Svetlana Kuznetsova admits her return to tennis at Indian Wells after having wrist surgery last November may have been a bit premature but the Russian has no regrets following her opening round loss to Aryna Sabalenka on Friday.
Kuznetsova, a finalist in the California desert last year as well as in 2007 and 2008, played her first match since Beijing last October on Friday morning and fell 6-4, 6-3 to her Belarusian opponent in one hour and 13 minutes.
The two-time Grand Slam champion confessed her doctor advised her to come back at a later date but she was keen to get back on the court, despite still feeling some pain in her left wrist.
“I still have pain. And the doctor said it should pass. Of course the easy thing is to say I’ll go home until it passes but I don’t look for easy things,” Kuznetsova told Sport360 after her defeat on Friday.
“He said I should start later. A little bit later. Perhaps it’s too early but it’s okay, you need to try to dig in.”
The 32-year-old had never undergone surgery before and is still figuring out how to deal with the aftermath.
“Because I never faced a surgery so I never knew when I should come back, how it will be… it’s really a mental thing with the backhands and stuff like that but I’m doing much better compared to the first days I was here because the first days were horrible,” she said.
“Sabalenka played great, she had nothing to lose, I had chances, I had two times 0-30 and 15-40 on her serve in the first set. So I had my chances but still this lack of confidence and matches it means a lot and the more matches I play the sooner I’ll get in.
“So it’s okay to accept the losses, it’s a step forward in getting back in match shape.”
Kuznetsova explained that if her recovery goes well, there would be no need to make any adjustments to the way she hits her backhand and that it is merely a matter of time before she is pain-free.
While most people returning from injuries would cut themselves some slack and play with less pressure, it is not that simple for someone like Kuznetsova.
“It’s difficult. It’s a lot of requests I ask myself. I want to play good, otherwise I don’t want to play and it all starts like that. But I’m working on my mind and I feel better. I feel much better mentally and trying not to put pressure and trying to enjoy the match. But of course it’s difficult, I struggle a lot the first matches because it’s a comeback and I expect to do well,” she explained.
Sabalenka went two for two on Friday, returning to Stadium 6 for a doubles victory alongside Victoria Azarenka over Sloane Stephens and Eugenie Bouchard.
He is only 19 years old but is already the most successful male Greek tennis player in the Open Era.
Ranked a career-high No. 71 this week, Stefanos Tsitsipas is enjoying a steady rise this season, thanks to quarter-final appearances in both Doha and Dubai in the last two months, and now notching just his second ever Masters 1000 main draw match win to reach the Indian Wells second round.
He takes on Austria’s fifth-seeded Dominic Thiem for a chance to make the third round at this level for the first time.
The 191cm Next Gen star was a world No. 1 junior before making the transition onto the pro circuit. This is his first year attempting a full ATP schedule.
Boasting a one-handed backhand not commonly found in young up-and-comers these days, Tsitsipas speaks fast but with clear thoughts and great articulation in conversation.
Born to a Greek father, Apostolos, who is his coach, and a Russian mother, former tennis player Julia Apostoli, Tsitsipas is from a family where sport runs deep. His maternal grandfather, Sergei Salnikov, was an Olympic gold medal-winning footballer for the Soviet Union and has coached FC Spartak Moscow.
Asked how he feels his Greek culture and background has impacted him as a tennis player, Tsitsipas gives an interesting answer.
“I would say the Greek mentality, which I reversed,” he tells Sport360.
“I would say Greek people are a bit lazy and easygoing, which is good and on the other side it’s bad being lazy. It’s a culture with a lot of history and people tend to expect things, they are not so hard-working like other nations.
“Although I checked a couple of months ago on Wikipedia and we are the second-most working population in the world, working with the most hours in the world, which I didn’t expect. Number one is Mexico, and number two is Greece.”
I point out that it’s probably because a lot of time is wasted during the day and he agreed.
He is a fan of team sports and supports AEK Athens FC in football, and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA.
“Greece is a culture that is not so much tennis-orientated, mostly football and basketball and these kind of sports. And I tried to copy the mentality of that, of the team competition I would say and bring it to tennis, something like this, I really cannot explain it,” he continued.
“There is a small influence from the country you come from but it’s also yourself, when you travel you see many things, you get more experienced, and most importantly you need to be very balanced with yourself and be very disciplined when you’re doing something. Discipline is number one for me.”
Tsitsipas is coming up on tour at a time where several young players are making some serious strides in the game. A 20-year-old Alexander Zverev is already a top-five player while someone like the 21-year-old Chung Hyeon, who won the ATP Next Gen Finals in Milan last November, is already a Grand Slam semi-finalist.
