INDIAN WELLS, CA, USA - It's going to take some time for Elena Vesnina to stop smiling. The 30-year-old from Sochi lifted the biggest title of her career on Sunday, beating Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-7(6), 7-5, 6-4 to win the BNP Paribas Open. It was a full-circle moment for the Russian veteran, who earlier in the week recalled her first visit to Indian Wells, which came as a 16 year old, which also happened to be her first visit to America.
"I didn't get in into the qualifying," Vesnina recalled. "But when I just got here, I looked outside, I was like, 'Oh, my God, I want to live here.'
"I was staying with a really nice old lady in her house. She had two cars, one was convertible, had the garden with oranges, with grapefruits. Everything was just so beautiful here."
Vesnina's ranking slipped outside the Top 100 last year and she lost in the first round of qualifying to Julia Boserup. A year on, she can't believe she had her hands on the trophy. It's been an incredible 12 months for Vesnina, who made the Charleston final, Wimbledon semifinals, won Olympic gold in doubles, and the WTA Finals with Ekaterina Makarova. On Monday she will rise to a career-high ranking at No.13 and will sit at No.6 in the Road to Singapore leaderboard.
? WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) March 19, 2017
En route to the biggest title of her career, Vesnina knocked off soon-to-be No.1 Angelique Kerber, Australian Open finalist Venus Williams, one of the hottest players on tour in Kristina Mladenovic, and a resurgent No.8-ranked Kuznetsova. Vesnina is a beloved player in the locker room, and this is as much a win for them as it is for her. It's a reminder that your luck can change week to week, year over year, and that for many players, their best is yet to come.
"Tennis is awesome, I can say," Vesnina said. "I think that my example is the good kind of self-belief, like, 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 first round of quallies, what can be worse than that?' You can regroup and get back.
"When I had a couple of good wins against the good players, I was, like, 'Okay, this is it. I have it. So just remember this. Remember your shots. Remember your kind of feelings on the court when you were winning these matches. Try to keep it as long as I can.'
"And now here I won the title, and this sounds like a miracle for everybody, for you guys, for me, for, I think, all the girls out there. I think nobody could pick me at the beginning of the tournament that I could win this title. Me, also. I couldn't pick myself."
WTA Insider caught up with Vesnina after her champion's media rounds in Indian Wells.
WTA Insider: When I think of your last 12 months, your entire career, the word that comes to mind is "journey". This has been some journey to get you to where you are today, BNP Paribas Open champion.
Vesnina: Yeah, I think I will smile for a couple of days nonstop. Even when I sleep I will keep smiling. This is huge for me.
This was a big journey for me. The President of the Russian Federation, even when I was No.15 in the world he said "She is a good doubles player. That's it." I was like, 'Ok. I'm a good doubles player.'
I'm playing in the final of the BNP Paribas Open and I was still just a good doubles player. I was talking with my partner Ekaterina Makarova about that, that they start talking about us as just doubles players. I said 'Katya, I think this is not right. I think we are universal.'
You're good at both. You can do both. I think this is amazing, that you can be Top 20 in singles, Top 10 in doubles. I think for me, that's the word for us. We are universal. We can play all-court, an all-court game. I think this is exciting for fans as well, that we are playing both events and both events successfully.
Ok, yeah, in singles I had a couple of years when I was really struggling with my results, with my consistency, and I had a couple of tough injuries. When we won the US Open title I was playing with a shoulder injury and I knew after that tournament I would have a long break. My shoulder was bad the whole next year and I paid the price for that title. But I thought I was going for a doubles Grand Slam title. Maybe 50% of the players would tell me, 'You're crazy, you have singles ahead of you.' I just didn't think of that.
I think my doubles game helped me a lot to develop in my singles a lot. To stay there with the titles and the wins, the finals, you're still practicing. You're still playing.
My singles game improved the last couple of years. I felt it. I felt that in getting older, getting more mature, getting more calm on the court, I started realizing that I can do more. I can play better. I always knew I had the shots. My team and my coach were always saying to me, 'You have the shots, you have the game, you're such a complete player. You can play on the baseline, you can come in, you can serve big, what else can you dream about? You don't have a weak place. When you're playing good you're killing the players.' That's what my coach, my dad, was telling me: 'You just need to believe in yourself and not get down on yourself after tough losses.'
I had some moments when I was really not sure if I should continue, should I play, how should I play. Then the doubles helped me. I kept winning titles and I was playing finals. Last year was just amazing. Dream of my life. Gold medal. WTA Finals. Semifinals of Wimbledon. That was the most important thing. Even before Wimbledon, I played the final of Charleston coming from the qualifying. I had good wins against good players, like Venus. I knew that I could beat the big players. I knew I had it inside of me. I just needed to free it up. To show it to everybody.
? WTA (@WTA) March 19, 2017
These two weeks have been amazing for me. I was able to show great tennis against great players. This is not easy. You can show it once or twice. But it's not easy to show it for the whole tournament. I'm really proud of myself.
