Elena Vesnina achieved a lifelong dream when she and longtime partner Ekaterina Makarova became the first Russians to ascend to WTA Doubles No.1 since Anna Kournikova following the French Open. Already expecting her first child, it was the perfect coda to this phase of her career.
“It’s the biggest, happiest moment I could have in my life,” she told me after announcing her pregnancy on Monday. “There was no other reaction but tears of joy. I’m happy that it happened, and when it happened. It gets tricky when you start thinking it’s not a good time for a family; it’s always a good time, the best time. I’m happy that it happened like this.”
The Olympic champion had been in the midst of a career renaissance after falling outside the Top 100 at the end of 2015, winning the gold medal and the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global with Makarova. She achieved a career-high singles ranking after a maiden major semifinal at Wimbledon and a full-circle victory at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells.
“I was preparing for the season, planning to play some tournaments, and finish the year, but that’s what it is.”
Vesnina received doctor’s clearance to play through the second major of 2018, and enjoyed solid results, winning the Mutua Madrid Open with Makarova, pushing Venus Williams to three sets at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia, and earning that No.1 ranking in her final tournament before taking maternity leave.
“It was at the very last moment! I wasn’t thinking about it, because I felt that if it was going to happen, it would happen. If not, I still had a bigger prize right now in me, which is much more important. When it happened, it was a great surprise. We deserved it with Ekaterina. We played together so long and were always so close to being No.1.
“Something was always happening, like injuries, or not playing enough tournaments. We only played the big ones, and sometimes you need play even more to achieve a ranking this huge, and it’s great to be No.1 in anything. It was hard work, and I was happy it finally happened.”
All the while, she kept the news secret from everyone outside her inner circle.
“I didn’t want to tell anyone; my best friend didn’t even know until almost a couple of weeks ago! I understood how everyone was feeling, because I was getting a lot of questions: ‘Where have you been? What kind of injury do you have?’ I waited for the moment when you can announce this, I spoke with my husband, and we planned it together.
“It was nice to hear all the congratulations from the girls, getting a lot of messages saying that they were thinking of me. Some others were like, ‘We knew it!’ In fairness, you could kind of expect it; I’ve been married three years!”
Few were more excited to hear the news than husband Pavel Tabuntsov. A perennial fixture at Vesnina’s matches, he has been an encouraging partner in her quest to have it all, to be elite athlete, wife, and now, mother.
“He knows that tennis is very important to me, and he was always so supportive through my career. We’ve been together more than five years, and during this time, he understood what it means to me. He’s just the happiest man in the world right now."
The couple attended the World Cup at home in Sochi and celebrated with a vacation to Mykonos. As the months passed, she creatively cropped her Instagram images, sitting behind tables like a sitcom star until making it official on the first of October with a glamorous full-body photoshoot.
“You can ask any pregnant woman; we are like spies! You try to hide the belly for as long as it’s possible, and then when it’s not, you throw your hands up like, ‘Ok, that’s it! I’m out of the shade.’
“This moment is beautiful and it will go so fast that you’ll forget it soon enough, so it’s good to have some pictures from this time. I was feeling fine, so it was great to have this opportunity to be creative and capture this part of life.”
Too busy to watch full matches, the 32-year-old has kept up when she can, noting former coach Dmitry Tursunov’s success in his second partnership with Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open champion Aryna Sabalenka.
“I watched a little bit of Davis Cup because I was supporting our boys in Russia. I see your tweets sometimes, so I see some of the results on Twitter! The time difference isn’t easy when you’re in Europe and the tournaments are in America or Asia.”
Vesnina expects to give birth at the end of the year, and while she has made no firm decisions on a comeback, her top doubles spot remains frozen for up to three years as part of the WTA’s Special Ranking rule.
“It’s like I get to finish the year at No.1!” she joked.
Should the four-time Grand Slam champion ultimately decide to move on to motherhood, she looks back lovingly on her career, the titles she earned, but also the friends she made along the way.
“I hope people remember me for being a good athlete, but also as a human being. It’s important to me that I’m remembered this way on the court, off the court, in the locker room. Many girls will understand this when they get more mature. As they get closer to the end of their career, they’ll realize it more.
“When you first start playing on tour, you think everything is so easy, and you don’t care about what people think of you, and maybe you come off more arrogant to others. It’s an individual sport, and we’re all kind of egoists because everything is for us, and we use that to get attention, interviews, TV appearances. This might not help you improve in this way, so I was always trying to be nice to people, and people were nice to me too.
“I really had a great time on the tour. I have many friends; I know I can call my closest friends on tour, and we can give each other advice. I have my family at home, and also my WTA family. Now I’m looking forward to the next chapter of my life.”