MADRID, Spain - For 16-year-old Marta Kostyuk, the 2018 Australian Open feels like a lifetime ago.
The Ukrainian phenom introduced herself to the world last January, coming through qualifying as a 15-year-old to become the youngest woman to win a main draw match at the Australian Open since Martina Hingis. The spotlight quickly swiveled onto the charismatic teen - she even got a write-up in The New Yorker - and she ultimately progressed to the third round. Kostyuk finished the 2018 season ranked No.118.
Kostyuk has been relatively quiet since, struggling with health issues and the general comedown that invariably creeps up after a burst of attention and hopeful expectation.
Playing in her third WTA qualifying even this season, Kostyuk knocked out top seed and generational peer Amanda Anismimova 6-0, 2-6, 6-0 in the first round before securing her spot in the main draw with a 7-5, 3-6, 6-2 win over Irina Bara. She will play Kristyna Pliskova in her first WTA main draw match since September.
WTA Insider caught up with Kostyuk after her successful qualifying campaign.
WTA Insider: Congratulations on qualifying for your first main draw of the year. How are you feeling?
Kostyuk: Of course I feel good. And I feel like it had to happen, like it's meant to happen, because I prepared really well for the clay season. Even though I didn't play for so long, last week I had a few very, very good matches [at an ITF in Chiasso, Switzerland]. I went through some ups and downs last week and won the doubles.
I cannot say I was confident but I knew that I'm on the right way. I was kind of understanding that this is coming.
Well, of course, I feel so much more confident after qualifying. Doesn't matter how I'm going to play the next few days. I still think that I gained a lot of confidence and a lot of experience here.
Anisimova is a very good player and I'm happy that I could get this win. I cannot say it was super easy, but it was very fast.
The whole day everyone was seeing me and was like, 'Oh what's happened?' It's like I lost or something (laughing). What was with the time? It's like come on, really, stop.
We had a great match and I found the way in the third set. Even though it looked like it was super easy, I cannot say it was that easy. I think I just found the way. So I'm happy was that.
WTA Insider: So what have you been up to since the 2018 Australian Open?
Kostyuk: I was practicing. I just hope that people are not thinking that I was off. There are a lot of people I know that think I was partying or tennis wasn't my priority or whatever.
I was practicing all the time, it's just that the things were not going the way I wanted them to be. My life is not only about tennis. It's like everyone's life. That's how it had to happen, everything. So I was just trying to go through this.
WTA Insider: How different is the Marta Kostyuk sitting here now compared to the one sitting with reporters last year.
Kostyuk: Very different. Even though it was like one and a half year ago, it's unbelievable how much I changed. I look at myself back then and it's like oh my god I was such a kid.
It was, for me, more like a miracle. It was a miracle, but at the same time I was looking at all this and I thought it has to happen! Like there's no other way!
Now I realize that I need to put so much work in it. Coming back from such a big fall, you really realize that these things are not really a miracle. Every win is like, Oh my God I did it, now to the next one.
I was taking things for granted. So I think that's the biggest difference. So now I'm more aware of everything that is going on in my life.
WTA Insider: How did you process everything that happened, the increased attention and expectation that was coming from both the outside and from yourself?
Kostyuk: I went through so much stuff in the last year. People just cannot imagine. I honestly don't want to talk about it. You just cannot imagine, OK?
It all happened really fast. I realized I'm coming back a month ago. Before I was practicing and I felt, like, oh no it's not there, something is wrong. And a month ago I knew, OK, now is the time, like I felt it. I don't know why but I felt it.
Actually, a fun fact, when I arrived in Madrid I knew I'm going to play Anisimova in qualies. I just knew that. When I saw that draw I was not surprised by that because I knew.
But coming back to your question, I don't know, I think it's like a feeling.
WTA Insider: You don't seem overly excited about qualifying. You seem quite calm about all this.
Kostyuk: I feel that I can do more. I can get a good draw here and I can also play good players in the first round. It's not like I have a day off or something, so I'm already for tomorrow preparing.
Last year I would be so happy, oh my god! Now, I know these things did not just fall from the sky for me. I knew that I was practicing, I was working. Of course I'm happy that I qualified but I don't want to waste energy.
I had very bad health issues last year after Wimbledon. That was really bad. And then I went completely opposite. I went too much, like, closed, not taking pictures with people, no signing. So I was completely opposite.
You need to find the right balance. I don't want to say that I found this balance and I'm so good and make people feel like they are not good enough. I don't wanna put anyone in an uncomfortable situation. It takes a lot of time and things to happen to find where approximately you need to be so you're in the middle.
WTA Insider: I'm sure you're aware that the tennis world has been keeping an eye on you. How do you manage that external pressure you might feel?
Kostyuk: I had this pressure last year and I went too crazy about that. It's like I was the first one who broke through, and I was the first one who fell. It's how it is for the 2000, 2001, 2002 girls.
Now there's so many girls that are so much better than me. Honestly I don't really feel that pressure because, like, Yastremska is like No.35 or something, Anisimova is Top 50 now. They both won already WTA titles. Potapova is 70 in the world. And I'm 320 (laughs).
I don't count myself like a big superstar, because definitely now I'm not.
Like, Bianca she's ranked No.25 and she won Indian Wells. I was watching the last two games of hers in the final. When she won I almost cried, I swear, because I was so happy for her and it's an unbelievable achievement.
They did, to me, all those things, they were so unbelievable because I knew where I was and it felt impossible. No confidence and everything that's around.
I just don't put myself into that, that everyone expects something from me because people are always expecting from me and then at some point I just stopped. Like I just stopped to look to what people are saying because it just doesn't make sense sometimes.
WTA Insider: Last question. Are you having fun?
Kostyuk: I do! A lot. Especially on the court and I love to play, I love to compete, and I love to be in the tournament. I love to play in Madrid, honestly even though I lost here last year first round, but I'm always happy to come here because it's a great event and great people. I just love it here.