Marta Kostyuk does not sound like your average 16-year-old. There is an edge to her speech, a heaviness to her words, and shocking honesty in her rhetoric.
The Ukrainian teen has sped up the rankings this season, rising from 523 to a career-high 129 last month, and her rapid ascent has come with its own set of challenges.
“For sure it’s been fast, but when you start to lose, you’re like ‘oh my God, I’m never going to play well again’. So it’s up and down,” Kostyuk told Sport360 during Wimbledon qualifying in June.
“But I’m happy I’m going through this, I’m going to be stronger,” she adds sternly.
She certainly showed incredible strength at the US Open on Tuesday, where she saved six match points and came back from 1-5 down in the final set to defeat Valentyna Ivakhnenko 4-6, 7-6(6), 7-6(4) in the first round of qualifying. She returns to the courts again on Thursday to face Czech Republic’s Marie Bouzkova.
Kostyuk exploded onto the scene last January when she qualified for her maiden Grand Slam at the Australian Open, where she had won the junior title in 2017.
The then 15-year-old took out Peng Shuai and Olivia Rogowska to become the youngest female player to win a main draw match at the Australian Open since Martina Hingis in 1996 and the youngest to make the third round of a Slam since Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in the 1997 US Open.
Kostyuk kept up her good form and immediately won a $60k ITF title in Burnie then upset world No. 26 Daria Gavrilova in Fed Cup. Not many can follow up a breakthrough like the one she had in Melbourne with more success right away and Kostyuk herself isn’t sure how she did it.
“I don’t know. It was probably my first big win so I had to prove that I have this level so I had to win it. And it wasn’t like I had to win, like I was crazy about it. It was just match by match, it was just my level,” she told Sport360 in an interview in Madrid in May.
“So that’s why I won. My goal was actually in the beginning of the year – like it would be a good year for me if I would finish 150 but now I think a very good year if I would finish in the top-100.”
She qualified for the WTA tournament in Stuttgart in April and reached the last-16 before falling in three sets to world No. 7 Caroline Garcia.
Things got tougher for Kostyuk after that. She won just three of her next 10 matches, and had trouble within her team that led to her splitting with her coach of 10 months Luka Kutanjac. She hired Dmytro Brichek, who previously worked with fellow Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko, instead.
Parting ways with Kutanjac was not easy.
“I’m the kind of person, I’m so kind, even if we have so many problems, I’m going to wait until the end and everything will be completely bad so then I’m like ‘okay, we have to split’ and then I feel so bad, for weeks. It was the first time I’ve split with a coach and it was very tough,” she said on the sidelines of the Madrid Open.
“Even though I’m only 15, I have a lot of say in my decisions. I always talk to my mother, we talk first, she explains some things to me, and then I decide what is better to do. I’m a player, I feel what I should do, even though I’m 15, I feel it, and it’s been like this since I started to play.”
Managed by ex-world No. 3 Ivan Ljubicic, who is the coach of Roger Federer, Kostyuk has many eyes on her at this early stage of her career.
She pays credit to the Croatian, who helps her navigate the emotional highs and lows of the tour, and says she is constantly learning and “growing not by days, but by hours”.
When told she sounds a lot more mature than what you’d expect a teenager would sound like, Kostyuk says with a hint of sadness: “From adult life I think. I’ve been through a lot of things in my life and I obviously don’t have a teenager’s life at all, zero per cent. I cannot even let myself be a teenager because it will affect me, it will affect my tennis. It’s tough, but it is the way it is.”
She adds: “Yes of course [there’s a sad element to it]. I’m starting to realise it. Before it was like fun, fun, like nice, I’m playing, I’m winning, now it’s getting tough. But we’ll see, I think I’ll get through it.”
Is there anything in particular she feels she is missing out on from a typical teenager’s lifestyle?
“I don’t know, I’ve never been a teenager, I don’t know what they do. I don’t know what these crazy people do. Because I heard that they are crazy. I’m also crazy but not maybe that way crazy,” she concludes.
Kostyuk believes she’s improving fast and is happy to forge relationships with her peers on tour. She gets along well with the Ukrainian players and was a bit surprised by how welcoming everyone has been.
