This month, the WTA editorial team is profiling a selection of up-and-coming names to look out for in 2024.
Rewind to January, and the last Saturday of the Australian Open. Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina would deliver a stellar three-set battle in the women's final -- but ahead of them on Rod Laver Arena, the crowd had been thrilled by a 3-hour, 18-minute marathon between two unheralded 15-year-olds in the girls' title match.
Alina Korneeva's 6-7(2), 6-4, 7-5 victory over her friend Mirra Andreeva foreshadowed a spectacular year for both. Andreeva, who later admitted that the loss left her crying for two weeks, ended up claiming the bulk of the headlines after a spectacular transition to the main tour and a vertiginous rise into the Top 50.
But Korneeva had history to make, too. She claimed the Roland Garros girls' crown, too, becoming the first player to win two junior Slams in one year since Belinda Bencic and Ana Konjuh in 2013. She will end the year as the junior No.1 after capturing the ITF Junior Masters in Chengdu two months ago.
In between, Korneeva also impressed in her pro outings. She cut her year-end ranking from No.771 to No.156 with a 33-8 record, including the Pretoria ITF W60 title in March and the Figueira da Foz ITF W100 title in July. In October, she made her WTA main-draw debut in Hong Kong, qualifying and defeating Valeria Savinykh to reach the second round.
Korneeva, 16, spoke to wtatennis.com from her off-season training base at the Rafa Nadal Academy on Mallorca about the romance of tennis and her plans for 2024.
You had some terrific results in 2023. Did you imagine you'd do so well when you started the season?
Alina Korneeva: Actually, I didn't have these goals at all. I'm really happy that I didn't plan this, I just did it. Honestly, I just had the goal of trying the junior Grand Slams, to feel this atmosphere and see this level of tennis. I wanted to see the level of my mental game and my tennis game and my ranking.
[In the 2022 off-season] I did a lot of practices on my muscles and in my head to be ready. I talked with a psychologist a lot and tried to be the same in practice as I am in matches.
What's your earliest memory of tennis?
Alina Korneeva: When I was 6 years old, I came to Spartak in Moscow and there was a selection for different groups with different coaches. Every coach said about me, 'I don't need this girl!' But one coach, Julia Bekeshchenko, said, 'This girl, I will take her.'
Since that time we've worked together. I don't think I fell in love with tennis until I was 10 years old, because I then started to understand the game and watch a lot of tournaments. I started to really enjoy watching the tournaments -- and then I started to enjoy playing the game and competing.
When you started watching tournaments, which WTA player did you most enjoy?
Alina Korneeva: Serena Williams.
What do you most love about tennis?
Alina Korneeva: Tennis is like a relationship between a woman and a man. When you are in love, you love all the good things and bad things. In tennis the same.
So I love when I play matches for three hours, and it's so hot. I really love the daily routine when I practice for hours and then do fitness afterwards. I love when everybody supports me, but at the same time, I love to play in an opponent's country when everybody is against me. The most important is that I love to work a lot and finally, that I get results.
You experienced a lot of that this year -- at the Australian Open, of course, and in Figueira da Foz, where you saved match point against Harriet Dart in the first round but went on to win the final 6-0, 6-0 over Carole Monnet.
Alina Korneeva: I think I love to play tournaments like this. I've had a lot of situations where my opponent has match points in the first round but then I won the tournament. It's like routine for me! It helps that I don't really expect this.
The Australian Open match was something incredible. But I try not to think about it too much any more. I try to focus on every tournament.
Where did you first meet Mirra, and has her rise inspired you?
Alina Korneeva: I don't remember where I first met Mirra, but we're always congratulating each other. We're in the same school so we mostly talk about school with each other. My favourite subject is history, especially Russian history.
What were the most memorable aspects of your WTA debut in Hong Kong? A typhoon hit the city that weekend and all the players had to stay in the hotel for a day.
Alina Korneeva: Of course I was a bit nervous about that, but all the players were in the same situation. When I played the first round I came off the court and I had to practice straight away. I didn't play my best game and I did too many mistakes, so I had to work on them so I didn't do them in the next round.
What loss did you learn the most from this year?
Alina Korneeva: When I played against Petra Marcinko [a 7-6(6), 7-6(5) loss in the Caldas da Rainha ITF W60 semifinals in September]. I had a lot of set points, I was up a lot but I lost. It was a sad situation, but I talked a lot with my team about what I should do to never have that happen again.
Who is in your team at the moment?
Alina Korneeva: Julia Bekeshchenko is still my coach in Moscow, as well as Andrei Savin. Here at the Rafa Nadal Academy, I've started working with Anabel Medina Garrigues. I won't say specifically what we work on, but in general at the academy together with Anabel, we're working on making me play more aggressive and to attack the ball a lot.
Female coaches are still quite rare on the professional tours -- do you find there are particular benefits?
Alina Korneeva: For my game, it's not important to work with a man or a woman -- the most important thing is the result. To work with Andrei and Julia is the same, they're like my second family. They have the same vision for my game. But for me personally, working with a woman is important. I don't always travel with my mother and Julia can sometimes 'replace' her. I can share everything with her.
Off-court, what TV shows do you like watching, and what music is on your playlist at the moment?
Alina Korneeva: I finished Game of Thrones a few months ago, and I've been watching Wednesday. I like quite a lot of old music -- before I play matches, I put on high-energy music, but Eminem will always be the best!