In a surprising twist during her Wimbledon qualifying debut last month, Diana Shnaider, known for her signature blue-and-white polka-dot headscarf, made a bold choice: She went bare-headed. Unable to find a high-quality all-white headscarf, she embraced the unconventional.
"I'm doing it all by myself," Shnaider said. "I'm buying the material and sending it to a woman to make the right size headscarf for my head."
The headscarfs weren't originally intended as a fashion statement. The fair-haired Shnaider's parents were worried that she would burn when she played in the sun, but their daughter didn't take to the usual tennis player headgear. Caps and visors prevented her from seeing the ball when she tossed it, so they resorted to a scarf they found in a supermarket.
The path of a trailblazer is rarely an easy one, though. As a junior, Shnaider stood out and had her share of detractors.
"Half the girls were saying they really loved it," she said. "But the other half would tell me I don't look good in it. There was actually some time when I didn't wear it because I felt very under pressure from the girls who said I looked bad and I shouldn't wear it."
Shnaider, 19, has always prioritized being her own unique individual.
"I never thought about inspirations," she said. "My parents always said you need to find your own style, just like you need to find your own tennis game. You can watch to be inspired but for yourself, it needs to be your own."
This applies as much to the look she's made her own to the unique brand of power tennis with which she's made waves this year. Anchored around a swashbuckling left-handed forehand, Shnaider also hesitates when asked if she's patterned her game around any other player.
"Left-handers that hit a big ball like I do? Very tricky to think," she said. "[Rafael] Nadal is left-handed, but it's not same style that I do on court. I'm playing a bit more aggressive. [Carlos] Alcaraz does play very aggressive, but he's right-handed. [Petra] Kvitova is left-handed and powerful but she hits more flat."
In any case, Shnaider's results bear out her game's quality. Entering 2023, she had yet to contest a tour-level main draw. This season, she knocked off her first Top 20 player, against Veronika Kudermetova in Charleston, and in each of her first two Grand Slams she pushed a Top 15 seed, first Maria Sakkari at the Australian Open and then Beatriz Haddad Maia at Roland Garros. This week at the Hungarian Grand Prix in Budapest, Shnaider ousted No.1 seed and defending champion Bernarda Pera 6-4, 7-5 in the first round.
Until Roland Garros, Shnaider was also in the unique position for a Top 100 player, juggling her transition to the main tour with college life. She'd been accepted to NC State the previous year, and after her Australian breakthrough, she returned to complete her freshman season -- a decision that caused some surprise in the tennis community.
Shnaider doesn't deny that this made her life tough -- earlier this year, she found herself doing schoolwork in the evenings, playing college matches on the weekend and preparing for a professional tournament the following week. But she says her decision was made in light of the ongoing geopolitical situation as a Russian without financial resources behind her.
"I didn't have a coach and I still don't have a coach," she said. "I don't have a training base where I could go and practice."
The college route provided Shnaider with both, as well as an educational element that was prized by her family (her mother is an English teacher and her father a law school graduate who traveled with Shnaider as a junior and now accompanies her younger brother).
She also credits her NC State coaches for their good communication. At every stage of her rise, and every time she had questions (for example, about her eligibility for prize money), they were clear and direct.
"They knew I wanted to definitely go pro and had no problems with that," she said. "But they said they could help me improve my game and my style. We said, let's see one year. If I was going to be near Top 100, they would let me go play pro. If I was stuck around 250 for a while, I'd continue to practice with them until I was ready.
We were talking about it all year. We were all surprised by my results [in Australia], and we agreed that I'd finish the season, then go pro in the summer."
Shnaider also feels her time at NC State prepared her better for the pro tour, even though it limited her schedule for five months.
"I improved a lot in college," she said. "I know how to play those tricky points under pressure where you don't think, you automatically know where to go. I learned how to play more aggressively, how to volley better, how to play a doubles match properly and how to keep up my energy. I'm still working on a lot of things, but they gave me a lot of information that I'll be using in the future."
Shnaider's pro career started in a hurry in May, when she flew straight from the NCAA Championships in Florida to Roland Garros. She's settling into tour life now and has her sights set on finishing the year in the Top 50. The next task is to find a full-time coach.
"[I want someone] who will see my game and improve my pluses, but also turn my minuses into pluses," Shnaider said. "And to find a connection mentally -- that he likes me, how I am on the court and out of the court, and that I trust him. In tennis, it's hard to trust people. For now, it's only my parents and the coaches at NC state."
One thing is guaranteed: Whatever moves Shnaider makes next, she'll do them entirely in her own way.