INDIAN WELLS, CA, USA – Wandering the outer grounds of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, it can be hard to focus in on just what is worth watching among a sea of early round encounters.
Unless, of course, you’re me, and you know from Wednesday’s hectic order of play to beeline towards Stadium 6 and settle in for the first match of the morning.
There you’d find former French Open quarterfinalist Yulia Putintseva, a 23-year-old who gives gravitas to any stakes, spectacle to any sideshow. The confident Kazakh came to the BNP Paribas Open well off her career-high ranking of No.27 - earned after nabbing back-to-back Top 10 wins en route to her first WTA final at the 2017 St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy – but eager all the same to turn around a slow start to the season.
“My pre-season was pretty good,” she told me after a 6-0, 2-6, 6-2 win over Alison Van Uytvanck, “but I think it was a little bit too much at the end. That’s why I started this season already a little bit tired. Anyway, the pre-season helps you for half a year at most; that’s what I feel. Even if you’ve been working pretty hard, your fitness is there for a couple of months. After Wimbledon, I’ll probably take some weeks to prepare for the US Open Series, but we’ll see.”
Her opponent, Van Uytvanck, is a rangy Belgian with a big serve, who won her second title in five months last week at the Hungarian Ladies Open; neither of those title runs involved Putintseva, who extended her winning head-to-head over the Belgian to 3-0. Their first meeting was in Brussels back in 2013.
“I remember it was very cold. I asked if I could play in a jacket, and I think my logo was too big so they didn’t allow me to.”
Putintseva shrugged off the inconvenience and lost just one game.
Still, it must have been a particularly frigid afternoon in May to combat her brand of competitive fire, the kind that blazes through each match she plays. No stranger to negative emotion, the former junior standout is at her most memorable in the midst of her signature celebrations, bellicose exhortations far bigger than what her 5’4” frame can contain.
She roared after outlasting Van Uytvanck in an hour and 46 minutes, so loud and so long that her voice cracked.
“That’s what I am, how I’m feeling. I’m never hiding my emotions. I think that someone who plays tennis and they’re emotional, they can understand. Every time I’m playing, there is going something on the court, some emotions. They’re not going to be sitting through a match with just no sound. I don’t know, some people like it, some don’t.”
The self-aware youngster easily drowns out those who don’t – literally and figuratively – and draws a line between her on-court persona and the off-court quiet that is just as deafening.
“I’m really happy that I have some fans who believe in me, who keep on supporting me no matter what, I’m very thankful for them, and I appreciate it. But there are so many people who are judging without knowing anything about anyone, and this is crazy. Talk personally or try to understand and see what’s going on. Then you can judge or decide not to like someone.
“But I really don’t care about those people, they have their own life, I have my own life. We never met, never saw each other, so they can think whatever they want to think.”
Putintseva doesn’t confront criticism with the same ferocity as she might, say, anything in optic yellow, but instead with the quiet maturity that took her within five points of beating then-World No.1 Serena Williams at Roland Garros in 2016.
“Since I was coming on tour, when I was 10, 12, I was already very emotional, expressing myself a lot. People were already talking then, saying that I’m annoying. Come on, I’m 10 years old, screaming ‘Come on’ after each shot, and they were saying that I’m a very bad person. Come on.”
She points out those who came before her, legends like Serena, a champion who rarely keeps crowds in the dark when it comes to her own, often-entertaining inner monologue.
“I prefer myself to watch someone who shows their emotions rather than hides them. Of course, I admire players who can keep in the negative emotions, but that’s tennis, you cannot always hide them.
“I really love Serena, that she’s not afraid to show her emotions, and that she’s always fighting. The same goes for Rafael Nadal; I love him, how he expresses himself on court, the way he plays, and he always fights until the end, just like Serena. I think that these are two good examples.”
Success brought her to bigger stages, and that relentless enthusiasm - mixed with her size and thoughtful shot-making – made her the ultimate underdog, easy to root for as she took on the Goliaths of the old guard.
Time has also softened the once irascible Moscow native, who finds herself infinitely more familiar with her surroundings and fellow players.
“I know more tournaments now, I know how each surface plays, I know how to prepare before the tournaments thanks to that experience, and now I know much more players than when I was coming onto the Tour. So, this has been helpful for now.”
Yet it’s an unfamiliar opponent, former World No.2 Petra Kvitova, who stands between her and a second BNP Paribas Open third round appearance in the last three years.
“I’m just going to go out there and try my best. I’ve never played her before, so I’m going see what I can do, and hopefully I can show a good game.”
Taking on the two-time Wimbledon champion likely means Putintseva will get the stadium spotlight she craves in the California desert. The clash of styles – and yet equally intense on-court characters – all but guarantees a show, one wholly worthy of the event’s first weekend.