Tsitsipas is the second-youngest player in the top-100 – behind Canada’s Denis Shapovalov, and is one of only two teenagers in that ranking bracket.
He has kept an eye on the accomplishments of his young peers but is happy to take his own time to reach his goals.
“Of course I’m patient. As we say in Greece, things have their own time, they will come at the right time. I try to stay humble, stay hungry, do the right things, work correctly, do the right things off and on the court and I believe the result is something that is just a word,” says Tsitsipas.
“It’s going to come anyway at some time, if you stay focused on what you’re doing the results will come. The Next Gen players have proven that to us.
“To be very honest I’m really happy to be part of this Next Gen thing because it pushes me every time to do even better.”
Last year the Next Gen Finals, featuring eight of the best 21-and-under players on tour, took place for the first time in Milan. Tsitsipas was an alternate there in 2017 and looks like a shoo-in for this year’s edition if he keeps playing this way.
His best ATP result so far has been a semi-final in Antwerp last October where he claimed his first top-10 victory over Belgium’s David Goffin.
Tsitsipas’ two quarter-finals in the Middle East this season included wins over veterans like Richard Gasquet and Philipp Kohlschreiber.
“I love the Middle East actually. It’s one of the cultures I really respect and I believe it’s very close to the Greek culture, it’s very historical. I respect it a lot. And I like the people here a lot,” he told me in Dubai last month.
Tsitsipas has a chance to avenge his defeat to Thiem from Doha last January when they face off at Indian Wells this weekend.
Thiem, who also hits a one-handed backhand, had good things to say about his Greek opponent.
“I played him in Doha and I was quite impressed actually. I had never seen him before and had never practiced with him before. But I think he definitely has potential for top-20,” Thiem said on Thursday.
“For more I think it’s also a little bit of luck and nobody can say it.
“But I think it’s also nice to have somebody from Greece, I think it’s going to be the first real top player from that country. One-handed backhand… I think he’s going to be good.”
Tsitsipas lives in Athens and is coached by his father, but also spends time at the Mouratoglou Academy in France and has benefited from its Champ Seed foundation.
“The foundation helped me very much in a way,” Tsitspas told me in Paris last year after making his Grand Slam main draw debut at Roland Garros as a qualifier.
“They provided me with free practice, free fitness coach, free food, free accommodation, it’s great. The people involved in this Champ Seed they are doing a great job for the players.”
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While he didn’t have many reference points to follow in Greece as a tennis player growing up, Tsitsipas still found a way to get inspired.
“I grew up with Konstantinos Economidis (Greek former ATP player with a career-high ranking of 112), he used to do well when he played, that’s the period when I was starting to play more serious,” Tsitsipas said at the French Open last year.
“He also gave me a lot of motivation to pass him, to do better than him. He’s a great personality and a great person. He travelled with me last year he came to Roland Garros and Australia.
“Everything he achieved in this sport was all by himself without a coach and that’s really something unusual in sport to see.”
They pushed each other to their limits throughout their 21 previous battles and together, produce a match-up that has been truly missed on tour.
But while their on-court competitiveness against one another will probably never wane, the two mothers have developed a friendship away from tennis and have supported each other through different circumstances.
Williams says she sought advice from Azarenka during her pregnancy while Azarenka paid tribute to the American’s support throughout her ongoing custody ordeal with the father of her child that had kept her away from tennis since last June.
Both players made a return to competition on Thursday during a special night session at Indian Wells on International Women’s Day.
Williams was making her first competitive singles appearance in 404 days after having her first child Olympia and recovering from a series of life-threatening medical complications post-delivery.
It’s official. My comeback is here. This Thursday I will start playing tennis again professionally for the first time since giving birth to my daughter. This whole month I am playing tournaments in California and Florida- both my home states. Thursday, the day I play my very first match, marks international women’s day. My comeback could not have come on a better day and I decided I wanted to do something different let you all be apart of my long journey back (if you want of course!!) So I created my Serena Gold toned “S” pin. When I am playing you can wear it and show support not only from me but also for my charity which supports the Yetunde Price Resource center. I want this gold “S” mean something special to you personally. What is one S word in your life that means something to you? Mine is Strong and Sure! So when I wear my “S” pin I am representing Strength, and Sureness. What would your “S” mean? They are for now only available for my fans that come see my at Indian wells, and Miami starting Wednesday as well as Thursday when I play!! Sooooo if you are watching me stop by the Serena booth to grab a “S” pin. Post pics of you wearing your “S” and tag me! Thanks for the support I look forward to seeing you out there!!
Azarenka was playing her first match since Wimbledon last June, and is contesting just her third tournament since giving birth to her son Leo in December 2016. Her custody dispute with Leo’s father has prevented her from travelling outside California with her son.
