Welcome to Sunshine Stories, where wtatennis.com will take a look back at some of the most memorable matches from the North American spring over the past five years. Up next in our Indian Wells countdown is Elena Vesnina's titanic quarterfinal tussle with Venus Williams at the 2017 BNP Paribas Open on the road to her career pinnacle.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Vesnina's desert dream began at 16, when she took her first trip to America in hopes of making a BNP Paribas Open debut. Ranked beneath the qualifying cut-off, she was nonetheless taken in by both purple mountains majesty and amber waves of grain, and resolved to one day call California home.
"I was staying with a really nice old lady in her house," she recalled in 2017. "She had, like, two cars, one was convertible, had the garden with oranges, with grapefruits, you know. Everything was just so beautiful here."
While she thrice captured the doubles title over the ensuing decade, her singles dreams were in decline. A decision to play through a shoulder injury in 2014 led to a ranking drop out of the Top 120 in 2016, relegating her into the Indian Wells qualifying tournament she once wanted so badly to play. A first round defeat there proved an apropos turning point for the Russian veteran, who kickstarted her comeback over the three weeks - at the Miami Open with a three-set win over Venus Williams and a runner-up finish at Volvo Car Open in Charleston - leading to a triumphant summer run to the Wimbledon semifinals.
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Vesnina was firmly ranked inside the Top 15 by the time the BNP Paribas Open rolled back around in 2017, and was ready to break new ground on the Premier Mandatory level with confident wins over Shelby Rogers, Timea Babos, and, most notably, No.2 seed Angelique Kerber, who was set to return to World No.1 following the fortnight. Her maiden quarterfinal appearance came against the elder Williams, whom she'd beaten in three of five previous encounters.
Williams was making just her second trip to the California desert since 2001, falling in her 2016 return at the first hurdle to Kurumi Nara. The seven-time Grand Slam champion had spent much of the last five years managing the effects of Sjogren's Syndrome, an autoimmune disease she was discovered to have in 2011. While she joined Vesnina in the 2016 Wimbledon semifinals - her best result at major tournament in nearly six years - and was on court as sister Serena captured her 23rd Grand Slam title at the Australian Open six months later, injuries in conjunction with the ever-present illness hindered her consistency, sometimes leaving her a shadow of her best without warning.
The two-time BNP Paribas Open semifinalist was twice taken to three sets en route to the last eight, appearing sluggish to start clashes against both fellow former World No.1 Jelena Jankovic and dangerous floater Peng Shuai; from slow starts came fast wins, with Williams enjoying timely surges that twice took her over the finish line.
"Sometimes heart is all you've got," she mused after surviving Peng. "You have nothing but the will, desire to win. If you can bring that on the court, paying that price is the biggest price there is to pay."
WHAT HAPPENED: Facing off for the first time since their Miami Open match, Vesnina picked up where she left off against Williams, who provided few answers to the Russian's all-court dominance.
Out to a quick 3-0 lead, the No.14 seed threatened a double-break advantage before the American got on the board, the lone interruption in her march through a half hour opening set, secured off a double fault.
Both women were at their best early in the second set, as Vesnina pressed to continue her momentum and Williams aimed to carve some of her own. Twice on the brink of break chances, Vesnina blinked after an exchange of breaks, and Venus soon leveled the match after a confident approach to net.
A younger Vesnina may have melted away as night fell on the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, but playing on a comfortable court against a familiar opponent, she shook off an early break in the decider and never fell behind again, relying on some searing play from both sides.
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Out to another 5-2 lead, the 30-year-old bravely engineered three match points on the Williams serve, obviously eager to avoid the pressure of serving out the match. Showing none of the rust she'd exhibited earlier in the evening, Venus vaulted forward, smacking a forehand up the line to save the first match point and ultimately stay alive on serve.
Vesnina quickly fell behind 0-40 with the match on her racquet, and it looked like Williams would pull off a miraculous comeback before the future doubles No.1 eliminated the loose shots from her game to save an astounding six break points before getting another look at the upset.
Match point No.4 saw Vesnina mix up the pace to excellent effect, triggering an ill-timed backhand from Williams that clipped the netcord, sitting up just enough to help the Russian seal victory with an emphatic forehand into the open court.
WHAT THEY SAID: Vesnina sat down for her post-match press conference still in her match clothes, her mind still very much on the court, what she just accomplished, and how she got it done.
"It was difficult a little bit for me," she remarked of the titanic last game. "I was struggling with the first serve percentage in the end of the third set, so I started serving with a little bit less power, and a bit more pace.
"A couple of kind of big points she gave me an unforced error. I was, like, 'I'm never gonna lose this game.' I was really fighting like it's the last game of my life.
"Maybe this kind of tactic helped me, you know, to win this last game, because another way it's gonna be 5-4, she will serve and then 5-5, and you never know. She will come back again."
Her talk of stats and momentum shifts was a testament to how clearly she was seeing the game that week, a moment where the singles court had never looked simpler.
"If you're not confident, if you're going down with your head, it's never going to help you. I was always trying to tell myself that nothing bad happened. You're still on the serve, even if it's Love-40 down. One point, then another point, and it will come."
Williams was coy when it came to physical struggles - "I have a lot of longterm concerns," she joked after the match - but reaffirmed the will to win that keeps her on court to this day.
"I want to win 6-0, 6-0, but it builds character and builds wonderful memories, of course. I would just like to be healthy just like the next human being. You beat your body up in sport, and I want to play these big events. I don't want to be at home watching. It's frustrating either way, not to be 100% or to watch at home. Which one do you choose?
"I chose to be here. That was my choice. I gave it my best today, and I'm looking forward to playing her again, hopefully healthy and 100%, and will have an opportunity to really show what I can do in these kind of matches."
WHAT IT MEANT: Vesnina channeled her clarity into a career result, seeing off an on-fire Kristina Mladenovic in the semifinals and shrugging off a disappointing first set to surge to the title against countrywoman Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-7(6), 7-5, 6-4 - in one of the best matches of the year. A year later, she left the tour to give birth to daughter Elizaveta, with no immediate plans to return.
I'll let her have the last word:
"Tennis is awesome, I can say," she said with trophy nearby - though not as close as she'd've liked. "I think that my example is the good kind of self-belief, like, good kind of vibe for all players.
"All other girls on the tour who think, 'Oh, my God, this is the end of the world, end of my career, I lost first round of qualies, what can be worse than that?'
"You can regroup and get back. I had, last year, kind of few tough moments when I was playing, coming from qualifying, having a lot of matches and trying to kind of win these matches. I was not thinking about my ranking at that moment, I swear. I was just thinking about my game.
"When I had couple of good wins against the good players, I was, like, 'Okay, this is it. I have it. So just remember this. Remember your shots. Remember your kind of feelings on the court when you were winning these matches. Try to keep it as long as you can.'
"But it's difficult. We have a lot of tournaments, and I had a lot of matches, and even when I thought that, you know, I kind of lost this kind of feeling, then the Wimbledon came. I made that semifinal run, and it gave me a lot of confidence, because I was waiting for this kind of Grand Slam run for all my life, and now here I won the title, and this sounds like a miracle, for everybody, for you guys, for me, for all the girls out there.
"I think nobody could pick me at the beginning of the tournament that I could win this title. Me, also! I couldn't pick myself, but then when I was kind of getting closer to this stage, and even today, I knew that Svetlana was the favorite for the match. I was, like, I don't care. I just want this title really much."