“So many people outside of the tour have such a bad opinion about tennis players. Especially about WTA, because I heard a lot of times that ATP players, they practice with each other, they don’t need sparring partners – in general women are complicated, there’s nothing to do about it, but it’s very nice and very friendly,” she explains.
“I speak with a lot of players. You feel good when you become part of something you were dreaming about.”
Since she’s still 16, Kostyuk can only play a limited number of professional tournaments due to age restrictions. She is so eager to play more and is frustrated by the rule.
She also struggles with the constant scrutiny online although tries to ignore all the negativity on social media.
“You post a photo from the beach, you lose a couple of matches and people are texting you, ‘why aren’t you practicing, why are you on the beach?’ and you’re like ‘oh my God!’. The people judge you so much that they don’t deserve an explanation,” she says.
Kostyuk isn’t setting any high targets for herself and insists big goals are not her thing.
“I don’t think if I’ll be world No.1 I’ll be the happiest person in the world, maybe I’ll be world No.1 and I’ll be so unhappy. That’s what I think. For me it’s just trying to enjoy the ride,” she said during Wimbledon qualifying.
She admits that the most pressure she gets is from herself and is hoping to find a way to experience more joy from the sport.
“I have to do it. From the beginning I wasn’t enjoying it. I liked tennis, I loved it, but I wasn’t enjoying it, because I’m a perfectionist, and everything had to be perfect. But now I have to, because otherwise I’m going to stop in one or two years,” she concedes.
“I don’t know how I’m going to find the enjoyment from now. Because I have the limit on the tournaments. You have to have the right people around you so you don’t feel it, I guess.”
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Serena Williams‘ total earnings ensure she tops the Forbes highest-earning female athletes list for the third successive year, with eight tennis players inside the top 10.
The 23-time Grand Slam champion predictably tops the list, earning $18.1m (£14m) last year. She remains top of the pile despite earning just $62,000 (£48,050) from prize money during the past year – owing largely to her 14-month break to have a baby – but she still made $18m (£13.95m) through endorsements.
Badminton’s PV Sindhu and race car driver Danica Patrick are the only non-tennis players inside the top 10.
Caroline Wozniacki is second on the list having won her first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open earlier this year – a victory that secured her $3.1m in prize money to push her total earnings to $13m.
Completing the top five are Sloane Stephens, Garbine Muguruza and Maria Sharapova.
Russian Sharapova was the top-earning female athlete for 11 consecutive years but has seen her earnings drop after her 15-month doping ban.
Williams’ total earnings ensure she tops the list for the third successive year, making twice as much away from the tennis court as any other female athlete.
Indian Olympic and world silver medallist Sindhu and Patrick – the most successful female race car driver – are seventh and ninth on the list respectively.
The top 10 highest earning female athletes earned $105m in total from June 2017 to June 2018. That figure is down 4 per cent from last year and 28 per cent from five years ago.
In June, the Forbes rankings of the world’s top 100 highest earning athletes did not feature a woman after Williams dropped out of the chart.
US boxer Floyd Mayweather topped the list followed by football’s Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
The top 10 and their total earnings:
1 Serena Williams (tennis) – $18.1m (£14m)
2 Caroline Wozniacki (tennis) – $13m (£10.1m)
3 Sloane Stephens (tennis) – $11.2m (£8.7m)
4 Garbine Muguruza (tennis) – $11m (£8.5m)
5 Maria Sharapova (tennis) – $10.5m (£8.1m)
6 Venus Williams (tennis) – $10.2m (£7.9m)
7 PV Sindhu (badminton) – $8.5m (£6.6m)
8 Simona Halep (tennis) – $7.7m (£6m)
9 Danica Patrick (race car driving) – $7.5m (£5.8m)
10 Angelique Kerber (tennis) – $7m (£5.4m)
Young Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis is hoping to make a statement with his tennis over the next few months, and US Open qualifying this week could prove to be the springboard he needs.
After dropping out of the top-200 for failing to defend his runner-up points in Los Cabos last month – falling to Taylor Fritz 7-6, 7-6 in his opening match – Kokkinakis won his first Challenger title since 2015 by triumphing in Aptos.
On Tuesday in New York, the 22-year-old began his US Open qualifying campaign with a 3-6, 6-0, 6-3 success in an all-Aussie clash against Bernard Tomic to set up a second round against Germany’s Yannick Maden.
