Catching Up With... Iroda Tulyaganova
Published September 29, 2006 12:00
KOLKATA, India - A few years ago she was one of the most lethal players on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, conquering some of the game's biggest names in their prime and winning several singles and doubles titles. Not long after cracking the Top 20 and going as high as No.16 in the world, however, the problems started. An elbow injury that was not given enough time to heal was the initial cause of the descent. And after missing so much action that she became unranked, the financial struggles of competing on the pro circuit grew too much. But in Kolkata last week, what began as a glimmer of hope quickly became a full-fledged re-assault on the upper echelon of the women's game. Iroda Tulyaganova, 24, battled her way into the Sunfeast Open semifinals as a qualifier, striking her massive serve and devastating groundstrokes like she had never left, proving that she still has what it takes to continue to chase her dreams.
How do you feel about this run, in your first Tour event of the year?
I'm ready to come back. But although I love winning, I'm happier that nothing is bothering me. I'm healthy, and so I am doing well.
You've mentioned that you play well in India. Tell us about that.
I haven't played much in India, but I played Hyderabad once before the injury, and I made the final. Every match that year I played really well. The fans are very supportive. When I entered this tournament, I felt in my heart everything would be perfect. So I had to come.
Tell us about your time away from the game. You missed so much.
I didn't play much for three years. I injured my right elbow, stopped playing and had it operated on in 2002; but my father forced me to keep playing for another eight months with the pain, because I had so many points to defend. Because of that, it became worse. I was getting injections into the elbow, into the bone. It took me two years to fully recover. I was angry with him but he's still my father and we're okay now. When I was ready to play again, though, I had problems on the financial side. I didn't have the money to start travelling again. I had to sell my car to travel. But, when I started showing some better results at small tournaments, the Uzbek Tennis Federation gave me a little bit of money, and began helping me with travelling expenses. And now, I am beginning to earn money again. But you know, all of this helped my motivation. And I'm more mature now, smarter. I look at everything differently now.
Has it been tough working yourself back up the rankings?
It was hard to play some of the small ITF events. It was tough playing qualifying of those. There I was, ex-Top 16; if I lost a match, it was hard to get over. But, I told myself to forget what happened before. I had to become a new player. If I didn't, then losing to a player ranked No.200 or No.500 would make me feel guilty. I decided not to think about the past anymore. And with this new outlook, everything started going well again. I began winning and believing in myself again. The best thing now that I am winning again is that since I've been so high, I know how to get there again.
Throughout all of your struggles, you maintained your charity work with the Mehrijon orphanage in Tashkent, your hometown.
I still do that. I'm crazy. Nobody was there when I needed help, but I'm helping everybody! I like kids. I was paying for racquets and balls to give to the kids at the orphanage, which was built by the man who used to sponsor me. I was playing with them too. Before, I would send some money from tournaments to help out. But last year I wasn't helping the orphans, I was helping some other groups of kids, from poor families. I'm telling you, I'm crazy.
How has your outlook on training and practicing changed?
I'm practicing, but not over-practicing. I learned my lesson; I was playing too much. I don't want my elbow problems to start again. Also, I don't have a coach right now. I don't have enough money yet to travel and have one. But, when I start earning more, I'll get one. I do have a fitness coach back home but she doesn't care about money; she believes in me, and she knows that when I start doing well again I'll give her money, presents, anything. She's been with me forever. But as for a tennis coach, it's me. It's all in me.
Despite your new outlook, and trying not to think about the past, it must be hard not to be inspired by your past achievements. What are your fondest memories from the years prior to the struggle?
The best was Tashkent. It was my first WTA title, and in front my hometown. My biggest wins were beating Kim Clijsters at Knokke-Heist and Justine Henin at Linz. Those were memorable for me. But one of my biggest victories actually came last week at the Asian Championships. If you win, you get a wildcard for the Australian Open. It was also in my hometown. These past years, I missed the feeling of winning so much, and all I wanted was to win this title. And in the end, I beat someone ranked like No.130, and I was so happy I started to cry on the court like I was a five-year-old girl winning her first tournament. And just the feeling of going to a Grand Slam again. At the moment, it's my nicest achievement.
What are your expectations now that you're healthy again?
I'm coming back to get to the top again. Not to be Top 100, but to be Top 20 like I was, or even Top 10. It won't be easy to do, actually it's much harder now than it was before, but I just have to work hard and do the right things. Of course, a lot of the girls on the top now I have beaten before. When I left and saw they were winning, I was happy for them but I was upset with myself because I knew I could be there too. It was hard for me to watch. But life is like this.