When Veronika Kudermetova arrived in Charleston for the Volvo Car Open, she didn't know what to expect. The 23-year-old Russian could have two minds about the first three months of her season on the hardcourts. On one hand, there was little to complain about. She started the season by making the biggest final of her career at the WTA 500 event in Abu Dhabi, and on home soil in Russia, she advanced to the quarterfinals in St. Petersburg.
In both events, she lost to the eventual champions. Meanwhile, she had barely taken a bad loss. It took Simona Halep (Australian Open), Garbiñe Muguruza (Doha), Belinda Bencic (Dubai) and Sabalenka again (Miami) to derail her before the Round of 16.
But tennis players are their own harshest critics and patience is a fleeting virtue. Before the tournament, 2016 champion Sloane Stephens expressed a tennis player's chase for form and results perfectly:
"Tennis is a very quick turnaround sport," Stephens said on Media Day. "You could be having the worst season of your life and then go win the French Open or win a Premier 5 and everything is back to normal.
"At some point, the tables do turn, the tides turn, and you just kind of have to be ready for when that does happen."
Kudermetova was more than ready. She became the first player since Serena Williams in 2012 to win the Charleston title without dropping a set. Playing as the higher-ranked player in every match, she handled the pressure and expectations perfectly, defeating Stephens, Paula Badosa and Danka Kovinic in succession to win her maiden WTA title.
Kudermetova spoke to WTA Insider after her win to reflect on her milestone week.
WTA Insider: You have great results on grass and hardcourts. Did you ever think your first title would come on clay?
Kudermetova: For sure I'm not thinking about where I can take my first title or on what surface. I'm really happy and really proud of myself that I can take my first title. I think I played really amazing and very smart every match and I hope I can continue to play like this.
WTA Insider: In your press conference, you said you arrived to Charleston with "not a clear head." Can you elaborate on that?
Kudermetova: When I came to Charleston, I didn't have expectations. When I came to Charleston I remember I had practice with a doubles player. I said to myself, Veronika, working every day, it doesn't matter how you feel the ball or body. Just listen to your coaches and try to adapt fast and do what they ask and just work every day. Don't think about the result. That's it.
It really worked well here. Every day when I was warming up for my match, sometimes I was tired, but I told myself, 'Working. Doesn't matter how you warm up. You come to the match and you will work.' That's it. It really worked here.
WTA Insider: You cracked the Top 100 in 2019, which is not long ago. It has been both a fast rise and I know maybe a little bit frustrating for you that these results did not come sooner. Has it been hard to deal with expectations?
Kudermetova: Last year, before the season, I had a lot of expectations. I finished really well the season of 2019. I played a lot of semifinals, a lot of quarterfinals.
Before 2020, I felt a lot of expectations. I started to push to myself, now you need to play more better, you have to think about the title or the result.
But when I start this season, I thought, 'Veronika, don't do it like last season. Just work. Try to enjoy.' Sometimes it's easy to say and when you try to enjoy, it's not working. Right now I think I start to understand how I need to trust myself, how I need to believe, and I hope I can keep it like this.
WTA Insider: How do you enjoy your life as a professional tennis player?
Kudermetova: I mean, when you start to win, you really enjoy our life. But when you start to lose, when you start to feel bad, it's really tough to enjoy.
I think you have to have around a player, good people. They can help. If you trust them, they can help you. They can tell you how you need to do it in the practice, or in your mind, how you need to feel it. When you have ups and downs, you need to have good people around you.
Kudermetova on what Vlado Platenik has added to the team: “I think it’s tactical. I think Vlado started to teach me to play smarter, how to feel the game, how and where I need to play in situations.— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) April 11, 2021
"Here @VolvoCarOpen it worked really well. I played really good, really smart." pic.twitter.com/3DzQl8k23n
WTA Insider: Of course, one of those people is your coach and husband, Sergey. What is your experience like traveling with him and having him as your coach?
Kudermetova: When we got married, it started to help me because I started to understand that my new family is all the time with me. Now it really helps me because I am home everywhere I play a tournament. My family is here, my coach is here. I feel really safe. It means a lot.
WTA Insider: What is the significance to you of winning your first title?
Kudermetova: I think right now the pressure from my shoulders came out. Last year it was my dream to take the title and to be honest, these nights I was not sleeping well because I'm thinking all the time about the final, about the title, that I could win this tournament.
When I came off the court I said, 'Finally, I take it.' I'm really happy. It's amazing.
Kudermetova after the semis: “I told Sergey that I think clay is my favorite surface. He said why? You do your best results on grass and hardcourt. But I said no, I think clay is better for me.— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) April 11, 2021
"Now, I think he trusts me." #VolvoCarOpen pic.twitter.com/JyQeRCYAdG
WTA Insider: What is it about your game that allows you to be so solid across all the surfaces, regardless of court speed?
Kudermetova: I think I can play everywhere, every surface. I think I am fast, I move very fast, I have good shots, I have a serve.
I have everything. It's most important in my head. When I am calm, when I am not nervous, I can play really well everywhere. But most importantly it's here [points to head].
WTA Insider: Many Russian players have said precisely the same thing, whether it's Svetlana Kuznetsova or Daria Kasatkina. What has been the key to improving your mental game?
Kudermetova: It's most important that I started to believe and trust in myself. Not to focus on the result. Just focus on the work, and that's it. It's very simple, but it's hard to do sometimes.
WTA Insider: You said in your press conference that your goal for 2021 is to finish inside the Top 15. Regardless of the actual results of the first three months, are you happy with the level of tennis you're playing? Do you think you are playing Top 15 tennis?
Kudermetova: I think this week I played really smart and the tennis was really good quality. I want to keep playing like this all the year. If you play like this all week, you can also improve. If you play like this one week and then you go down, it's not consistent. But I want to be consistent every week and play the same tennis. If I play like this I will improve really fast.
WTA Insider: How do you plan to celebrate?
Kudermetova: We don't have much time to celebrate, it's very sad. Vlado already left because he needs to drive to Miami and he has a flight. Me and Sergey leave today at 2 a.m. We drive to Charlotte and we have a lot of flights. We go back to Russia for a few days and I think we will go to Istanbul, Madrid and Rome. But we will see.