This month, the WTA editorial team is profiling a selection of up-and-coming names to look out for in 2024.
Winning a title in your WTA debut is rare. Winning a title as a lucky loser is even rarer. But in Budapest back in July, ranked No.246, Maria Timofeeva did both. After falling in a heartbreaker to Anna Siskova in the final round of qualifying, she gained a place in her first WTA main draw after Tereza Martincova withdrew with an injury. From there, Timofeeva won four three-setters in five matches for the title.
Timofeeva became the fourth lucky loser to win a tournament -- a number that had increased to six by the end of August -- and the ninth player to lift the trophy in her tour debut. Only one player, Olga Danilovic at the 2018 Moscow River Cup, had previously done both.
"That was a crazy week," Timofeeva said. "I was the second lucky loser, so I didn't even have much hope of getting in when the draw came out. Two hours before my first-round match, another girl pulled out and they told me that I'd be able to play -- it was really last-minute. The whole week was like a miracle, I was just going with the flow.
"There were a lot of first-time things and records -- I lost count of them. But I was flattered that people noticed this."
Here's more on Timofeeva, who spoke to wtatennis.com from her offseason training base in Türkiye this week two weeks after her 20th birthday.
'Lucky loser magic' was an inside joke for Timofeeva that became real
One of Timofeeva's best friends on tour is Elina Avanesyan, who also made an impact as a lucky loser this season -- not once but twice, reaching the Roland Garros fourth round and Berlin quarterfinals despite falling in qualifying.
"After her French Open, we were making jokes about how crazy it was," Timofeeva said. "Then a few weeks later we were playing in Berlin, and we both lost in qualies. I told her she had a good chance to be a lucky loser, but she said, 'Oh no, I cannot be again, that will be too much.' And then she was, and she made it all the way to the quarters.
"Then we both played Budapest, but she was in the main draw directly. So she said, 'I'll try to share my lucky loser magic with you now somehow,' and I guess she did.
Like Avanesyan, Timofeeva found that the second chance enabled her to play more freely.
"You come to the court and you know no one really expects anything from you," she said. "I started to feel more confident after my quarterfinal match. I knew I had a chance [to win the title] and I knew that, probably, my opponents didn't know me at all. They were higher ranked and for them, I think, it was bigger pressure."
Timofeeva has been injured since Budapest
Unfortunately for Timofeeva, her breakthrough was immediately followed by a setback. A foot injury sustained after Budapest limited her to just two tournaments over the next four months, and she has spent much of the autumn in a boot. This week, Timofeeva is making her return in the Dubai ITF W100 tournament -- her first outing since the US Open.
"I took some time off before the US Open, but it was not enough time," she said. "My foot seems to be OK now, and hopefully it stays that way.
"It was actually really hard to stay positive, but my team was helping me a lot and supporting me. When I lost early in US Open qualies, I saw people said they had expected more from me. I played with an injury and of course hadn't wanted to share it with anyone, but of course that hurt a bit. But we knew this break would help me, and we are positive and looking forward to come back."
The break enabled Timofeeva to start a YouTube vlog
With time on her hands, Timofeeva -- together with friend and fellow pro Ekaterina Kazionova -- was able to start a project she'd been meaning to get off the ground for a while. As a lower-ranked player grinding through the ITF circuit, Timofeeva had enjoyed watching vlogs from top players such as Daria Kasatkina, which depicted the life she was aspiring to on the main circuit.
"I liked the idea and always wanted to do it myself," she said.
The result is the Kiss My Ace channel on YouTube. Timofeeva's first vlog showed her first US Open and charmingly conveys the excitement of playing one of the Slams for the first time. As Timofeeva and her team drive to the site for the first time, the music in the car switches from Rihanna's "Don't Stop The Music" -- her choice -- to "Bella Ciao," her Slovenian coach Anej Morelj's favorite song amid laughter all round.
"It was such a vibe," she said. "We were just so happy to be at the tournament."
Timofeeva's follow-up vlog detailed her ongoing rehab process, and it's a project she intends to continue into 2024.
Timofeeva doesn't come from a sports background
When Timofeeva's parents took her to her first tennis lesson at 5 years old, they weren't thinking of a potential career for their daughter. There was no experience with professional sports in the family. They run a furniture business, and the wider family is more involved in music and the arts. Timofeeva's grandmother is a pianist, and her sister, Antonia, is a rock singer who performs as Antonia Queen.
"My first tennis lesson was quite spontaneous," Timofeeva said. "I just wanted to be around my friends and kids my age. I am the first sportsperson in my family, and the tennis lifestyle is very new for us. We're exploring and going with the flow."
As her coach, therefore, Morelj has been instrumental to Timofeeva's development. They first worked together in 2019 when she was a junior and resumed their partnership on a full-time basis in 2022.
"He's a friend to me, almost like part of my family now," she said. "He understands me really well. It's not like we don't argue, but we don't have real fights."
Timofeeva is keen to make up for lost time in 2024
As expected after a layoff, Timofeeva's priority is to stay injury-free.
"I don't want to set the goals really high, I want to stay realistic," she said. "First of all I want to stay healthy and consistent. But the goal is to be Top 100 and play the main draw of Slams, and to stay there as long as possible."
There are a few tournaments she's particularly looking forward to, though.
"I really would like to go to Dubai and Doha, so I hope I will make it into those draws," she said. "But I'm also really looking forward to playing Rome. I remember watching it on TV and thinking it had a really cool atmosphere, and I love Rome as a city. I also think the combined 1000 events are really cool -- it feels like a Grand Slam, to be honest -- and I heard from a lot of other players that Rome is one of the best ones.
"Last year I went there but didn't get into qualies. I was third out, in the end. So I had to have some time off to see round Rome. I really enjoyed everything there, and I said, for sure next year I will come back."