“I can’t say I prepared for this interview. I’m just speaking how I feel, because so many people are not aware of what’s really going on…”
There’s a scrappiness about Valeria Savinykh. For years, the five-foot-six Russian has fought only for herself, through injuries, adversity, and a nearly nine-year gap between Grand Slam main draw appearances. At 30 years old, she is at last on the verge of reclaiming a lost career, only to find herself in a pandemic purgatory alongside hundreds of others lacking in opportunities to rebuild their ranking.
“People inside tennis don’t even know, so how can we expect casual fans to understand how much we’re suffering, and how difficult this life actually is right now?” Savinykh says after 30 minutes on the phone. “I fear it may even get worse.”
Growing up near the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, I first saw Savinykh up against a young Elina Svitolina in the final round of US Open qualifying. With a spot in the main draw on the line, the undersized Eastern Europeans were in literal flight, flinging themselves into each ball through three grueling sets.
Though Svitolina won out that afternoon in Flushing Meadows, Savinykh had her moment four months later, qualifying for the 2013 Australian Open and upsetting Dominika Cibulkova en route to the third round.
Ligament tears in her left wrist subsequently impeded her progress and took her as low as No. 1142 at the start of 2016—from a 2012 high of No. 99.
Savinykh peaked at No. 99 in 2012, and reached the Australian Open third round in 2013. (Getty Images)
“It went on for three years,” she explained. “At first I tried playing while doing rehab; I had to wear a brace really high, almost up to my shoulder for a couple of months. It wasn’t healing, and my ranking dropped to about No. 700. Still, I could manage with tape and made just about back to the Top 300, but I injured it again. I tore just about everything there was to tear in the wrist.”
Ranked No. 335 in the spring of 2015, Savinykh was ineligible to freeze her ranking—the WTA has since expanded the threshold beyond the Top 300 and now includes the Top 750—though that was the least of her concerns at the time.
“Surgeons wouldn’t guarantee I could come back; many said there was no way I could play professionally with this sort of injury because of how the wrist moves, the pronation you need in order to hit backhands.
“Thankfully I found a surgeon that could fix my wrist. From the surgery, it took me a year to return to competition because I wore a brace for over three months and there were zero muscles in my hand, forearm, shoulder. When you don’t do anything with your left hand, you forget how to use it, so I started doing everything from that side: eat, open doors. Whatever I would do normally with my right hand, I did with my left.”
Her comeback defied the odds even before the global pandemic. Back inside the Top 200 by the summer of 2019, she relocated to Barcelona as tour lockdown ended to link up with coach German Puentes. She blitzed through Australian Open qualifying to kick off 2021—returning to her first Grand Slam main draw since 2013—and pushed Alizé Cornet to a final-set tie-break in the first round.
“The experience in Australia was incredible,” said Savinykh. “It was an amazing feeling because it’s been many, many years of difficult injuries, and Tennis Australia did, in my opinion, even better than their best. They helped a lot with visas for players, especially because once players realized Australian Open qualifying wouldn’t be in Australia, they waited until the last moment to travel, so it was a huge help from Tennis Australia to fix everyone’s visas. They organized the flights and our hotel stays.
“Of course, a 14-day quarantine wasn’t ideal, but they did their best, giving us equipment, food, provided Playstation games and online exercise classes. After we were out of quarantine, we got to experience the atmosphere of the stadium. It was the Australian Open, just an amazing event.”
Still, Savinykh can’t guarantee when her next stint under Grand Slam spotlights will arrive. The ranking freeze instituted at the start of the coronavirus pandemic meant her milestone result ultimately did little to improve her status. Unable to move up the WTA ladder, Savinykh would have ordinarily looked to rack up points at ITF Pro Circuit events, but disappointment turns to frustration (and even fear) when assessing minimal opportunities and a possible ranking “unfreeze.”
“I just qualified for one of the biggest events of the year, for which I only got 40 points. It’s even fewer points than if I’d won a 25K, and I beat players who are near Top 100. Yes, I got rewarded financially, and I got a chance to play in a main draw of a Grand Slam, I almost won my first round. But I’ll likely start to go down if the rankings unfreeze, unless I start winning every tournament. In 2019, I played a really good first part of the year, so there is a potential that I could drop a lot.”
In April of 2019, Savinykh could pick from 52 ITF events, including five on the W80 level and above. Two years later, the same month of the pandemic-impacted calendar offers just 28, with tournament tiers topping out at W60. Past one such event in Switzerland, her schedule was entirely uncertain.
“No matter how hard I try, I would end up losing more points than I could gain. The winner of the tournament can only be one person anyway, so we’re talking about many players who will lose points because there just aren’t enough opportunities to defend points.”
The WTA unveiled its plan to ease out of its frozen ranking system at the end of March, clarifying that points earned from 2019 tournaments that remain unscheduled for 2021 will remain on a player’s ranking until they next occur. That same promise hasn’t been made to ITF players, many of whom worry their 2019 points will begin dropping by as much as 50%—regardless of whether opportunities to defend them exist.
“I think things would be best kept as they are, because at least people are not losing points. The situation should really be kept stable for another year, because I know the European Union confirmed a third wave of coronavirus and we still have travel restrictions. I’m taking PCR tests twice a week in order to travel, and it’s so difficult to fly because itineraries aren’t what they would be in normal times. Flights are more expensive.
“The WTA has said they’ll do their best to maintain a full calendar but there are many people who rely on the ITF calendar. Our points are the same as the WTA’s, so we’re in the same boat, but we just have fewer tournaments to play and therefore fewer opportunities to earn our points.”
Savinykh notes the paradigm shift has forced many colleagues to re-examine their careers, step away, or start families.
“People can’t afford to play anymore. They can’t afford to practice. I know many couldn’t practice during the lockdown at all. They certainly can't continue paying coaches if they’re not making money, which they can’t earn because there aren’t enough tournaments!
“Many may not be officially retired, but they’re starting to give up on their dream.”
With many focused on how the pandemic protocol has affected top-line statistics, Savinykh bristles at the notion that a shrinking ITF landscape makes no difference to the sport’s overall ecosystem.
“I would suggest they talk to Aslan Karatsev, who was ranked No. 400 for most of his career and in six months, made it to Top 30 in the world. Anybody can be Aslan.
“We see lower-ranked players do well at WTA tournaments all the time, but they don’t have the same opportunities to play a consistent schedule at that level, so their ranking doesn’t go up. The level is very high across the tennis world, so if people say that people who haven’t succeeded yet should give up, I think that would be short-sighted.”
With no public word from the ITF, the future remains unclear for Savinykh, who joked that she could find herself down to No. 400 in a doomsday scenario. Even as she stands up for her fellow players, she vows to continue scrapping through any circumstance—confident in her ability to come back again.
“The people playing WTA tournaments and ranked inside the Top 100 can’t be without players ranked beneath them. The tour is for everyone, and so everyone should have chances. If people disagree, then cancel the circuit and just let the Top 100 play amongst each other.
“As for me, I have the level. I’m practicing hard, so I look forward to playing as many tournaments as possible to get the best out of this situation. The points will come to me sooner or later.”