I want to thank my team, for always telling me I can do that. My husband was always saying to me, since we met the first time - he didn't know anything about tennis - he saw a couple of girls on the tour who was playing, who were Top 10: 'My god, you have the game. You can beat anybody if you're playing good.' Of course it's not easy to beat Serena if she's on or Venus if she's on.
If you have the game, you have the belief, and you have a bit of luck, anything can happen. I think my example is a good example for all the girls in the locker room.
Even when I was No.120, I thought how, when I was 22 my ranking was No.22 in the world. When I was 19, I was No.40 in the world. It kind of gave me confidence because I knew I was there. I was not strong enough physically to hold the whole year from beginning to the end, to have good results consistently. I would have a couple of good months and then down. Then one good month, then down.
This is not enough. If you want to be a top player you have to be consistent the whole year. This is the most difficult part for many girls. Many girls can have one tournament and then down. One month or two months, and then down. I need to learn how to keep this kind of thing.
? BNP Paribas Americas (@BNPPamericas) March 19, 2017
WTA Insider: Speaking of improving your game, watching you this week it seemed clear that you see angles that other players don't see on the court. When you're in awkward positions, you can improvise, which is something that happens a lot in doubles. How has your game matured?
Vesnina: I was feeling really good the court and angles, these two weeks. I was using my backhand a lot. I was creating good angles, short crosscourt and then sharp down the line with margin. I was not trying to hit the lines.
In the awkward moments, a lot of girls would be scared and go two steps back and try to put the ball back. If I know I have a short ball I will go down the line. I will go short cross, with margin from the net and the lines, and I'll just come in. I'll come in and many girls know that I'm good at the net. You have to hit a really good shot to pass me. Svetlana was really playing well when I was coming to the net, creating good angles with her forehand. So I changed that. I started going to her backhand and coming in.
It's a smart game. Use your best shots. Use your best thing, because your opponent is nervous. She doesn't know what you're going to do in this moment, if you're going to step back or come in. If you come in you're putting pressure on your opponent. Of course, you need to have a good serve and good shots, but that's what we're playing for, practicing for.
You need to pick the right shot at the right moment, and you need to be sure when you're hitting this shot.
Everybody is saying I'm playing quite flat, which is true, but it's not easy to play flat here. So I was playing with way more spin on the ball. On my forehand, I was trying to play a little bit more safe, and then trying to use the pace and go down the line. This is what I was trying to do all my life. I was always trying to move my opponents, trying to play wide. Of course, it's not easy. I'm going to miss a lot of shots. But I will move the opponent.
WTA Insider: Looking at this match, I thought the conditions were really going to favor Sveta. She has the heavy topspin that will kick of the court and stay out of your strike zone, and since you're a flat hitter, you might have problems controlling the ball from the baseline. That ended up not being the case.
Vesnina: You're right. All the conditions were today for Svetlana. I think I had four matches under the lights, at night. The ball flies differently. I was using the same racquet tension at night. Today I went two kilos higher.
I knew a lot of balls would fly away, I knew that Sveta would use a lot of spin, and I knew she would give me a lot of high balls. So I had to be accurate with my choice on those high balls because I would have time. I knew I did not want to give her an opportunity to step into the court, so even when she was pushing me with these high balls I was still trying to play deep and strong, back to her body. Don't let her step in and control the point.
Of course, it's easy to say that. The conditions today, I was a little bit worried. I only played one match aginst Timea Babos at 11am. All my matches were at night. Not a lot of tournaments I had a lot of night matches. I love playing at night.
Playing a final at 11am was new to me. I played a lot of finals on the WTA and most of the finals are later in the afternoon. I think we showed a great final today, playing this three-hour match. When I looked at the clock it was already two hours something, I knew we were staying long here. I feel like it was a great final to watch and great final to play as well.
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WTA Insider: You seem to play well when all of Russia is watching. Olympic final, WTA Finals, and now I hear they got the rights to your match today to show on television back home.
Vesnina: I was reading a lot of tweets from Russian fans saying, 'Oh my god, they're not going to show this final in Russia? Are you kidding? This is so bad!' A lot of people were mad. I know a really good commentator in Russia, Anna Dmitrieva. She's like the Federer of commentating. She's the best. Her grandson texted to me, 'You will be on. My grandmother did everything for you to be on TV.'
They were fighting to get this final in Russia, because it's not easy to get primetime for tennis. We have soccer, biathalon, ice hockey, everything but tennis. This is a little bit sad. We have so many great players. Svetlana is Top 10. Girls are always playing at this stage, you can show something!
I'm really happy they showed this final. All my family and friends who don't have a satellite, they could just turn on the TV and they were watching three hours. It's a great moment for women's tennis, a great moment for Russian tennis, and I hope many girls or people who saw the tennis will be more a fan of this great sport.
Hear more from Vesnina in the latest episode of the WTA Insider Podcast: