One of the few teenagers enjoying breakthroughs at Indian Wells this week, 18-year-old world No. 136 Sofya Zhuk needed 12 match points before securing an upset over No. 18 seed Magdalena Rybarikova 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 in the second round on Saturday.
The Florida-resident notched the biggest win of her professional career and next takes on two-time NCAA champion Danielle Collins in the third round.
“I thought it was 14, was it?” Zhuk says when asked about all those nerve-wracking match points. “I thought it was like a lot of them. I was kind of nervous on those match points.
“I tanked probably 10 of them. I was like ‘I can’t believe I actually have a match point’ so that’s why mostly the reason I was so nervous. I came out thinking she’s 17 in the world, I was just watching her playing semi-finals at Wimbledon on the TV and I was like there’s no way I can actually play against her now but then I have match points and I realise ‘I can actually win this’, so then I got tight.”
Zhuk says her success so far this week has not sunk in yet but her journey at Indian Wells isn’t over.
Sport360 sat down with Zhuk after her first round win over Alize Cornet on Thursday. Here’s what she had to say…
— WTA (@WTA) March 8, 2018
You got your first tour-level main draw match win, does it have a special feeling?
Yes because I received a wildcard and I wanted to thank Tommy (Haas, tournament director) so much for this wildcard and for giving me this chance. This win feels so special for me because I love this place, I love this tournament. The crowd was supporting me, it’s unbelievable. I’m so excited.
Walk me through your emotions heading into your first match with Alize Cornet…
Honestly I wasn’t nervous at all because I’m playing on a big court, I love playing on a big court, and I just was thinking, ‘I’m just going to enjoy this moment of being here, I earned to be here and I’m just going to do what I can and see what happens’. As games were going I was like ‘I’m pretty tight in the scores, so I can actually do it, it’s not that scary’, because I know she plays unbelievable. I practiced with her last year in the fall, and it was so tough for me to handle her balls. So I was like ‘I’m just going to enjoy the moment’. And as soon as the match was going on, I was like ‘I have a chance to beat here, because I feel my game and my strokes are there’.
How comfortable are you being in this kind of setting?
I’m very comfortable. It’s a lot different from juniors because the organisation of WTA tournaments, everything is so set, you have a car, you have your hotel, the practice court booking, it’s so easy, you don’t have to worry about anything. My coach does everything for me, so I’m not even doing anything, I’m just going practice, match, practice, match, go back to the hotel. And in juniors it’s more complicated because you have to do it on your own. You have to make sure to book the court, and here it’s so peaceful.
Did things change for you mentally transitioning from juniors to the pro circuit that you’re actually playing for money now?
No because honestly I never play for money. I’m just enjoying the game. I never look at prize money. I love the game.
Tell me a bit about your background, I know you moved from Russia to the US when you were young…
I grew up in Russia and the first time I came to California, my godmother lives here, and I came to California when I was eight. I started learning English here, that’s why I kind of have an American accent. I kept coming here for a bit of time, because I liked the weather, my brother was also practicing a little bit here, in Placerville, which is two hours away from San Francisco. I love San Francisco, it’s so nice. From 12 to 14 I was practicing in Belgium, so I wasn’t in the States and right after Wimbledon (won Wimbledon juniors in 2015), I moved to the States completely, so I’m living in Florida full-time.
What’s it like living in the United States?
I really love the culture in the States, I feel so comfortable here. Because people they don’t care that I’m actually Russian, I’m living here and they take me as their person. Whenever I’m living in Florida, it’s always summer. I cannot live without sun. The beach is five minutes away from where I live, everything is so close, no traffic. I live 15 minutes away from Sarasota, and it’s like vacation and boat town, I just go straight to the jet skis, I go straight to the water. It’s so nice living there. Honestly after living in Florida I don’t think I’ll be able to live anywhere else.
Do you get to visit Russia often?
Only whenever I have to do something for the visa. I’m on a working visa, I stay as long as I want, but if I have to do something with the passport, yes I go there.
Are your parents still in Russia?
My mum is living always with me, my dad still works in Russia, but he comes to visit us, not too often, because he has work. But I think this year I just want him to retire from the job and just come live with us.
How do you feel about the pace at which you’re progressing, is it as expected, or slower, or faster?
I just take it with the flow. I just let it happen, whatever happens, happens.
Do you know the other young girls coming up through the ranks at the moment well?
Me and CiCi Bellis were playing juniors at the same time, and Amanda Anisimova, we know each other well.
What do you make of CiCi’s rise?
She’s an amazing athlete, I really love what she’s doing on court. I respect her, she’s an unbelievable player. I’m really happy for what she’s doing now. It motivates me. Sometimes people don’t know how to be happy for someone but I’m always happy to see her doing good. We were together in IMG Academy for some time, we grew up together, so I’m happy to see her doing well.
Who did you watch the most growing up, did you have any idols?
I always watched Caroline Wozniacki, she was like the best for me. I was always trying to copy her outfits, I would buy her Stella McCartney dresses and they were so big but I would say ‘I’m going to make it work, I’m going to grow into it’. She’s always so nice to people, always talkative and I love the way she plays, she fights for every ball. Just the style of her game, the way she is on court, the way she is with people. You can look up to what she’s doing, she works so much.
You must have been thrilled when she won the Australian Open…
I was so happy, I was like ‘come one Caroline, you’ve got to win this Slam, you can do it’.
What kind of goals do you have?
My goal is to win a Grand Slam, that’s it. And for now I just enjoy playing every single match, I just take it day by day.
What do you like to do when you’re not playing tennis?
Jet skis, I like going to the beach, hanging out with my friends, I like to play mini golf and I’m going to start learning to play actual golf.
Who are your three favourite non-tennis athletes?
Usain Bolt, Darya Klishina and Michael Jordan.
I like the Chainsmokers.
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