STANFORD, CA, USA - Rewind it back to a year ago - Carlsbad, the Southern California Open, and an American pair about to begin a fantastic voyage. Raquel Kops-Jones and Abigail Spears went from good to great in just a few months last year - could they be on the verge of a repeat this year?
Going into last year's summer hardcourt season, Kops-Jones and Spears had some good results together - they had two WTA titles together, both at the International level. But it was here in Carlsbad when they truly fulfilled their potential, capturing their first Premier-level title together. They also beat then-World No.1s Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond in an absolute nail-biter along the way.
"The win over Liezel and Lisa was huge for us - they're No.1 and everybody's looking to beat them," Spears said of the upset. "Whenever you can beat the No.1 team in the world it makes you feel pretty good. They're going to represent us at the Olympics next week and I think they'll do really well."
Kops-Jones and Spears suffered a few early exits the rest of the summer, including a third round defeat at the US Open, but upon leaving Flushing Meadows, they made an eye-opening observation.
"We were really disappointed to have lost in the third round at the US Open, but afterwards I looked at the points for Istanbul and I was like, 'We're in fifth place!'" Kops-Jones said. "We realized we weren't really that far. And we hadn't really thought of the race at all the whole year. On the other hand, though we knew there was technically a chance, it wasn't really on our minds too much at that point.
"We went to Seoul pretty relaxed and we won the title, and it was after that when it really began creeping into our minds. And when we won Tokyo we were pretty much neck and neck with Kirilenko and Petrova. It just came up really fast. We had done well enough throughout the year that there was a chance, then we just kept winning and winning and getting closer and closer. It was pretty cool."
"We were really fired up after Tokyo," Spears said. "And then we went to Moscow, and in the semis we had Kirilenko and Petrova, and whoever won that match, that was it, they would be the fourth team to qualify for Istanbul. It was funny - they had match points against them in the first round, and we had match points against us too, but we both won and made it to the semifinals to play each other.
"When it came down to playing them it was awesome - us, no coach, no support, and them, their home tournament. It was just a great experience. And neither Raquel nor I had ever been to Istanbul."
Kirilenko and Petrova ended up winning that match, 75 64, and they actually went on to win Istanbul - and although it was disappointing, Kops-Jones and Spears left Moscow with their heads held high.
"For sure after they beat us we were disappointed and heartbroken, but afterwards we realized what an amazing feat it was to even be in that position," Spears said. "Nobody saw us coming, really."
So, Kops-Jones and Spears finished the 2012 season as the No.5-ranked team in the world - how did things change for them going into 2013, one of the hunted teams, rather than being the hunters?
"It's a new experience now that we're ranked a lot higher," Spears said. "It's a learning experience for us to be a top seed at the Grand Slams. We were No.5 at Wimbledon - we've never been seeded that high. But I don't think people are gunning for us more; I think we've beaten ourselves, more like."
"We are our biggest downfall," Kops-Jones said. "It's not that other teams can't outplay us - they can - but we are our biggest mental hurdle. When we get over those, we tend to win. And this year has been a hurdle for us, but there's still a really long way to go, and we're improving every week."
Just like last year, Kops-Jones and Spears won their first title of the year in the summer hardcourt season - Carlsbad last year, Stanford last week. They are currently No.10 in the race to Istanbul.
Could they be headed for another fantastic voyage?
"Raquel and I love playing in Stanford and Carlsbad, because it's like home," Spears said. "We're excited for the summer and excited to see what happens - you never know, we could get there."
"Ditto," Kops-Jones added.