their archetypal extremes—as much the relentless, warrior competitor and literal Olympian as she is the hyperfeminine wife and mother.
Whether it stems from deep-rooted cultural demands or merely the same competitive drive that fuels her tennis, she manages to typify the often-amorphous concept of “having it all,” and aims to impart that same duality on little Liza who, at two years old, is still young enough to travel with mother to initial tour stops in Doha and St. Petersburg.
“I’m trying to give Liza as much as I can. I want to teach her the piano and dancing, because for girls especially, it’s good to have rhythm. Maybe next, I’ll teach her to play tennis, and see how she likes it. If she does, I’ll be happy to help her play more.
“I want to teach her to be a brave and loving person. I want to teach her how to be free, to not be afraid of making a first step in anything, even when it’s difficult.”
Vesnina won the Indian Wells singles crown in 2017 as the No. 14 seed. (Getty Images)
For Vesnina, those first steps back onto the court came before the global pandemic, spurred on by advice from former coach Andrei Chesnokov.
“It really stuck with me when he said, ‘You know, Elena, I stopped playing when I was 31 or 32 and I wish I could have played longer.’ He retired because of a serious injury, and he told me that it’s better to try than to never have tried at all, and he’s right. I don’t want to feel sad later in life, or feel like I should have come back earlier, but know that it’s too late.”
It is an ethos clearly shared by countrywoman Vera Zvonareva, another tour mom whom Vesnina calls “The Professor,” and has chosen as her doubles partner for the planned return that may yet include singles. Quarterfinalists at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the two famously shared the court when she consoled Zvonareva through a 2010 Wimbledon Finals Day that was on course to end with back-to-back defeats—first to Serena Williams in a routine singles match, then to Vania King and Yaroslava Shvedova alongside Vesnina in doubles.
“I stopped only two years ago, but there’s already new faces, young players that I may not even know or maybe never played. The juniors are, in my opinion, braver than we were. When we were that age, we were just so excited to be on the tour. We had huge respect for the top players and big stars, and on the court, that may have not been so good for us.
“It’s great to see players, who were juniors, like, yesterday, winning Grand Slams, like Sofia Kenin and Iga Swiatek. It’s amazing to have these upcoming players who aren’t even up-and-coming; they’ve up-and-came! They’re already there.”
Vesnina and Makarova snagged gold medals in 2016. (Getty Images)
There is exactly where Vesnina was when she left the tour. She had at last become Co-No. 1 in women’s doubles—with fellow gold medalist Ekaterina Makarova—and was about a year removed from her signature singles triumph in Indian Wells.
What then, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, is the there here, in continuing a story after its fairytale ending?
A closer read reveals this unwitting feminist icon intends to write a new book entirely, one of the woman athlete free from socioeconomic restraints and expectations, setting an example for a next generation that couldn’t be closer to home.
“In my situation, I can choose the tournaments I want to play, the hotels where I want to stay. It’s not like I’m coming back because I have to. I have options, and I’m not rushing myself. It’s all natural, happy, and about enjoying tennis, because I enjoy tennis. It’s like tennis has never escaped me. I’ve been keeping it close. It’s a part of my life that will always be with me.
“I want to show my daughter the world, what mom is doing. She knows that mama is working, and plans to play tennis, and she’s excited about that.
“When she watches tennis, she’ll say, ‘My mom is also playing tennis…"
Overwhelmed by her own thesis, she interjects:
“You will write it better, David, but do you catch my thought?”
And then some.