Fresh off a dramatic win and chatting happily in her Doha press conference, it's like Elena Vesnina has never been away.
"That's the real adrenaline, I must say," Vesnina told wtatennis.com after partnering with Laura Siegemund to defeat Victoria Azarenka and Elina Svitolina 4-6, 7-5, [10-8] from a set and a break down. "You have a different kind of adrenaline with the baby, but this is totally different."
The Qatar Total Open this week marks Vesnina's first tournament since giving birth to daughter Elizaveta in November 2018. She last competed at Roland Garros that year, already pregnant, where she also earned the doubles World No.1 ranking for the first time before taking maternity leave.
At the time, Vesnina, a former World No.13 and Wimbledon semifinalist in singles, was vague about her future intentions as a player. Today, she admits she thought she was finished with her career, and had to be persuaded to request a protected ranking.
"The WTA kept emailing me," she said. "'Elena, do you want to protect your ranking?' 'No, I'm not going to come back, it's OK!' They're like, 'Elena, you're No.1 in doubles and Top 50 in singles - it's a really good ranking.' I said, 'OK, go on, protect it,' but I was not thinking about coming back. I was so focused on the baby, on the family."
Over the past 20 years, returning to professional tennis following maternity leave has become normalized. In the early '00s, mothers in the Top 100 such as Rossana de los Ríos and Sybille Bammer were rare. In 2009, Kim Clijsters demonstrated motherhood was no barrier to an elite level. She exceeded her first stint as a player by winning three of her four Grand Slam titles after giving birth to daughter Jada. At the US Open last year, three mothers reached the quarterfinals or better in singles - Victoria Azarenka, Serena Williams and Tsvetana Pironkova - while Vera Zvonareva captured the doubles title.
Still, Vesnina never thought this path would be for her.
"[If you told me in my twenties I'd play as a mother] I wouldn't believe," she said. "I would say, no chance! And even as a mother with a 1-year-old child I would still say, no way."
What changed? The process was gradual - and morphed into a full comeback after some public embarrassment.
"When my daughter turned 1 year old, I started missing my muscles," Vesnina said. "I started working out in the gym. Then my best friend was calling me and asking me, 'Let's play once a week tennis, please.' I was like, 'No, I'm busy, I cannot leave the baby.' But I played once a week. Then twice a week."
Then in 2019, the crème de la crème of Russian tennis gathered in Kazan for an exhibition series. "There was Anastasia Myskina, Maria Kirilenko, Nadia Petrova, Elena Dementieva, Karen Khachanov, Daniil Medvedev - all the gang," Vesnina said. "They'd all been practising and they looked good."
Invited to play alongside longtime partner Ekaterina Makarova, Vesnina felt that she didn't measure up.
"They were announcing, 'Elena Vesnina, Olympic champion, World No.1 in doubles, Grand Slam titles!' And then I go on court and I'm missing the ball. I cannot hit the ball with the centre of my racquet. I look bad on the court and people are asking, 'What's wrong with her?'
"So I start practising first just to look good in exhibition matches. And then I liked that. I mean, I love tennis. I love the game."
Competing professionally as a mother may not have been something Vesnina envisaged before she actually did it, but at the age of 34 she's realizing she now has a different perspective on her career in general.
"When I was 19, honestly I thought I would stop playing tennis when I was 24 or 25," she said. "I would get married and have a baby then. I looked at the players in their thirties and thought, Oh my God, you have a pension plan, you're so old. Then when I was 25 I was like, whoa, no. I can play longer. And now I'm in my thirties, I look at the 19-year-olds and they are like little babies."
One person who wasn't surprised when Vesnina began, tentatively at first, to commit to a comeback was her husband, Pavel Tabuntsov. The businessman encouraged her all the way, and took time off work to accompany her to Doha.
"When I was starting to think of coming back, he said, 'I knew! I knew it was coming!'" Vesnina said. "When I started practising, he told me I was getting in shape really quick and I should go for it. He can't travel with me all through the year because he has to work, and this time I wanted to bring a babysitter - but he said, 'No, I will be with you and help you and do as much as you want in the first tournament.' He's doing an amazing job."
Vesnina emphasizes her priority is her family, and she is yet to determine the best solution in terms of scheduling - particularly when it comes to tournament bubbles in an uncertain time. Grand Slams, the Tokyo Olympic Games and tournaments like Doha that she has enjoyed in the past are all targets.
So too is a homecoming later this month, at the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy, where Vesnina is signed up to partner Zvonareva, with whom she had been due to play this week before illness ruled her fellow Russian out of Doha. ("But she gave me her partner [Laura Siegemund]!" Vesnina said, laughing.) St. Petersburg could also see Vesnina kick off her singles comeback as well - "if my body is ready," she said. There is no specific goal, though.
"I would say there is no motivation that I want to win some sort of tournament or Olympic medal," Vesnina said. "It's for the love of the game. Like Kim Clijsters said last year - I totally agree with her."
In the meantime, Vesnina and her family are already settling into life on tour.
"Liza is very social, she likes to hang out with other kids," Vesnina said. "Slava Shvedova is here as well and she has two, a boy and a girl, and they hang out together every day. They are friends already."
Appropriately, Liza takes after her mother in terms of energy, although at this point seems to be heading down more of a zoologist path than an athletic one.
"She is a very, very active baby," Vesnina said in the tone of someone who has spent a lot of time chasing after her daughter. "She goes to dance classes. And she likes all animals. Cats, dogs, mice, snakes, spiders, bugs. It's driving me crazy, because she always brings them to me on her arm. 'Look, mommy, here is a spider,' and I'm freaking out!"
There were plenty of critters for Liza to find during lockdown, which Vesnina and her family spent in a house next to a forest outside Moscow. But while she treasured that time, there's no doubt in her mind that she's made the right decision in returning.
"It's better to try and maybe fail than never try and always all my life wonder," she said. "Of course it's tough to be mother and to work, but many women in the world do the same. When you're a mother, I think you get some resources from the inside - you've got an energy inside of you. Sleepless nights, but you're OK the next morning, you're smiling and you do what you need to do. It's amazing what women can do."
Vesnina is already finding that there's nothing like the feeling of competition - and her happiness to be back is already helping her win.
"You know, I enjoyed so much to be on the court today," she said. "My partner was very tough on herself, but I was like, 'Hey, c'mon, enjoy the moment! It's a great tournament and we're playing against great players.'
"Even though we were down a set and a break, I was not thinking about losing - I was only feeling that I wanted to stay longer on the court."