DUBAI, UAE - Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina first paired up ahead of the Olympic Games in London, and have been going strong ever since, winning a pair of Grand Slam titles and enjoying a career-defining week at the Olympic tennis event in Rio, where they took home a gold medal to a grateful nation.
After earning their ninth title as a team at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, Makarova and Vesnina sat down with WTA Insider to discuss their doubles-versary at last year's Mutua Madrid Open, getting stopped in the supermarket, and how much Makarova has learned to relax since the start of the season.
WTA Insider: Congratulations to the two of you. My first question is: how different is life as an Olympic champion? I know both of you talk about it a lot. Katya was giving us the rundown of all the BMWs Russian Olympians get to choose from. But does life feel that different?
Vesnina: Life has definitely changed. We've gotten more popular in our country, and more people recognize us. More people know who we are as this doubles team; we're suddenly like another famous team in the country. It gives us good feelings, and it's nice to be popular! But it's nice to realize how much this medal means to our country.
Makarova: A lot of people will come up to us and say, 'Thank you for the gold medal.'
Vesnina: Just in the streets.
Makarova: It's strange to hear.
Vesnina: In the supermarket. I was standing on line and the guy in front of me let me cut in front and he said, 'Thank you for the medal,' and that's it. I thought, 'Oh my god, this is so great!'
WTA Insider: Has any part of life as an Olympic Gold medalist surprised you? I know you knew it would be a big deal, but what has surprised you?
Makarova: It's been a big adjustment, for sure, because I'm so shy and people are coming up to me all the time saying thank you for the medal. It's so strange to hear. I arrived to the airport in Dubai and a lady came up to me while I was picking up my baggage asking if I was going to play with Elena and thanked me for winning the Olympics. It's really surprised me.
Vesnina: It's been almost a year, and people are still excited about this medal, and what we did. It's really nice, and we're really thankful for all the fans and people who supported us and come up to us now to say nice things. It's just great.
WTA Insider: What's been even more impressive about your winning gold is how you've been able to carry it on, playing great tennis as a team. Did you think about what would happen after the Olympics?
Makarova: I think we're one of the longest lasting teams because a lot of the other teams have split. But we're still together and I think it's still getting better every tournament. We enjoy it more and have more combinations.
Vesnina: I also think we're getting better in the tough situations. If one of us isn't playing well, the other can carry on; somebody takes care of the other. We never put any pressure on ourselves. We're always staying casual and easy, and we know if we had lost this final, nothing was going to happen. We weren't going to split and we would continue to play because it's tennis. We're not playing every single tournament, so we give each other time off and some distance to relax.
WTA Insider: Katya has been using that word, 'relax' a lot since Melbourne. You were telling reporters that you feel like this is a new you, that you saw some photos of yourself and thinking you were too tense on the court. So I'll ask you, Elena?
Vesnina: Come on, she beat Cibulkova two times in row. I think she's playing better singles than before the Olympics because she had some tough moments with injury. I remember we were struggling and couldn't play singles and doubles together. After the Olympic games, everything changed. We got more confident on the court; knowing you have this medal in your apartment gives you some strength. I think Katya feels the same. But what else can we do? We practice every single day and give everything we have for this game. We need to enjoy what we're doing and enjoy what happens next, because at some point tennis will be over, and you'll remember those days like, 'I was so stressed out and scared.' I think she's getting there.
Makarova: I do think I smile more now in doubles because before I was too serious.
Vesnina: And more supportive!
Makarova: I enjoy our combinations so much more now.
Vesnina: She's giving good energy; it's not like it's only me. She gives it back, and that's why we're working together even better.
WTA Insider: Going back to those injury concerns, I remember talking to Elena in Madrid?
Vesnina: And what did I tell you? 'I'm waiting for Katya!'
WTA Insider: Exactly, because I was convinced after you played so well with Daria Kasatkina that maybe you planned to play the Olympics with her. I wasn't sure Katya would be healthy. Can you give any insight into what that discussion was like and how worried were you about everything coming together in time for the Olympics?
Vesnina: At the same time, we were also trying to qualify for singles as well, so it was very strange.
WTA Insider: You and I were counting points, explaining to me how the doubles selection worked.
Makarova: Elena texted me before Madrid to say, 'Let's start over like we did four years ago,' because that was our first tournament together before the London Olympics.
Vesnina: It was our anniversary!
Makarova: We came back and there was a lot of pressure, just like four years ago. But I remember talking to Elena about how important the Olympics was to us, so I was happy to play again. It wasn't great with my injury, but I tried to forget about it because I saw the dream in front of me, so we started over. It was a great time and a great comeback for us. We a half year off, but once we played in Madrid, we really started to play doubles. It wasn't like two singles players anymore. We clicked right away, but it was so different from before.
Vesnina: We didn't need to even talk anymore; everything was so natural. Nothing was too stressful; it was just easy, even though we had to defend so many points. We knew we're a good team and we just had to go out and win as many matches as we could. We were playing better and better through the clay court season, but winning Montréal was big.
Makarova: That final was like repetition for the Olynpics because to win there right before going to Rio was great.
Vesnina: And we didn't drop a set at the Olympics. But by the US Open we were so tired. We were 1-1 in the semis and I looked to Katya like, 'I'm so tired!' and she was like 'Me too!'
Hear more from Makarova and Vesnina in the latest episode of the WTA Insider Podcast:
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