Steady progress paid off for former junior World No.3 Anna Blinkova in August, when the Russian became the fourth player to crack the Top 100 as a teenager this year.
The season had actually begun with a fall: Blinkova's failure to defend her Australian Open points from 2017 meant that she sunk to World No.164 in February. But the Moscow-born right-hander wasted no time to rebound in style. Having navigated qualifying for the fourth consecutive tournament in Doha, she scored up career-best wins in back-to-back rounds: a maiden Top 30 victory over Elena Vesnina backed up by a maiden Top 20 scalp in Kristina Mladenovic, both in straight sets.
Blinkova's powerful groundstrokes would also come to the fore at the end of March with her biggest title run to date at the ITF $60,000 event in Croissy-Beauborg, and again in scoring a maiden main draw win at Wimbledon over Wang Yafan - a result that propelled her to World No.101, well-placed to move up a notch a month later.
Since breaking that barrier, Blinkova has not rested on her laurels: quarterfinal finishes at the Chicago and Limoges 125Ks, as well as the Poitiers ITF $80,000 event, consolidated her position for a year-end finish of World No.98.
The 20-year-old has been on the radar ever since a junior career that included a Wimbledon runner-up plate in 2015 (falling to Sofya Zhuk) and the 2016 ITF Junior Masters title, and last year wtatennis.com profiled Blinkova as part of our 2018 Scouting Report. One year on, we caught up with the thoughtful youngster to discuss her highlights, her improvements - and, of course, what the voracious bookworm has been reading.
1. Blinkova feels that she has improved in every way - but that she hasn't finished getting better.
Last year, Blinkova had described Top 100 players as "difficult to play with… because they are more clever, they play smart." That's exactly what she improved on in 2018: "I became physically stronger, tactically smarter and mentally tougher," she says proudly.
This was exemplified in two matches at the end of the year against canny German veteran Tatjana Maria, whose web of spins and slices have often been a nightmare match-up for young - and not-so-young - players. In the first round of Linz, Blinkova succumbed to Maria after a dominant first set, losing 2-6, 6-2, 6-3. The pair would be drawn against each other for the second week in a row in Luxembourg - but this time, the Russian was prepared. "I analyzed the loss with my coach, we changed the tactics and I perfectly applied it," she recalled. This time, she closed Maria out 6-2, 7-5.
Nonetheless, Blinkova still feels she has a long way to go. "I will keep working on all the aspects of the game to get a bit better in everything," she vows. "I want to win tournaments, beat strong players and feel more and more confident on the court."
2. Blinkova changed her coaching setup in the second half of 2018.
Having hired Mislav Hizak at the end of 2017, Blinkova decided to switch her team up after the US Open, bringing Thomas Drouet on board as her new coach. The Frenchman was previously Timea Babos' longtime coach, and before that worked with Marion Bartoli on her way to winning Wimbledon in 2013.
"We have already done two months together and I like working with him very much," Blinkova assesses the new partnership. "We have the same mentality and the same objectives. We are both hard workers and we communicate well."
3. Blinkova scored her best wins in Doha - but that wasn't her most memorable tournament this year.
"Doha was exceptional for me," she admits. "I passed the qualifying and then beat two Top 30 players and only lost to a Top 10 player [Caroline Garcia] 7-6(3), 7-5." But the experience she remembers best came two months later in Rabat, where she partnered Raluca Olaru to capture her maiden WTA doubles title.
"[Rabat] is my favorite tournament," Blinkova declares. "I've played it for three years in a row. I love its atmosphere and people. The team is very friendly and always happy to help players - I'm happy to see them every time I come back. The club is very nice as well - the food is excellent and the weather is always warm and sunny."
4. The traveling lifestyle is inspiring Blinkova to become a polyglot.
"I love to travel and see the world," she says. "I appreciate this possibility that so many people don’t have and I do, so I’m always excited when I play a new tournament or come back to my favorite places."
Asia was particularly enjoyable for Blinkova this year, who cites Shenzhen and Taipei City as two more of her new favorite tournaments. To this end, she reveals, "I am even trying to learn Chinese a little bit, and I really enjoy it - until I have to read or write!"
Blinkova already speaks four languages - Russian, English, French and Slovak - and says that she finds learning new tongues fun, and helpful in making new friends. She is using two apps, HelloChinese and TrainChinese, in her quest to master a fifth - as well as a Russian TV show called Polyglot, "where people sit in a classroom and the professor gives lessons". On her bucket list for 2019? To become good enough to practise with the Chinese players on tour.
5. Blinkova is still passionate about literature.
"At the moment, I am re-reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy for the second time," she reveals casually. What is it that draws her back to the sprawling epic saga? "I like the way the author describes every character and appearance of each person in the book," Blinkova says. "I get a clear image of them and it’s fun to see how different every one is, how different the ways they talk and act are."
Naturally, her favorite character is the most philosophical. "I like Andrey Bolkonsky the most because he is generous, brave and honest," she smiles.