Olympic Gold medalist Elena Vesnina reached the latest pinnacle of her career renaissance when she captured the BNP Paribas Open, and aims to follow up a dream season with the help of what the Sochi starlet calls her “dream team,” one that includes the added coaching voice - and Daft Punk approach - of former ATP World No.20 Dmitry Tursunov.
“He’s helping me for the pre-season,” Vesnina said in a phone interview last week, “and he will fly with me to Australia for Sydney and Melbourne. So far, I really like working with Dmitry. He knows a lot of details about tennis: the feel, the movement, the spin on the ball. Even simple stuff, which, it’s tough to kind of surprise me, but even that, he brought a couple of really important elements.
“He likes to talk about tennis, and his philosophy is all about how to stay better, how to be faster, how to be stronger. He’s always trying to bring something new, and I really like the way it’s working so far.”
The veteran has spent most of her career going around the world with father Sergey and another ATP pro, 1989 French Open semifinalist Andrei Cheshnokov.
“We’ll see how it’s goes with Andrei; we’re still in touch. He’s following my results and what’s going on in my life. He’s a very close person to me, not only as a coach, but more like a part of my family.”
From falling in qualifying a year earlier, her fortnight in the California desert was a homecoming all its own as she conquered the likes of Angelique Kerber and Venus Williams en route to the final. The championship match, a three-hour epic against Svetlana Kuznetsova, moved her to a career-high ranking of World No.13.
Still, the student of sports psychology - who spent Christmas embracing her inner Elsa at the Bolshoi Theater - felt the need for a fresh perspective, noting how Sascha Bajin helped Caroline Wozniacki back into the World’s Top 3 and a title win at the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global.
“Dmitry and I understand each other. We found that we have similar feelings about tennis, about certain match and practice situations. So it’s a very interesting process for me, and it’s new; I’ve never worked with a coach who so recently stopped playing on tour. Andrei finished some time ago, and so he had already experienced working with Marat Safin and Elena Bovina. Dmitry doesn’t have that experience, but I think he also has big potential to be a very good coach.”
Tursunov has been a part of the tennis community for much of the past two decades, winning seven titles each in singles and doubles, though physical struggles have limited his schedule in recent years.
“I saw him a couple of times in Moscow. He’s actually called me to say, ‘If you want to hit or something, just let me know.’ But he was an ATP player during that time, and that’s not quite normal; they usually want to play with the guys.
“But he came back to Moscow for a couple of days while he was injured, so I was like ‘Okay, let’s hit a couple of times.’ I didn’t know his plans - maybe he’s going to play next season - so, for me, I didn’t want to ask him right away, ‘Do you want to be my coach?’
"Instead I asked, ‘What are your plans? Do you want to work with me during the pre-season?’ Later I asked if he was interested in traveling to tournaments. He was like, ‘Give me a few days to think about it.’ And then, quite fast, he got back to me, and said yes.”
Known for a wit as quick as his serve, the enigmatic Russian celebrated his 35th birthday by taking his signature blend of intensity and fun to the fittingly named Hotel Vesna, Vesnina’s seaside training base.
“He’s a really fun person off the court, but during the practices, it’s work. We’re doing the same thing, and he’s trying to help me, to make me better, stronger, and everything like that.
“It’s a whole process, and it’s not easy, so I do like to laugh sometimes in practice, just to kind of relax your mind for a second, and then you’re ready to go again and work. If you’re always going to be serious, after being so long on the tour, practicing every day for like 20 years of your life, I don’t know how you can survive. You have to have the sense of humor, you have to be ironic sometimes, and Dmitry is definitely bringing that to our practices.”
The time spent on court has been the highlight of what Vesnina, who turned 31 in August, believes to be her most efficient off-season yet. Following a well-documented vacation to the Maldives, the 2016 Wimbledon semifinalist welcomed back fitness trainer Dean Hollingworth and traveling physiotherapist Kirstin Bauer for an intense pre-season before joining Tursunov on the court.
“I see that Dmitry is enjoying it. He’s not like, ‘Oh my God, I have to practice, when is it going finish? I have something to do.’ He’s really, really into it from the beginning to the end. He’s ready to talk about tennis the whole day, actually. I’m the one stopping him!”
Affable, yet assertive, it was ambition that ultimately inspired Vesnina away from what could have been a very successful doubles-only career - especially after injuries eroded her singles ranking two years ago. That which hasn’t killed her has indeed made her stronger, and with strong results in both disciplines of late, the Russian is ready to go for even more gold in 2018.
“I’m a tennis lover, so I’m really enjoying the process, to see some differences, some kinds of improvement. Even the little improvements, it’s such a pleasure to see how you’re moving better, you’re hitting one shot better than it was ever in your life, or you’re serving with more spin. It’s just like all these little things making such a big difference. If you really love tennis, and you’ve enjoyed playing for so many years, I think that is important. Practice is hardly the most fun part of our sport, but if you’re enjoying it, I think it’s really good.”