By David Kane
The first time I ever saw Elena Vesnina, she was far from a WTA Tour final. She was 19 and playing in US Open qualifying. I was drawn away from whatever match my family was watching to see her fight off a game opponent with a fiery determination that had clearly ingratiated itself with the small but lively Court 14 crowd.
Not long after, Vesnina became a steady top 100 player, peaking close to the top 20 in 2009. Rarely bringing her best at the Slams, the Russian has been known to sporadically catch fire at Tour events, causing minor but contextually notable upsets and taking that good form all the way to the final.
Here is where the strange tale of Elena Vesnina truly begins.
One look at her resumé and it is clear that Vesnina’s has been a career defined by missed opportunities. In the last four years, the 26 year old reached six Slam finals (three in doubles, three in mixed) and lost all six. The trend was similar in singles, albeit on a smaller scale. The word (quickly the joke) on Vesnina centered on her inability to seal the deal, that she could not win a final to save her life.
Such a reputation seems unfair. Indeed, a team loses together when they play doubles, but more often than not, Vesnina proved the steadier while her partner appeared bent on blowing the entire operation. No better example exists than the time when she had to dry the tears of partner Vera Zvonareva during a Wimbledon doubles final in 2010.
She was equally unsuccessful in singles, but a closer look reminds the reader that it was not as if she was losing to scrubs. In two finals, she had the misfortune of playing Caroline Wozniacki. Another saw her runner-up to Elena Dementieva. Most recently, she reached the final of a clay event in Budapest, only to lose to Sara Errani, who would reach the French Open final a few weeks later.
While she may never be the best closer, Vesnina cannot be accused of facing unworthy opponents.
This made today’s Hobart final all the more pressure-filled. On another hot streak, Vesnina had taken out No. 4 seed Yaroslava Shvedova and an in-form No. 8 seed Sloane Stephens en route to her seventh final, where she faced defending champion Mona Barthel. The German has a game akin to a minefield; at any moment, she is capable of unloading screaming winners from either side, flustering helpless opponents in the process. Barthel impressed many in 2012, but she almost certainly lacks the consistency of a Wozniacki or a Dementieva.
This was a final Elena Vesnina had a reasonable chance of winning, and she knew it.
Throughout the match, Vesnina was constantly pumping herself up, shouting “Otlichno!” (Russian for “Excellent!”) as often as she could. In her defense, she had good reason to, as she was playing as well as I had ever seen her play. In a bizarre switch from that which was expected, Vesnina was dominating Barthel from the back of the court one minute, and throwing in viciously effective dropshots to expose the German’s poor movement the next.
The Vesnina of the alleged “fragile psyche” was nowhere to be found today in Tasmania; when she fell behind an early break in the second set, she immediately broke back. Despite squandering break points for a lead of her own, she remained focused on serve and waited for her opportunity. Against the erratic Barthel, that opportunity came when the German served at 4-5, 30-40. On the first championship point of her singles career, Vesnina played smart, keeping the ball deep and eventually drawing the error from her big hitting opponent.
As emotional in victory as she had been stoic in defeat, Vesnina sunk to her knees and looked like a young woman reborn. The good vibrations were felt across the Twittersphere; everyone seemed glad that the Russian’s Susan Lucci-esque streak of losses had come to close. No one, however was more happy than Vesnina herself:
After years of playing second fiddle, a very deserving Elena Vesnina finally got to have her moment.
By David Kane