At the age of 17, Victoria Jimenez Kasintseva is hitting milestones not just for herself, but her country.
As a lucky loser this week at the Hana Bank Korea Open, Jimenez Kasintseva has become the first player from the Pyrenean principality of Andorra, sandwiched between France and Spain with a population of 77,265, to reach a WTA quarterfinal. Showing off a dynamic, athletic game centered around a heavy left-handed forehand, she defeated Rebecca Marino, her third career Top 100 win, in the second round.
No Andorran had even competed in a WTA main draw before Jimenez Kasintseva made her debut in Madrid last year. This follows a stellar junior career in which she became the 2020 Australian Open girls' champion at the age of 14.
Jimenez Kasintseva's transition to the pros has already lifted her to World No.180, and she will receive another significant boost after her run in Seoul. Get to know what drives the teenage trailblazer here:
She's inspired by players from other small countries ... and by herself
"I'm very, very proud to represent my country," Jimenez Kasintseva said via Zoom.
Starting a tennis career in Andorra was complicated, she said. There were no tennis courts, and she had to relocate to Barcelona to train.
"I lived with my father in Barcelona while my mother was in Andorra with my brother, and that was very hard for me. But honestly, it made me stronger."
The only other ranked player in Andorra's history on either tour was her own father, Joan Jimenez Guerra, who reached No.505 on the ATP Tour in 1999 and coached his daughter through her junior years. But Jimenez Kasintseva found inspiration in other players from non-traditional tennis countries such as Tunisia's World No.2 Ons Jabeur and US Open girls' champion Alexandra Eala of the Philippines.
"It's amazing what Ons and Alex are doing, and I feel like I'm part of that. I remember seeing Ons on TV playing smaller events, and now she's done two Grand Slam finals in a row. And I know Alex, and she really deserves all her success."
Jimenez Guerra is currently paying it forward to future Andorran generations. He is in the process of building an academy and much-needed courts. With her father occupied at home, Jimenez Kasintseva is now working with Eduardo Nicolas, the former coach of WTA stars such as Daniela Hantuchova and Shahar Peer.
For now, when Jimenez Kasintseva needs some inspiration, there's another player she often looks to: her younger self.
"When I think about it, it's incredible what I did at the Australian Open," she says. "I was just 14, such a little girl, and it was my first Grand Slam. It's amazing how powerful my mind was and how strong I was to actually think that by fighting and trying my best I could win the title. Honestly, I'm inspired by myself, to think it doesn't matter if you're young, it doesn't matter your ranking, you always have an opportunity if you fight for every point.
"My goals are just that. I have a whole career in front of me and I want to enjoy the process, and destiny will take me on my way."
For Jimenez Kasintseva, there's joy in suffering
As Jimenez Kasintseva has risen over the past year, she's displayed a penchant for getting embroiled in epic matches.
She won the longest match of the 2021 WTA 125 season, defeating Maria Lourdes Carle in 3 hours, 48 minutes, 7-6(10), 5-7, 7-5, in the second round of Montevideo. Jimenez Kasintseva saved two match points along the way. A similar battle unfolded in the second round of the Vancouver 125 last month, where Jimenez Kasintseva saved one match point en route to beating Jodie Burrage 7-5, 6-7(5), 7-6(7) in 2 hours and 55 minutes.
"I like feeling pressure and nerves," she said. "I'm very competitive, I always have been, and honestly that's what I love about tennis. It keeps me alive, it keeps me awake. Honestly, when I get out of the match I feel so tired and so nervous, but in the match I'm actually enjoying it so much. Well, it's kind of enjoying and also suffering. But at the end, when you suffer and you win, that's the best feeling."
One of her best career wins came after a night in the airport
Last November's Montevideo 125 was also the site of Jimenez Kasintseva's first Top 100 win, a 6-3, 6-4 first-round upset of No.1 seed Beatriz Haddad Maia -- who has since rocketed into the Top 20. But her preparation for that match had been imperfect, to say the least.
"I was in Brazil and I had connection flights from Brazil to Argentina, then Argentina to Uruguay," she said. "Well, we had some problems in Argentina. They didn't let us go to Uruguay, I don't fully remember why. But they didn't let us leave the airport either, so we had to sleep there with the security guard.
"The next morning, we had a flight and it was all good. We arrived in Uruguay a bit before I had to play in the night session. But I was actually lucky. They put my fitness coach on another flight to Uruguay, and he arrived 30 minutes before my match. So I could still do a good warm-up! And I thought I'd had enough stress coming to the tournament, so I decided I had to be as positive as I could. That's why I won."
In the end, the experience taught Jimenez Kasintseva a valuable lesson about perfection.
"Being perfect and being a tennis player is just impossible," she said. "It's such a tough sport, it's a sport where you use your whole body, and it's so hard to have the perfect strokes every day. And every day is a different day, different players, different conditions, different weather. The only thing you can control is how you eat, how you sleep, how you do your warm-ups, how professional you are. That's the only thing a tennis player should focus on -- not if the forehand is OK, or whatever."
Off court, she loves studying ... but Choco the chihuahua has her heart
At school, languages are Jimenez Kasintseva's forte. She speaks five -- Spanish, Catalan, English, French and Russian.
"French and Russian are harder for me -- I studied French in school, and learned Russian from my mother -- but I can get by. I do my best to maintain both languages."
This year, her interest has been piqued by a new subject: marketing. Consequently, Jimenez Kasintseva is forming strong opinions on how she would market tennis to her generation.
"I would try to give more visibility to the new players coming through," she said. "It's important to give visibility to every aspect of the sport and everyone in it, not just the ones on top or the same ones. Not just young players, either -- also older ones breaking through. At the end of the day, they deserve a chance to be seen. And I think my generation likes to see change, not always the same people."
Studying aside, Jimenez Kasintseva's favorite thing off-court is her chihuahua, Choco.
"I got him on Aug. 3, 2020," she said. "It was actually very sad for me because I had another dog, his name was Leo and he was also a chihuahua. On that day in the morning he was hit by a car. We were all just at home being sad, so in the afternoon we got Choco. In the beginning it was hard, because I really missed Leo, but soon with Choco it was amazing -- they're so different but you love them the same.
"He doesn't travel to tournaments. He stays with my grandmother or my uncle. The thing is, everyone loves Choco. Everybody wants to take Choco when I'm away. Whenever I go for a trip, they tell me it's OK, I don't need to take him, they'll look after him."
She isn't interested in comparisons with other players
In Chennai last week, the draw brought up an intriguing potential second-round clash between two 2005-born peers, Jimenez Kasintseva and Linda Fruhvirtova. Despite playing the same tournaments at every stage of juniors, the pair had never played each other. They still haven't. Jimenez Kasintseva fell to Rebecca Peterson in the first round, who then fell to Fruhvirtova. The Czech teenager went on to win her first WTA title, but Jimenez Kasintseva doesn't see that as a specific motivation.
"Linda and [younger sister] Brenda are fighters and they've always had respect from the other players for that," she said. "They're really good and they really deserve to be where they are. But I just want to think about myself. Linda has done a great achievement, but I'm just going my way and I don't want to put any pressure on myself. I know I can also do it, but I don't want to think about it."
Indeed, if there's one thing Jimenez Kasintseva has learned in 2022, it's that she doesn't need to rush herself.
"Sometimes I wanted it so bad, to be in the Top 100 and to be a top player, that I get to a tournament and just feel too much pressure," she said. "Then it doesn't go as I want. But I've learned that everyone has different paths in life, and I don't have to compare myself to others."