Veronika Kudermetova is a quiet presence in press conferences. The Russian tends to begin answers with an inviting, “You know”—but by the end, we don’t. There often seems to be something left unsaid.
That may not be true for much longer as the 23-year-old cements herself as a player to watch in 2021, surviving Ukrainian teenager Marta Kostyuk, 7-6(8), 6-4 to reach her first WTA final in Abu Dhabi.
“I don’t think either of us played that well today,” she said after the match, “because I think we were both a bit nervous.
“I have a little bit more experience than Marta, Marta is really young, she’s 18. I think it was the key today.”
Four times a tour semifinalist, the world No. 46 has been on an upward trend since action resumed following the COVID-19 lockdown.
In her second tournament back, Kudermetova stunned former world No. 1 Karolina Pliskova at the relocated Western & Southern Open. Repeating the feat in more dramatic fashion later that fall in Ostrava, she credits an expanded coaching team that now includes Vlado Platenik—in addition to husband Sergei Demekhine—with aiding in her rise.
“Sometimes it can be hard to listen to someone like Sergei,” she said after her quarterfinal win over No. 2 seed Elina Svitolina. “He’s my husband, so it can be tough to listen to him; he’s like my family. Sometimes it helps to take on a new coach, a new person. Now I can listen and focus better, and so, no matter what happens on court, I can fight and do all the right things.”
Known for his expressive on-court coaching timeouts, Platenik has worked with the likes of Dominika Cibulkova and Daria Kasatkina. Still, Kudermetova couldn’t have predicted to channel this change into such quick success.
“When I came here, to be honest, I didn’t feel particularly well off the backhand or forehand. Then I went thought the first match against [Anett] Kontaveit, who is a very good player and seeded here. I tried, in my mind, and I felt mentally ready, and told myself ‘Ok, Veronika, you just need to fight and hit every ball on the court. Sometimes you need to push, but just do everything.’
“When I won the first and second matches, I started to play a little bit better. The third match was even better, and now I feel the conditions here; I’m playing good and felt the rhythm of the points. Now, I feel very confident.”
Confidence was crucial against Kostyuk, who, at 18, at last feels adjusted to the spotlight that first began following her when she won the 2017 Australian Open junior title.
“Her pace and height of ball was completely different from yesterday’s match: much faster, lower,” she said. “In the first set, I was really struggling with her speed. Even though I was putting the ball in and trying to attack, I was really struggling.”
Kostyuk clearly finds catharsis through the art of the interview, talking through the loss in between bouts of laughter and puts the result into context as she prepares for another Melbourne sojourn.
Kudermetova, while just as polite, lacks that same ease by contrast, though one answer may indicate the fire within.
“If I take my idol from tennis, it would be Maria Sharapova,” she thinks out loud on Tuesday, “but if I’m thinking of someone from life, it would be Khabib Nurmagomedov.”
Nurmagomedov is a mixed martial artist, the longest reigning UFC Lightweight Champion who remains undefeated after 29 fights.
Dressed in outfits designed by Armani, Kudermetova doesn’t immediately evoke the image of an MMA fighter. She seemingly floats behind the baseline and strikes the ball with a clean precision.
But looking at her results in Abu Dhabi, the comparison looks less farfetched. At 5’9”, the lithe Russian has relied on an unwillingness to break in long three-setters against Svitolina and Paula Badosa, and the swagger that comes with experience to conquer Kostyuk in the semifinals.
“Everybody told me I need to win today, but it’s tough, so I tried to do everything, and fight to the end.”
A street-fighter mentality got her this far in Abu Dhabi, and she will certainly need it again to snap Aryna Sabalenka’s 14-match winning streak in the final.