Sofya Zhuk does her own driving these days. Years of tournament transport did nothing to dampen her desire to get behind the wheel and make her morning commute.
For the former teen phenom, traffic isn’t a disaster. It’s a dance break.
“When I’m in the car and someone calls me, I feel like I’m being interrupted because I’m always singing!” the 20-year-old said at the end of a 20-minute interview that felt more like a phone call with an old friend, full of fresh anecdotes from a new life in Miami, the start of her indefinite break from tennis.
“I like Rihanna a lot, but it depends on the mood. I can go from sad, soft songs to mean, badass rap songs. My music taste rides between angels and demons.”
Peaking just outside the Top 100 before her 20th birthday, the Russian rode with both through her time as a tennis player. She appeared at the forefront of a new generation of Russian stars five years ago, a junior Wimbledon champion at just 15. Armed with accent-free English after years of training in the United States, she was very much in the driver’s seat when chatting with Annabel Croft and Mats Wilander at the All England Club’s broadcast desk. All the while, she had a secret about her career’s uncertain future.
“Even before Junior Wimbledon, my back was so bad that no doctor wanted to even help me out,” she explained back in March. “I was considered a lost cause. There was only one doctor that even attempted to treat me, and even his prognosis was that I would last for a few years. When it comes to neurological connections, the spine is the main thing in your body. If your spine is off, your hips, shoulders, scapulas, the knees: everything goes off because the position is moving back and forth.”
Zhuk is still without an exact diagnosis for her condition, resigned instead to the reality that a series of physical anomalies conspired to make the workload required of a top tier tennis player all but impossible.
“My body doesn’t absorb protein well, and the discs in my spine are all over the place. I’ve taken MRIs that show the firmness of my spine is the equivalent of a 50 or 60-year-old.”
As the doctor predicted, she played through the pain for some years after her junior success, qualifying for two Grand Slam main draws at the US Open and Roland Garros, but by 2019, it was clear to Zhuk that her body was breaking down. The persistent back issue was now compounded by pain in her hips.
“I’ve always been dealing with this, and it got to a critical point. Tennis was already hard enough because of all the travel; you’re never home. I could understand if it was only that, but between that and all of the injuries, struggling to take care of the body and health, it became too much at the same time. My doctor did say that I would probably only last for a few years as an elite athlete, and there would be a time where I wouldn’t be able to be one anymore.
“After Wimbledon, I was trying to practice for the next tournament, but when you’re in pain physically, you become unhappy mentally. You start worrying and thinking about the future, about how I need to be putting my health first. You start to become paranoid, too, overthinking everything and suddenly you’re overwhelmed about a lot of things at the same time.”
Standing at a slight five foot nine, Zhuk played a physical game, reminiscent of countrywoman Maria Kirilenko, and both appeared driven by a relentless desire that compensated for the easy power they lacked.
Without the racquet in hand, she found her fiery ambition easily translated to other endeavors and began to question whether the life of a jet-setting athlete was one she actually enjoyed.
“I hated to be away from home. When I was playing, I always wanted to go home, wondering when I could stop traveling or when is my season over. I started at a very young age and was practicing all over the world, so it was a weird feeling when I stopped playing, but after a month went by, I realized that I actually feel good at home, not having to pack suitcases.”
As her P1 visa precludes her from pursuing just any career – and applying for a new visa would force her to restart the drive towards a longed-for green card – she revved up a successful modeling career while she plans for a future that includes her mother joining her (and puppy Luna) stateside after her own visa application is approved by the Russian government.
“I like modeling a lot, but to be realistic, I’m already looking ahead of it. Yes, I’m signed to an agency, but it’s not as though the contract guarantees a certain number of photoshoots and how much money I’m going to make. You may have a month where you make as much as you need to pay all of your expenses but you never know if that will be the case every month.
“These days, it’s really safe to have a stable situation. Modeling is fun; it’s hard to do a shoot, especially physically. It’s not something I can rely on longterm. It’s no more than a five to seven year career before new girls come along. Even tennis has a longer career!”
As she explores a career in real estate, tennis remains in her rearview mirror; in the absence of a comeback, Zhuk could also see a return to the WTA in a behind-the-scenes role.
“I like the idea of working around tennis, being able to help players with the experience I gained from being on the inside. I feel like I can relate to the players on a different level, something that comes from when you’ve been on the tour as opposed to being something like an outsider.”
Zhuk now finds herself in search of stability, of a normal – if still extraordinary – life, and though her road trips are shorter these days, they don’t lack for adventure - or an eclectic soundtrack.
“No matter what I’m doing, even if I’ve a busy or stressful day, I’m able to come home at the end of it. There’s that feeling of not having to pack suitcases, not having to travel 38 hours to Australia, not having to deal with body pains all the time.
“I feel like I’m on a path to finding myself, and I feel better inside, where I can feel happier knowing that I’m healthier. My body is taking time to relax and my mind is better because I’m not nearly as stressed. It’s kind of different but it makes me feel more settled and happier inside.”