TORONTO, Canada - Ekaterina Makarova once preferred to “stay in the shade,” but the Russian survived in full sun to take home her first title of 2017 at the Citi Open, and extended her winning streak to six straight by beating Peng Shuai in straight sets on Tuesday.
“I don’t know how I did it,” Makarova admitted to WTA Insider after the match. “Washington was the first tournament after grass courts and it’s always a little bit tough to get used to it again, especially with the heat conditions. The balls were flying a bit more, but I just love that tournament. It’s an International but the organization, hotels and city is beautiful. I’ve been coming there every time with my mom and we always enjoy it, but this year it was a lucky year for me.”
The former World No.8 was due a little luck after struggling to find her best form following a lower leg injury that derailed her 2015 season. Though she’d earned five Top 10 wins heading into Washington DC, Makarova hadn’t made a WTA quarterfinal since last summer in New Haven. A split with Evgenia Manyukova, her coach of 10 years, after the Miami Open further compounded her troubles.
“I was at all the tournaments with my hitting partner, who also worked with me for seven or eight years, quite a long time. So he knows me very well, and at the tournaments he was helping me with everything."
Things began looking up at Wimbledon, where she partnered co-Olympic champion Elena Vesnina to win her fourth major title. Traveling to DC, she outlasted World No.2 Simona Halep en route to her first singles title in three years.
“I didn’t even feel like I was playing a final,” she said of her three-set win over Julia Goerges. “I was playing a normal match, nothing else. When I won it, I still didn’t feel different until I came to the press conference; they started talking about how the tournament is finished and I started to understand that it’s over. I still had that feeling where I needed to play one more match.
“I think it gave me a lot of experience, what we did in doubles, playing a final at such a big tournament. I was also able to practice the serve, return, net game and all of that helps very much in singles.”
It was at the Citi Open where she revealed a new partnership with famed coach Nigel Sears. Sears previously worked with the recently retired Daniela Hantuchova and former WTA World No.1 Ana Ivanovic.
“I started looking for coaches after splitting with Evgeniya, but during the season it’s tough to find someone, everyone’s under contract. My agent asked Nigel, he was already under a TV contract, commentating. But then he said he could come to New Haven and the US Open.
"I was happy because I didn’t want to be alone at a Grand Slam. We decided that, he would start helping me - we are in touch on the phone, we kept in touch all that week and we’ll continue, I’ll see him quite soon.”
Yet to meet in person, Makarova couldn’t comment too much on their working relationship, but noted the stark difference to Sears’ approach - even over the phone.
“I never worked with an international coach. I had only two coaches in my career and it was two Russian ladies, so it’s sometimes tough to understand some [things] from a man, his vision, how he sees the tactics and everything.”
The quieter counterpart to the gregarious Vesnina, Makarova was eager to explore the arrangement in the hopes of growing not only as a player, but also as a person.
“Sometimes, I’m, like, too Russian, where I don’t have very good English and I’m still translating when they’re saying, so sometimes it’s different words, and I could understand differently when they mean something else.
“But it’s fun, I’m happy that I’m thinking ‘Well, I can improve my English,’ and it will help me and all that stuff, so very interesting to work with that level coach.”
Her extended stay in DC provided Makarova with a smooth transition into Toronto, where she’ll aim to continue her Canadian momentum after winning the doubles title last year in Montréal.
“It’s very interesting that they’re changing locations every year. I like both. They’re both different, but very great organization at both. All of it is unbelievable: the food, the hotel, the fans, the courts. Everything. We need an extra visa for Canada but still we do it, and I don’t want to miss it because it’s a very nice tournament.”
Top seed in doubles, the Russian has already taken to exploring the city ahead of her second round match with No.7 seed and British No.1 Johanna Konta - but won’t be chasing waterfalls this week.
“With Elena, we went to the CN tower restaurant. It’s such a beautiful spot - and it’s moving around. This year, my boyfriend is here and he's never been in Toronto, and it’s interesting.
“One year, my mom and I went to Niagara Falls. When you’re there, you feel like you get some strong energy from this place. We also took the bus tour where we were going through where they make the ice-wine, so we were testing some of it. I like it, it’s kind of sweet and interesting. It's always a very nice trip here.”