ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - A long off-season abroad and a summer Down Under left Russian qualifier Anastasia Potapova hungry to return home. Literally.
"I wasn't always a huge fan of Russian food," the teenager told me at the end of our interview. "I had been away from home for about five months before coming back for this tournament, and now I’m absolutely obsessed with Russian food. I’ve been eating it every day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I can’t stop.
"They’re big fans of poke bowls in Australia, so natural, vegetarian, and I love them. My agent asked me if I wanted any since I've been back and I was like, ‘No more! I want Russian borscht right now! I want something really Russian.’"
Into the second round of the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy, Potapova is coming off something of a culture shock. Led by former coach Irina Doronina, her team was once largely Russian. She has since hired Iain Hughes, noted British coach who has worked with the likes of Elina Svitolina and Belinda Bencic. A Slovak hitting partner and an Agentine fitness coach makes English the common language. The junior Wimbledon champion has always spoken in a jaunty syncopation, and while she has exponentially expanded her vocabulary through a winter split between Barcelona and Dubai, she finds herself relieved by the rare opportunity to employ her mother tongue.
"I didn’t spent so much time in Russia last year, so I’m just enjoying it, even the little things like going to a supermarket and asking for something in Russian. I spend so much time speaking English that it made things weird when I was home with my mother. We were watching Serena Williams play Wang Qiang and I was like, ‘Serena’s losing,’ and she said, ‘Why are you speaking English?’ It’s become a habit. We have the American series of tournaments coming up so I know I have to leave soon, but I still have one week left here so I’m enjoying everything..."
She trails off.
"...Except the cold. I’m a summer person, so I need +35 degrees, beach, and ocean, please! Maria Sakkari and some other players tell me how lucky I am that I live where it snows and I think I might be a broken Russian because I don’t like the snow, snow angels or snowmen. Give me sun and tan lines, and I’ll be very happy."
The cold hasn't bothered the jocular Potapova on court, anyway, even as the air conditioning chills Sibur Area - where she has won her first WTA main draw match in 2018, and her last three in straight sets this week. Her main draw opener against compatriot Liudmilla Samsonova featured a second set lapse that followed a first set surge. Where a past Potapova may have fallen into a deciding set, she credits an improved focus with helping her better navigate a match's ups and downs.
"I could turn off for three of four games and like that, the set would be gone. I would think, ‘What happened? What planet was I on?’ That was the problem! It wasn’t nerves; for me, it’s always been tougher to watch someone play rather than be out there playing myself.
"The biggest difference is that now I know when it’s gone. It’s not so much about struggling with ups and downs but not knowing whether you’re up or down! You don’t know what’s going on, thinking you’re doing everything right, but your eyes are all over the place and you’re like ‘Where am I?’ It’s good that I can realize when my focus is gone, and that way, I can bring it back. That’s a positive thing."
The 18-year-old, who has been ranked as high as World No.64 and is tentatively set to return to the Top 100 next week, blames that sort of mental lapse on a well-watched first round loss to fellow teenager Coco Gauff at the US Open.
"The match with Coco really hurt me. It wasn’t because I lost to a girl who is younger than me, because she’s definitely an unbelievable player. At her age, I wasn’t nearly as ready as she is. I might have been physically, but not mentally, because she has a very good mentality. That’s very solid and cool.
"The first set was one of the best I played all year. I was literally on fire, playing and getting everything back, hitting the lines. Then something happened where I started to change my game, trying to be more creative. That didn’t work, and it was because my focus was gone."
Her next major match came against an American on the opposite end of the experience spectrum, as Potapova took on 23-time Grand Slam champion Williams at last month's Australian Open.
"Everyone was asking me if it was frustrating to play Serena in the first round, and was I angry. I didn’t understand why they would ask me that, because I’ve been dreaming about an opportunity like this since I first put a racquet in my hand. I don’t get why people would find it frustrating to play one of the best players in the world. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best, or at least learn lessons from them.
"I might have wanted to play Serena in a later round, but come on, she’s not going to play forever. Who knows what will happen this year? Maybe she’ll win the next Grand Slam and retire. Nobody knows. For me, she’s the best athlete of all time; nobody’s better than her. I’m happy I got this chance to be on the same court as her at the Australian Open, on Rod Laver Arena. I don’t think many players who may have been on tour longer than me have gotten this chance. They didn’t get this lesson or this experience. I got to have it at such a young age, and literally in the first month of the season, so I have the whole year to apply it! Maybe I’ll play her again and use what I’ve learned the last time."
With its epic on-court introductions and high-octane changeover entertainment, St. Petersburg has provided a unique test of her mental improvements, allowing her to employ some of those lessons learned.
"I almost never put a towel over my head, but here I'm doing it every changeover. The dancing is great, but it’s a show for the crowd. The girls are very nice and the music is so fun that you want to turn around and watch, but I have to remind myself: ‘Nastya, you’re here for a few different things.’ That’s where the focus comes in, and I’ve tried to keep it on court. Some of her fans today were a little frustrating, and even a little rude today, and so I took that as another challenge. I’ve just been trying to do my thing."
Facing Ajla Tomljanovic for a first Premier-level quarterfinal, Potapova sees big possibilities for her generation in 2020, spurred on by a junior cohort that included US Open champion Bianca Andreescu and Australian Open winner Sofia Kenin.
"I’m so happy for Sonya that she won her first Slam. She was playing unbelievable for the whole two weeks. It’s so tough for the juniors…for me, she’s still a junior. I mean, of course she’s not literally a junior, because she won a Grand Slam. She’s only two years older than me, and my coach tells me the girls our age are still a junior generation compared to the Top 10 players who are already 30 years old. It’s such an age difference that I’m still like a baby compared to them. We might be babies, but we’re stubborn babies!
"Bianca won the US Open, Sonya won the Australian Open, and when you see them doing this, I think, ‘Why can’t I win French Open 2020?’ As this generation change is happening, I think there’s a lot of opportunities for everyone – literally everyone – to win a Grand Slam. We still need to have some more experience to play more consistently, but it’s also getting tougher for the more experienced players, too. I think it’s a good chance to show everyone what we can do on court."