ROME, Italy -- Out on Court 2, in the furthest reaches of the Foro Italico, the Yulia Putintseva show is in full swing.
She pulls off a drop shot winner out of nowhere, and fist-pumps as though revving a lawnmower. She gets back into a rally with absurd defence, but when she nets the easiest forehand she's had in it, bounces her racquet high above her head in disbelief. And when she finally defeats Kaja Juvan 7-5, 4-6, 7-5 in 3 hours and 6 minutes after saving two match points, she drops her racquet, pauses to let the moment sink in, then lets out a mighty cry of "Forza!"
"I'm like a gangster on court, but like an angel off court," Putintseva says later. The most common thing people who know Putintseva say about her is that "she's really different in real life." Indeed, she's softly-spoken, charming and relaxed - a far cry from the on-court spitfire who's become a cult favourite among fans for her multilingual exhortations and in-your-face celebrations.
"I knew since I was a kid," Putintseva says of her dual personalities. "My father would tell me, 'Yulia, your temper on the court is too much sometimes.' But his temper was too much sometimes, too. We were both hard characters when we used to work together. But outside it was a lot of love and chill time. We actually never fought outside the court. But all the time on the court."
Putintseva is aware of the memes and gifs that she inspires on social media, but her demonstrativeness is all instinctive. During her fiery victory over Danielle Collins at the 2020 Australian Open, Putintseva turned to a particularly loud group of the American's supporters after winning one point and gave them a florid, over-the-top bow.
"I'm living in the moment and I'm doing what I feel I should do," she says.
Given the spiciness of their Melbourne encounter, fans were surprised to discover Putintseva and Collins teaming up in doubles this month. It turns out their friendship had already predated that match as two similar personalities were drawn to each other.
"I love her," Putintseva says. "She's a character. She's also pretty tough on the court but chill outside the court. We went for dinner a couple times, she's very funny. In doubles we're both there to have fun and bring our fire."
Putintseva's hot-headed explosions also mask the cool brain that's her primary asset as a player. Three-hour marathons packed with momentum shifts are her territory. She seems to play a version of the Juvan match every week -- and it's not just her fighting spirit but her keen tactical awareness that pulls her through so many of them. It's also helped her put together an underrated career that's highlighted, so far, by three Grand Slam quarterfinals, two WTA titles and wins over the likes of Naomi Osaka, Aryna Sabalenka and Sloane Stephens.
The amount of strategic planning Putintseva does before her matches depends on her opponent.
"Sometimes I don't watch, I just come and play and see in a few games what they're trying to do -- what they can do, what they cannot do. I do those tactics myself on the court. Sometimes, when it's a really, really tough opponent, of course I watch. I see where they have strengths and where they don't, and I focus on that."
Against Juvan, she lulls the Slovenian into a moonball rally - then she sneaks in to take one out of the air for a drop-volley winner. Time and again, she injects pace straight at Juvan's feet. And down match point, she used every aspect of the conditions to help her.
"I was with the wind and I was moving good," Putintseva says. "I was like, 'OK, if she wants to win the match, she has to hit a winner.' And she was pretty tight. We all get tight in those moments, but with my experience I thought it would be difficult for her to hit a winner. And it was."
Fired UP 🔥@PutintsevaYulia | #IBI21 pic.twitter.com/l6du9bvOtx— wta (@WTA) May 10, 2021
The roots of this lie in a childhood spent sharpening her skills at strategic games and excelling in math at school.
"When I was a kid, my father used to hire a teacher for chess and Russian card games like Durak [Stupid in English] and Preferans, all those kind of games where you have to think. I really liked it, and it helps me now on court a lot. I'm not two metres tall. I have to play smart, I have to be in the right positions, and my childhood games helped me a lot.
"Actually, I still play a lot of chess. I play it online. It's funny, the last time I played the other people said I have very aggressive tactics."
A brilliant point to seal the match 👏@PutintsevaYulia advances to the second round with a 6-3, 3-6, 10-8 victory over Linette #Wimbledon pic.twitter.com/4y6h7A1f0M— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 3, 2018
Putintseva is a firm believer in using what you have.
"Everything motivates me," she says. "I want to show everyone. In the beginning of my career, for sure in Russia it was pretty tough. They were saying I'm too short, too pushy, too this, too that. Well, look at me right now.
"But I don't think about them. I just feel sorry for the kids who are young and talented but short, and they don't have someone who believes in them. I think it's important to realise it doesn't matter if you're short, tall, big, small, you can do good. You have to use your good sides and you can be really good."
At the age of 27, after nearly a decade on tour, Putintseva might be mellowing, just a bit. It's doubtful that she'll stop externalising her emotions completely, but it was notable against Juvan that, down match point, she wore a poker face as she mounted her escape. She admits that things have changed since her teenage days.
"Back in juniors I was rushing. I was wild, too much fire. Now I'm controlling myself more. In important moments I'm calming down. I understand what I have to do."
But the inner fire remains undimmed, and her dreams are still big.
"I hope I can win a Grand Slam one day," she says. "That's my goal. That's what I believe I can do. I'm working for it every day. If I cannot, at least I want to give my best."