A nervy start saw Kokkinakis hit three double faults, which cost him the first set, but he then went on a nine-game winning streak as Tomic looked to have checked out.
Tomic pushed back though as Kokkinakis got tight serving at 4-2 in the decider but he eventually held after a marathon game and closed out the win shortly after.
“I was kind of expecting something strange, playing Bernie, it’s obviously weird playing a friend, and someone that plays like him,” Kokkinakis told Sport360.
“I came out very average, he kind of takes the energy out of matches so it’s tough to keep your energy up. He’s a tricky player, he knows how to play the game. The three double faults didn’t help in my first service game and that kind of didn’t really get me going. Towards the end of the first set, I started to find a little bit of rhythm. Big hold first game of the second set and then I started to find it.”
Playing under the watchful eyes of his coach Todd Langman, his fitness trainer Vasek Jursik, and Patrick Mouratoglou – the coach of Serena Williams and founder of the academy where Kokkinakis often trains – the South Australian could tell Tomic was fading after the first set but insists it was still tricky to stay focused.
“A lot of the times, he makes it a little more obvious than other people, but a lot of the times players do that when you get on top of them,” Kokkinakis said of Tomic when asked if he sensed his opponent had checked out.
“Maybe they’re not doing it as obviously as he does, but sometimes they go away and you just sense that as a player. But sometimes that makes you more nervous because you’re like, ‘This guy is going away, I just have to put the ball in’ but sometimes you get a bit tight and all of a sudden they get back in the match. It’s tough but I’m happy to get through.”
Langman was pleased with his charge’s performance and admits they were all expecting an unusual encounter with Tomic.
“The match was obviously going to be ugly, it was going to be a little bit scrappy and we kind of knew that Bernard may not be physically where he needed to be,” said Langman.
“Thanasi did what he had to do, made the tough balls and kept Bernie playing. Just a tricky match. It was important for Thanasi to stay composed and try and keep his level and maintain his concentration and after the first service game, he did a pretty good job.”
Plagued by a string of career-threatening injuries over the past several years, Kokkinakis is managing his body the best way he can as he looks to re-enter the top-100 and rise to the level many believe he possesses within.
A win over Roger Federer in Miami earlier this year – one of just five losses the Swiss has conceded this season – reminded the world of Kokkinakis’ potential, and he’s looking to build on his recent Challenger success moving forward.
“The Challenger title was very important. I’m not too worried about points right now, but especially losing 150 coming off in Cabo. I had a tight match there, I had set points in both sets against Taylor [Fritz]. I knew I wasn’t too far off, with a little more training, a little more focus I’d find it,” said Kokkinakis.
“I started to really play well in the semi-finals and final, and that was really important. It was really important. [Winning] Singles and doubles, I’m going to play a lot more doubles now, as long as my body lets me.
“It’s just important to show what I’m capable of again and get through matches back-to-back. Unfortunately I had to pull out in Vancouver, I strained my side, but I’m happy I pulled out because if I hadn’t, I don’t think I would have been able to play here.”
Langman gives a lot of credit to Jursik, who has been helping the injury-prone Kokkinakis stay as healthy as possible.
“The Challenger was big, because he obviously hadn’t won one in a while. His fitness trainer has done a really good job,” said the Aussie coach.
“In Cabo the result wasn’t there but Vasek was getting him down on the sand every morning and working hard and surprise, surprise he ends up winning a title the following week.
“He’s had body issues for a while, but Patrick Mouratoglou has given us a trainer, Vasek, he’s doing a great job. Trying to minimise the risk of anything silly happening and again, the things that we can control, we’re going to control. At the moment we’re doing a pretty good job managing his body.”
Meanwhile, Tunisian Ons Jabeur enjoyed a strong start to her qualifying campaign in Queens, defeating Great Britain’s Katy Dunne 6-2, 6-1 in 49 minutes to set up a second round against American Kristie Ahn.
Egypt’s Mohamed Safwat was unable to convert any of his seven break point opportunities in a 6-1, 6-3 loss to Maden.
Other US Open qualifying winners on Tuesday include Canadian Eugenie Bouchard, Germany’s Mona Barthel, and Ukrainian teen Marta Kostyuk.