INDIAN WELLS, CA, USA – Welcome to the BNP Paribas Open, a desert oasis home to the world’s largest – and, I presume, only – mural dedicated to Elena Vesnina, defending champion and No.24 seed.
“It’s great that the tournament is doing this for the champions, to keep them in its history forever,” she told me after a 6-2, 6-1 doubles victory over Daria Gavrilova and Samantha Stosur on Friday.
Fans can analyze the public art installation while eating a dish named after the 31-year-old Russian, a guacamole salad recipe she provided to the tournament dining staff.
“I’m a fan of guacamole, okay?” she laughed back in December. “I make this salad at home. I had it once in a restaurant, and I really like it. It’s really healthy, tasty, and light. It’s perfect before a match, if you want to eat something quick for some vitamins and energy. You can even add chicken breast or something in there and make it your own.”
Just when the season’s first Premier Mandatory tournament couldn’t feel more like the Second Annual Elena Vesnina Invitational, tournament director Tommy Haas announced a $1 million bonus to any player who captures both the singles and doubles titles in the same year – a welcome incentive, but one hardly necessary for the Olympic women’s doubles champion and top seed alongside Ekaterina Makarova.
“I was joking with Tommy how I won the doubles title three times and the singles last year, so I deserve some kind of bonus already! But in general, I never think about money. When you’re a professional athlete, this has to be somewhere all the way back of your mind.” She pauses.
Her eyes turn serious as she outlines what could serve as a young player’s guide to life on tour.
“You have to think about your game, what kind of person and athlete you are, how you’re working, making sure you’re giving everything on the court, everything in practice. Then you have to think about titles, about wins, about gold medals. If you get those, then of course you’ll get the prize money.”
All that black and white logic stands in stark contrast to the rainbow-colored world of pure imagination in which Vesnina currently finds herself. “Fairytale” doesn’t begin to describe the Russian’s road to last year’s title. Fate comes closer.
She famously first arrived in California as a teenager with dreams of making a BNP Paribas Open debut. Three doubles titles later, her singles career had stalled and she failed to qualify for the main draw in 2016. The renaissance began shortly thereafter as she stunned Venus Williams at the next week’s Miami Open, finished runner-up at the Volvo Car Open, and won an emotional battle against Makarova en route to her first major semifinal at Wimbledon.
The crowning achievement, of course, came in the desert where she repeated the win over Williams – and earned equally impressive victories over Angelique Kerber, Kristina Mladenovic, and Svetlana Kuznetsova – to earn a career-high ranking and the biggest title of her career.
“I always loved this tournament. Always. Every time the players vote for the best Premier event, I swear, I always picked Indian Wells. Just look at this place! Mountains, palm trees, beautiful landscape. The hotel is close to the courts. There’s always a crowd with the best fans. It doesn’t matter whether it’s doubles or singles; it’s always packed.
“The people understand tennis here; they know tennis, they love tennis. It’s just a really nice venue with great organization at the same time. Every player you would ask, they enjoy their time here as well.”
Every player, WTA or ATP, it would seem, as Vesnina recalled a chance meeting with a key member of her team the night she took home the trophy.
“We were celebrating in the hotel, and Dmitry [Tursunov] was there. Somehow, he stayed on, or had some work to do with the tournament. I was like, ‘Yeah, come on, join us in the celebration.’ We ended up sitting in the hotel lobby, talking about the tournament.”
The two have been talking tournaments a lot more these days; she hired the former Top 20 player as her primary coach over the off-season. With Vesnina as his first pupil, Tursunov has dove full force into researching his counterparts, following a trio of WTA talents in particular in the belief that combining their power, spin, and consistency would create an unstoppable force.
“He’s always telling me, ‘Oh, you have to practice with this girl because I like the way she’s hitting the ball.’ Maybe I would never think that this player is something special, that I have to practice with her. But he’s telling me that, I’m listening to him, and we’re working.”
After years with famed former Soviet pro Andrei Cheshnokov, Vesnina is retooling her technique, adding more spin to her typically flat forehand at Tursunov’s behest.
“Some of his thoughts are different compared to other coaches because he’s a player. He’ll try to teach me to play this and that, and sometimes I’m arguing with him, because I’m not a boy! I cannot do that. It’s really difficult to play a certain way on a big point, and he thinks that it’s quite easy. It’s a long process, but I’m really happy because he’s changing some things that he thinks will help me be quicker, faster with my arms and legs, and add more acceleration on the ball. They’re the kind of things he knows will help me, but are difficult to start doing right away.”
The results have been mixed in singles to start the year – though she reached the Australian Open final in doubles - but she appeared close to top form at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, where she knocked out French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko to make the quarterfinals.
“It’s not easy to make technical changes late in your career, but you have to try. Sometimes you’re changing, and it’s not working, you’re losing in a couple of tournaments and you’re like, ‘Okay, this is not what I need,’ and you change again. It’s hard work, especially mentally. Now I’m actually happy with the way I’m playing, the way I’m working on the court, the way I’m giving everything in the match.”
She will likely need to give everything – all that desert joy can bring – to fend off her first opponent, young American hotshot Catherine “CiCi” Bellis, who looked in indomitable form against Sara Sorribes Tormo on Thursday.
Flanked by a full team of friends, family, and physios, it’s very much Elena’s world at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, one she plans to keep on turning regardless of result in the California desert.
“This is why we’re here; we have to play against the best players and we have to win these matches. It doesn’t matter how it’s going to go -- I will go on the court and enjoy my best time on my best courts in Indian Wells, and I will give my best because it’s so special for me to come back. I’m working hard, and I know it’s going to pay off soon.”