Reigning Olympic doubles champion Elena Vesnina will take her comeback to the next level at the Mutua Madrid Open, where she plans to play her first singles match since leaving the tour to give birth to her first child.
“It was a big decision and I was thinking a lot about it, but as I started practicing more, I felt I could try,” she said after a first-round doubles victory alongside fellow tour mom Vera Zvonareva in Istanbul. “Practicing and playing matches is totally different, so you just have to jump in and try at some point. Even if you lose the two- or three-set match, it will give you so much more than if you were out there practicing for two hours. Match play is what will improve my game, not only in singles, but also in doubles.”
Vesnina, who will open against Volvo Car Open champion Veronika Kudermetova later this week, was last on the singles court at the 2018 French Open and initially plotted a return to action last season, only for the global pandemic to postpone her plans into 2021.
TEB BNP Paribas Tennis Championship Istanbul
The former WTA doubles No. 1 nonetheless made a winning return with Laura Siegemund at the Qatar Total Open and has reached the quarterfinals in all three of her events (two with Zvonareva) thus far, allowing for an increased focus on singles preparation.
“I wanted to start playing singles already in Istanbul but I didn’t get the Top 20 wildcard, said the former No. 13. “I do plan to play Madrid, Rome, and the French Open.”
Vesnina and Zvonareva’s clay-court training began well ahead of the TEB BNP Paribas Tennis Championships Istanbul, bringing them to the seaside city of Antalya to participate in a clay-court training bloc organized by the Russian Tennis Federation.
“It was a mix of the best under-16 and under-18 juniors, as well as some older players,” Vesnina explained. “We got to have a fitness coach, massage therapist, a doctor, and we’d all practice together.
“For the younger girls, having players like me and Vera in the camp is great because they look at us and it’s like, they were babies when we were on tour! Some of them were telling us they would watch our matches on TV, and others would come to the tournaments looking for our autographs, or even worked as ball girls for us. For us, it’s a big motivation to improve and work harder because they’re watching how we practice and how they will need to work. The coaches would tell them, ‘Watch how Elena and Vera are practicing and how they’re working, so you’ll know how to work too.’”
Long before she became mother to two-year-old Elizaveta, the 2017 BNP Paribas Open champion tended to embrace serving as a to mentor the next generation—Daria Kasatkina once called her “my tennis mama”—even if it meant practicing in front of an impressionable audience.
“You have to watch yourself and how you’re behaving on the court because you’re not alone when there’s all these girls watching and trying to copy you. The youngest juniors are most likely to copy the bad stuff, so if I say one bad word on the court, you’re going to hear it from one of them straightaway. It makes it that much more important that we, as the older players, conduct ourselves correctly and do all the right things so the younger girls copy them.
“The juniors will copy the weirdest things, too, even my grunt! I remember coming back to Moscow after winning Indian Wells and visiting to visit some juniors at the tennis club. Five out of the ten were on the court screaming, ‘Aiya!’ The coach looked at me and said, ‘Look what you did!’ I couldn’t believe they were all copying me in that way, but this is what kids do.”
Most impressionable of all is young “Liza,” who has taken to tour life as though it were her very own wonderland. Even on a rainy day in Madrid, the bourgeoning social media star was seen happily running about the Caja Magica in search of animal friends.
“There were cats in Istanbul like there were in Doha, so she’s been following them around. So long as she has cats, mom, and dad, she’s a happy baby.”
While daughter finds adventure, mother is often bogged down by the logistical nightmare necessary for tournaments to function during the pandemic. Unable to return home between Istanbul and Madrid due to travel restrictions, Vesnina will instead be on the road with Liza and husband Pavel through Rome before a brief interlude back home—and will likely plan a more refined schedule through the summer.
“It’s driving me crazy because I’m the kind of person who hates all of this paperwork. It was much easier before; you could send an email and book your hotel. Now you have to download the app, fill out your credential application, do the PCR tests and send the results to all of these different places. For me, it’s a total brain overload, and I would much rather deal with simpler accommodation and accreditation procedures. It never used to bother me because I never had to think about these sorts of things.
“Traveling is tougher, too, because of all of the bubble rules, all of the tests, and you can’t venture outside of the hotel. I’m getting used to it, but it’s very difficult, mentally. I will see how it’s going to go, but I know I don’t want to leave my daughter for long periods of time.”
Vesnina has been able to lean on Zvonareva, who herself has successfully balanced career and motherhood since 2017, through the tougher moments of this comeback, and finds herself grateful for the rare opportunity to have a mentor of her own.
“We don’t have to explain many things to each other. She’ll say something and I’ll be in complete agreement with her because I know she’s right.”