Alla Kudryavtseva last came to Brisbane newly resolved to shake off a disappointing season and start a next chapter to what had become a tumultuous career.
This week, the Russian returned to the Gold Coast for the first time in two years aiming to write a new book entirely, kicking off her first week as a doubles specialist alongside Michaella Krajicek at the Brisbane International.
“For most of my career I’ve been more successful in doubles than in singles,” she explained over the off-season, “so I think it is time I fully applied myself.”
Peaking inside the Top 60 in singles, Kudryavtseva has been ranked as high as No.15 in doubles, where eight of her nine WTA titles have come. She first found a regular partner in 2014, Russian-born Aussie Anastasia Rodionova. The pair not only qualified for the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global, but also upset Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina en route to the semifinals. It’s a memory burned in her mind, one she hopes to replicate this season.
“On the doubles court you must take responsibility for yourself, sometimes even for your partner. You have to be a good communicator, and you need to be emotionally intelligent. It is an every day challenge.”
An alternate alongside Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova the following year, she appeared on course for another Singapore sling with Vania King before the pair split following early losses at the French Open and Wimbledon.
As her doubles stalled, her singles showed signs of life. She secured wins over the likes of Alizé Cornet, Kristina Mladenovic, and Eugenie Bouchard, the latter to make her second WTA quarterfinal of the year at the Coupe Banque Nationale in Québec City. The veteran planned a full slate of ITF Pro Circuit tournaments in order to clinch a Top 100 return when disaster struck in St. Petersburg.
A ruptured Achilles tendon kept her off the tour for seven months, the longest layoff of her career.
“I’d been blessed to spend an incredible ten years on tour without a serious injury. Rupturing my Achilles tendon was painful, but not as devastating as one might think. The agony was excruciating; I’ve never felt anything like it before. After the first shock of pain passed, I had to make some difficult decisions quickly.”
Kudryavtseva credits Kathleen Stroia, the WTA’s Senior Vice President of Sport Sciences & Medicine and Transitions, with providing the necessary referrals for an impending surgery.
“I am not an optimist, but I had my friends, family, and the WTA’s medical stuff to help me, so I thought, ‘I’ll be okay.’
During the healing process, she completed her communications degree at Indiana University East, where Venus Williams, Irina Falconi, and Sloane Stephens have also pursued their education through a partnership with the WTA.
“I think I’ve always treated tennis as an exciting part of my life, but only a part of who I am. That's why I always studied and kept outside interests. I think it’s important to realize that a professional sport is just a short episode in life, a fragile one at that.”
The 2017 comeback began with a doubles title in Jackson, Mississippi, but the struggle to balance the two disciplines meant it was time for a few more tough decisions. Once again, Kudryavtseva sought solace from her extended tour family.
“I shared some of my doubts with Kristina Mladenovic and she told me a beautiful thing: ‘The ranking doesn't play tennis, players do.’ I am very thankful to all the girls on tour who supported me through my injury and return. I didn't expect so much compassion from my competitors, but it seems when you treat people with kindness and respect they respond in kind.”
She spent the ensuing off-season reflecting on a career that has consistently defied the odds, dating back to her earliest memories on the court.
“My first few years playing tennis weren’t successful at all. All I remember is losing. I wasn't my coach’s favorite either; I was often late for practice because my school was far from the club and there was a lot of traffic. My parents never wanted to sacrifice my education for tennis, so the coach gave me a hard time.
“I think my mom was the only person who sincerely believed in me. My father loves me dearly, but he also knows professional sport first hand [as a former Greco-Roman wrestler] and he knows how many people try and fail. So he was skeptical.
“On one hand knowing my chances were small motivated me to develop personally; if it wasn't going to work out in tennis I had to find my way in life. On the other hand, no one pressured or mistreated me when I was losing matches.”
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She was a Top 100 player by the age of 20, nabbing her signature win over Maria Sharapova shortly thereafter at the Wimbledon Championships. Her first singles title came over compatriot Vesnina at the Tashkent Open, playing with a versatility that later caught the attention of Billie Jean King’s Mylan World Team Tennis, where she made back-to-back finals with two different teams.
While physical issues were rarely a factor, it was instead her emotions that often kept Kudryavtseva from connecting with her best tennis in singles.
“I think a lot of my anxiety came from uncertainty and doubt. As a teenager, I would cry for hours after a loss. Who wouldn't cry if they wanted to be a professional tennis player and it just wasn't working out? I had my passion for the sport, my fear of failure, and emotions that came with that fear.”
At 30 years old, the same passion and fears persist, but the dueling emotions find themselves offset by a sharpened focus and even deeper dedication for the game she loves.
“I still have goals and aspirations, but I cherish every tournament I play now that I realize it can all end unexpectedly. Before my injury I took playing at the biggest tournaments in the world for granted, because it had been my reality for over a decade. Now I have a different perspective and I treasure every match I play.”