A year ago she was out in the first round of qualifying; a 6-4, 6-3 loss at the hands of unheralded American Julia Boserup a new low point. She was ranked outside the Top 100.
Who in their right mind would have guessed that Elena Vesnina would return a year later and go the distance, defeating fellow Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-7(6), 7-5, 6-4 in a three-hour marathon to claim the 2017 BNP Paribas Open — by far the biggest title of her career?
“Tennis is awesome, I can say,” said Vesnina, 30, who until 2016 — when she reached the Wimbledon semis and cracked the Top 20 — was known more as a doubles specialist. “I think that my example is the good kind of self-belief, a good kind of vibe for all players. All other girls on the tour who think, ‘Oh, my God, this is the end of the world, end of my career, I lost in the first round of qualies, what can be worse than that?’ You can regroup and get back.
“And now here I won the title. This sounds like a miracle, for everybody, for you guys, for me, for all the girls out there,” she continued. “I think nobody would have picked me at the beginning of the tournament that I could win this title. Me, also — I couldn't pick myself.”
Vesnina — the gold medalist in doubles (with Ekaterina Makarova) at the Rio Games — passed some big tests en route to the title at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. She took out new No. 1 Angelique Kerber in the fourth round 6-3, 6-3; then stopped seven-time Slam champ and home-country favorite Venus Williams in the quarterfinals 6-2, 4-6, 6-3. But her biggest test would come in the final against the No. 8-ranked Kuznetsova. She was down a set and 4-1 in the second, and again found herself behind 4-2 in the third. Yet she never stopped believing.
Asked to put on her sports psychologist’s hat (she earned a degree in that field) and explain how she was able to maintain her focus and turn things around, Vesnina said, “I was kind of fighting to just stay longer on the court, just don't give it so easy. I was telling myself, ‘You're 4-1 down. Nothing to lose. Just fight for each game, try to win every point, try to deserve every point, because she will not give you anything.’ I kept coming back. I stuck there. I was just not giving anything in those moments. I didn't think about the end of the match. I was just thinking about how to get back into the match. I was not afraid to lose maybe for the whole match. And I think Svetlana, she was afraid to lose the match, and this is the difference.”
“She won because she was more aggressive than I was. I was too passive,” said Kuznetsova, who fell short of the Indian Wells title for a third time, having also reached back-to-back finals in 2007-08.
“She's such a fighter,” said Vesnina of her 31-year-old opponent, against whom she’s now 2-1 in their head-to-head. “She's always playing great in the finals and she has a good record against Russians. Somebody told me that — I don't know why — before the match. I was, like, ‘Good to know.’ She's a very smart player, as well. She makes you sometimes look silly on the court because she’s using the spin slice. She's running around hitting amazing forehand inside-out winners.”
With the win, Vesnina will rise to a career-high No. 13 in the WTA rankings. Does she have the stuff to keep climbing, to reach the Top 10?
“Why not? Of course,” said Kuznetsova. “She reached the semis at Wimbledon last year. She won here now. She has to be much more consistent to be in the Top 10, but she can make it, for sure.”