She only found out last week that she could actually come to Palm Springs and compete at the tournament.
Both unseeded and rusty, the two former Indian Wells champions marked their long-awaited returns to action with straight-sets first round victories – Williams over Kazakhstan’s Zarina Diyas 7-5, 6-3, and Azarenka against Great Britain’s Heather Watson 6-4, 6-2.
Williams, who typically steps on court with her game face on could not help but smile as she walked into the stadium to roaring cheers from the crowd welcoming her “home”, While Azarenka was fighting back tears as she stepped on centre court for her clash with Watson.
“For me it’s a real joy to be out here. Sometimes I think about those moments when I was in the hospital, not even realising how serious it was until later, and just being able to come through that this makes me feel like that no matter what happens I know that I’m capable of being strong whether I win or lose, there’s so much more to my life,” said the 36-year-old Williams after her win.
Dressed in all black with a golden ‘S’ pinned to her outfit, Williams impressed with her solid performance. She didn’t face a single break point up until the fourth game of the second set and wrapped up the victory in one hour and 32 minutes.
Speaking to the crowd that gave her an incredible reception, Williams said she felt “it was meant to be” that she would make her comeback on International Women’s Day.
She explained that the ‘S’ pin she was wearing can mean whatever you want it to mean. For her personally, it meant ‘strong’ and ‘sure’.
The 23-time Grand Slam champion assured there was never a question of not coming back to tennis after having her first child because she felt her “story wasn’t over” yet.
So she started training again as soon as she regained her health and is aware that there’s still a lot of work to be done to get to the level she wants from herself.
“I was thinking from zero to Serena, I’m probably just with the ‘S’, I got a little ways to go. But I’ll get there. It’s a journey for me, I’m not going to get there instantly. I’m just going to go for it,” she said.
“I’m taking it one day at a time. I’m not where I want to be but I’m getting there. And that’s one thing I realised. I’m not going to be there today, or next week, or tomorrow, but I will eventually get there.
“And I do have my goals, when I want to peak, and when I don’t want to peak. At some point I just need to start, and just jump and fly. I can do it. Every day is going to be a challenge for me but I know I’ll overcome it and I’m ready to overcome it.”
Williams was in the press conference room while Azarenka was grinding through her battling win over Watson.
“She’s been incredibly helpful,” Williams said of Azarenka.
“When I was pregnant I would text her and I’d ask her questions. She’s always been just so helpful. She’s been great, she’s such a great mum. I got to meet her little baby when he was so young and she’s been working so hard too.”
Azarenka’s issues are far from over but what she can reveal is that she can play Indian Wells and Miami before knowing more about her legal situation.
Her return to the court was an emotional affair that eventually ended with a victory and she sat down with the press after midnight to discuss her difficult past few months.
“I wouldn’t wish that on anybody, to go through what I’ve been going through, but it’s part of life and there are blessings in this situation as well for me,” Azarenka said on Thursday night.
“But it’s definitely been, and still is, a difficult situation to be in and it’s hard to only focus on playing tennis. I probably will never just focus on playing tennis, being a mum, overall by having extra unnecessary things definitely doesn’t make it easier.
“But I wouldn’t say it’s a lost time, it’s unfortunate but it’s part of life. I’m still 28 years old and recently there are No. 1s over 30 so I’m okay with that.”
Azarenka found out she could come to Indian Wells with Leo last Thursday and arrived here Friday night.
“There wasn’t much thinking and planning going on, it was just a waiting game and hoping and praying that I can play and unfortunately this situation is a little bit out of my control so I have to go with the flow and continue to be positive and optimistic and continue to just fight because that’s what I’m best at, just fighting,” she added.
Azarenka, who next faces US Open champion Sloane Stephens in the second round, admits it’s been hard going through so many false starts the past few months, preparing to compete only to find out she cannot.
The two-time major champion has been trying to be consistent with her practice but admits that some days she “couldn’t get out of bed”.
Asked how it felt being part of that iconic night session playing her first match after Williams completed hers, Azarenka said: “It was a little bit nerve-wracking because I feel like there was quite a bit of expectation and I don’t usually watch TV but I saw somebody saying ‘a tough call, who is going to make a better comeback?’ so it was a little nerve-wracking. And watching Serena I thought she played really well and seeing her fight out there that’s all I wanted to do.”
Azarenka says she shares a deeper connection with Williams now that goes beyond their sport.
“She’s been really supportive throughout this whole situation, sending really nice and encouraging messages for sure,” said Azarenka of Williams.
“I’m so proud of her, I’m so supportive of what she’s doing and I think her daughter is adorable and we have another connection which is a lot deeper than tennis I think right now but I think we both can easily say we can’t wait to play against each other on some big stages.”