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.
To anyone craving some fresh blood on the tennis tour, look no further than the last couple of days at Indian Wells where the teenagers have officially spoken.
A 16-year-old Amanda Anisimova claimed her first WTA match win in her opening round against Pauline Parmentier before upsetting Russian No. 23 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova to reach the third round.
The US Open junior champion received a wildcard into the tournament and is the youngest player in the Indian Wells women’s draw.
On the men’s side, Canada’s 17-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime claimed his first tour-level victory in front of a full house on Stadium 2 to dispatch his countryman Vasek Pospisil 6-2, 7-6 (4) on Friday. His round two is another all-Canadian affair as he takes on former top-five player Milos Raonic.
“I told my coach earlier this week, like, ‘Wow, it’s crazy. Last year, two years ago, never would have thought I’d be here talking to you guys, second round of the Masters’. I was still playing juniors. This transition went pretty fast for me, so it’s quite unbelievable to be here so early. But as a kid, those are the moments you dream of and those are the stages you want to play on, yeah,” the Montreal teen told reporters after the win.
But those two aren’t the only young guns to make statements this week. The list is quite extensive and also includes the following:
Shapovalov is still very young but his shock run to the semi-finals at the Masters 1000 in Canada last year, followed by his fourth round showing at the US Open have thrust him into the spotlight. He’s not getting too carried away though.
“I don’t see myself a favourite in any match. I’m still really young to the tour and there’s so many players I haven’t played,” said Shapovalov on Thursday.
“They’ve been around way longer than me, they’re a lot more experienced than me. So I wouldn’t say I’m the favourite but I definitely do go out in these matches with the confidence and belief in myself that I can beat any of these guys.”
THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT
They’re young but uber-competitive, respectful but well aware of their own qualities to make them just the right amount of arrogant. And most of them draw inspiration from one another and tend to have each others’ backs.
This is what Shapovalov said about his friend and fellow Canadian Auger-Aliassime on Thursday.
“It’s awesome with his run. Before the tournament I had a quick chat with him, told him ‘it’s something you’re going to have to go through’,” Shapovalov recounted.
“Obviously he’s had some tough draws and some tough weeks but I told him to keep grinding and eventually if you pull out a couple of these matches he’s going to get his confidence.
“His game is here, he’s more than good to beat any of these guys so he deserves to be in the top-100 and I’m just trying to make sure that he knows it as well. We’re brothers and I wish the best for him.”
He said that after telling us that they hung out at his place, played ping pong, and “of course I beat him”, noted Shapovalov.
Some of them try to pretend they’re stoic and cool about their milestone victories, others are wide-eyed and cannot hide their enthusiasm.
“I mean I watched her on TV playing semi-finals at Wimbledon never imagining I will be playing here at Indian Wells. So I’m just going to enjoy the moment. I mean I get to play the person who was in semi-finals of a Slam, that is amazing!” a beaming Zhuk told me ahead of her second round against Magdalena Rybarikova, the No. 18 seed here.
VETERANS FEELING THE HEAT
The men’s tour is led by a 36-year-old Roger Federer and a 31-year-old Rafael Nadal but that’s not to say the older generation is not feeling threatened by the younger guys.
World No. 8 Juan Martin del Potro said the many injuries suffered by top guys like Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Raonic, Nadal and others – including himself – are partly due to the power of these younger players.
“The young players are coming so strong, they serve so fast, they hit the ball event faster than me and it’s not easy to play with them at this age. But we are trying to stay in the first positions but our body is feeling the changes,” said Del Potro on Wednesday.
“The game is changing a lot. You can see the new injuries are coming because the game is changing and it’s not normal to have Djokovic, Nishikori, Raonic, me, Murray, everybody injured… Rafa. And that means something is changing with the sport of tennis.”
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.