TORONTO, Canada - Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina have been one of the best doubles teams of the last five years, winning three major titles, Olympic Gold, and, of course, the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global.
Since reuniting after Makarova's eight-month break from doubles due to a leg injury, the pair have been better than ever, winning seven of their last nine finals dating back to last year's Rogers Cup in Montréal. Clinching a fifth straight WTA Finals berth, the Russians will be making their third appearance in Singapore in the hopes of becoming the first team to defend their title since Cara Black and Liezel Huber in 2008.
WTA Insider caught up with Makarova and Vesnina en route to their second straight title in Canada, where they became the first team to clinch the Canadian double, to discuss their evolution as a team, the secrets to their success, and what they hope to drive away with at the end of the year (spoiler alert: not bikes).
WTA Insider: We’ve got to talk about the nickname first, because a few Russian journalists and a lot of fans have started calling you Makarena, but at the Wimbledon Ball, you two didn’t seen to like it. Is MakaLena a good compromise? What do you think?
Vesnina: We haven’t thought too much about it, but a lot of people did say that they’ve been calling us that for a long time. We were like ‘Really?’ We’d never heard it. I know Katya has been called Makarena a few times…
Makarova: From Australia.
Vesnina: …and she didn’t like it! (laughs) I remembered that so when we heard that was our team name, we were like ‘Ooh, because we’re hearing it for the first time. Give us some more options and we’ll choose.’ But we haven’t gotten any suggestions. MakaLena might be the next one.
WTA Insider: But seriously, you’ve now qualified for the WTA Finals for a fifth straight year. You weren’t able to play in 2015, but won the title in 2016. How much does it mean to you to have clinched your spot this early in the season?
Makarova: The finals in Singapore is a great tournament to qualify for, and it’s our goal every year to make it. Last year, we had a chance to win it and it was such a great experience. We had fun with our families there, and enjoyed all three of our matches. We’re definitely so excited to come back this year, and hopefully show our best tennis.
WTA Insider: After not being able to play in 2015, you talked about how it was a goal to make it back to Singapore healthy and together. What was that week like for you, beating three of the best teams from the last five years?
Vesnina: It’s a really strong tournament, with the best teams of the whole year, who have played most consistently, winning Grand Slams and big titles. It was a very difficult tournament, but a big challenge for us to win this title, to check that off on our bucket list, and it’s a great place. Our parents were with us last year, and it was just really special. We’re excited to qualify again, and even more excited to go back.
WTA Insider: In the last few years, the best doubles teams have been able to demonstrate some kind of contrast in style, like power and finesse. Your contrast would seem to be in how one is lefty and the other is righty. How does that combination contribute to your success as a team? I’ll ask the lefty first.
Makarova: It’s definitely a contrast that helps a lot, because when we’re able to give opponents a different speed and spin, it’s more difficult for them to control or get used to. It works really well...
Vesnina: Right-handed will continue. Besides the speed and spin, we’re able to aid each other with our best. One of us is better here, and the other is better there, and together we try to have a gameplan so that our best shots will work and we’re able to take care of each other on court. We’re always trying to support each other without putting pressure, and just moving on to the next point. Even if it was a bad point, we say it doesn’t matter, and just move on to the next point, next game. That definitely helps us to stay on a good level and to play well. It’s not easy because there’s a lot of good teams who want to beat us. We’re a successful team and it’s tough to constantly play a team who desperately wants to beat you. But we’re hanging so far, not bad!
WTA Insider: You’ve been together for so long, but there was a stretch for a few months when Kate was injured and you couldn’t play together. In retrospect, do you feel that break was important for the two of you to come back stronger than ever?
Makarova: We came back even better, and our games started working more in doubles situations. We started to use more doubles strategies and that made things go really easy and fast once we got back on the court after that break. Now, we have even more fun than before.
WTA Insider: Is it fair to say that before you felt like two singles players on the doubles court, but now you’re able to come together as a complete doubles team?
Vesnina: We don’t practice doubles much. If we’re out of a big tournament in singles, then we’ll work on some parts of the game. But if we’re still in singles, that’s what we work on. We know we can play well in doubles; we feel each other’s games very well on the court, and we know what to do on the court. We transfer our singles games to doubles, practice a few returns and serves, and having fast legs and arms. It’s always good to have that kind of practice because it helps your singles. That break definitely helped us though.
WTA Insider: How much time do you spend together at a tournament? Do you go sight-seeing on days off? How deep is the connection off the court?
Makarova: At tournaments, we spend a lot of time together. We have dinners, practices, everything…
Vesnina: But this week, no, because her boyfriend is here, and he spent time with her. Aw!
Makarova: That’s true, but I was also in singles and just didn’t have time.
Vesnina: She didn’t have time for me! I was all alone!
Makarova: Normally, we spend a lot of time together, though. At home, it’s a bit less because we live far from each other.
WTA Insider: For the last two years, it was a very similar group of teams vying for the eight spots in Singapore, but this year we’ve seen more splits. Obviously, Bethanie Mattek-Sands’ injury forced a temporary split with Lucie Safarova, but quite a few others have split as well. What do you make of the changing field and having to play different combinations this year?
Vesnina: It’s true. There were a lot of good teams at the beginning of the year, and a few of them have split for different reasons. But we know a lot of players and how they play separately. If we know the team together, then that’s great, because we’ll have played against them and we know what to do. But even when it’s separate players, we know to what to expect from every single player. It’s only tough when you’re playing someone you don’t know, and sometimes that’s tricky and it takes time to get used to her style. Now there’s been more splitting, and more players trying to find that perfect pair.
WTA Insider: As defending champions in Singapore, what are you looking forward to most about being at that tournament?
Makarova: We’re so excited to go back. This year The Race rankings has a new sponsor, Porsche. So maybe that will be something different.
Vesnina: Like a car!
Makarova: Yeah, let’s be honest.
Vesnina: Not the bikes.
Hear more from Makarova and Vesnina in the latest episode of the WTA Insider Podcast: