A doubles pair is sort of like a small band, two talents teaming up to bring harmony to their shared side of the court. The band goes on tour, enjoys a few hits, but more often than not, suffers an untimely break-up due to creative differences.
But Elena Vesnina and partner Ekaterina Makarova aren’t your typical girl group. Together for the better part of five years, they’re the WTA’s answer to The Grateful Dead, rocking into the Wimbledon semifinals in their 20th major tournament together.
Queens of consistency, Vesnina and Makarova have made the quarterfinals or better at 16 of those events, winning the 2013 Roland Garros and 2014 US Open - not to mention the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global - among their eight WTA titles along the way.
“Playing singles and doubles isn’t easy, but it helps your singles game because it’s never easy to be on top of your game every single week,” Vesnina explained to WTA Insider last summer at the US Open. “For example, I played in Montréal, ranked No.24, and I drew Madison Keys, who is Top 10. I lost easily - she just killed me the whole match! - and she went on to make the final.
“But I won the doubles with Katya. So it’s great because it means you’re still ‘in.’ You can practice your singles game in between, but at the same time, you’re still in the tournament, and you’re competing. It’s challenging, and you’re fighting for a title, and it’s always great to have one in your hands at the end of the week.
“It helped us with Katya to be ready for Rio, as well.”
Indeed, nothing glitters quite like the gold medal that brought them together in the first place; pairing up ahead of the London Games in 2012, the Russians reached the top of the charts - and the podium - in Rio de Janeiro, stunning then-No.1 Martina Hingis and Timea Bacsinszky after a grueling week and a hellish flight.
“The plane ended up being six or seven hours late, so we missed our connection, and there were no flights until Friday of that week. Friday was the Opening Ceremonies, and Saturday was the first round. So we were standing there like, ‘Please, any seats!’ We had business class seats, but we gave them up so we could have any seat. Sara Errani was so funny, she was saying she could fit in the overhead compartment because she’s so little.
“All of us wanted to get there so much, and it was really stressful, because no one was giving us any information, and all the flights were full.
“We came to Rio so stressed! We landed and went to practice the same day, on Wednesday afternoon, around 3 or 4PM. By 6 or 7, I was on the court with Katya, hitting some pretty good shots. I said, ‘Katya, do you understand where we are right now?’ and she said, ‘Yeah, I think we’re in Rio, but I still feel like we’re flying.’”
The 30-year-old’s golden summer had begun at Wimbledon, where she reached her first Grand Slam semifinal in singles, and reunited with Makarova to ride a 13-match winning streak through title runs at the Rogers Cup and Rio before falling two matches shy of a second US Open title.
“This gold medal means the world to me. It means a lot to me and Katya, to our country and to tennis in Russia. Our federation was hoping we would medal, but they weren’t thinking we could win gold.
“For us, we were just hoping to get any medal, because the Olympic Games, since we were kids, it was the most important event. We were so into it; I watched the Winter Games, Summer Games, it didn’t matter. I’d cheer for Russians, non-Russians, and any great athlete to earn medals or get to the final. It was quite a big moment for us, and I will keep this moment for the rest of my life, because nothing can be better than to be an Olympic champion.
“When we played in New Haven, the emcee, Andrew Krasny, announced me like, ‘Please welcome, Elena Vesnina from Russia, Olympic Gold Champion!’ Everyone cheered, and I had goosebumps, and I still do. When people ask me if I realize that I’m an Olympic champion. I’m like, ‘Yes, I am. But not quite!’”
In a doubles culture of sudden splits and surprising reunions, there was a time when Vesnina and Makarova weren’t quite together during their half-decade run, but the break was hardly by choice.
Not long after the duo narrowly lost to Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza at the 2015 Wimbledon final, Makarova - then a Top 10 player - incurred a lower leg injury that kept her off the doubles court for nearly a year.
Vesnina enjoyed solid success with a new bandmate early in the Olympic year, ending Hingis and Mirza’s 41-match winning streak with young compatriot Daria Kasatkina, but as the clay court season drew closer, team Makarena were eager to get back on the court.
“I was waiting for Katya to feel better. I knew that the Olympics would be our target. We were thinking about it the whole time we were playing together; we always thought about the Olympics, even if we weren’t talking about it - and we talked about it a lot! It was always in our thoughts.”
The Russians reunited at the site of their first tour-level gig, gritting their way into the semifinals of the Mutua Madrid Open before finishing runner-up at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia and Roland Garros.
“I think it was good that we had this break, because we had many tournaments, and many, many good results - some upsets, too, which were really difficult for us. But at the end of the year, I had my wedding, and Katya was my bridesmaid.
“We have lots of fun together, and we’re good friends off the court, as well. Even when we have to compete against each other, we can and know that, at the end of the day, we know we’re friends, and nothing’s going to change that.”
That doesn’t mean competing on opposite sides is easy; en route to that aforementioned solo success at the All England Club, Vesnina ended a six-match losing streak to her partner in a rainy fourth round encounter that brought new meaning to Manic Monday.
“Oh my god, that was the worst match for us!” she laughed. “We both wanted to win so much, and I felt that I was playing well in that moment. I’d lost a couple of matches to Katya, and it’s always tricky for me to play against her.
“That much was such a drama, three hours with the rain delays, tears in our eyes. It was a very difficult match, but for me, it was a big win.”
It was a win that propelled their singles careers in two different directions; Vesnina went on to win the BNP Paribas Open and earn a career-high ranking after being as low as No.120 last January, while Makarova has yet to re-enter the Top 20 after the leg injury that kept them apart, despite stunning a slew of Top 10 players in Agnieszka Radwanska, Dominika Cibulkova, and World No.1 Angelique Kerber during the clay court season.
But together, the band is better than ever, winning the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships and earning a hard-fought win over the surging Aussie duo of Ashleigh Barty and Casey Dellacqua to reach the final four at Wimbledon.
“I think that break definitely helped us to miss one another, because when we then stepped back on court from our first match, Katya told me, ‘I missed this so much!’ I felt like we’d never been apart; we really understand each other well, kind of help each other, support each other, and our games suit each other well.”
Vesnina could leave London with two Wimbledon titles, having made the semifinals in mixed doubles with Bruno Soares, and could be only the third woman in 20 years to pull off the double after Cara Black and Hingis (2004, 2015). She and Soares captured the Australian Open title in 2016, a result she credits with kickstarting her career after her singles ranking took its tumble.
“I was ranked No.120, playing qualifications in Melbourne and it didn’t look good for me. But I improved my game, I’m playing better, and feeling good on the court. The results almost don’t matter, because it’s tennis. I’m impressed with myself, but at the same time, I just don’t want to stop.”
And so, the Russian rocks on, headlining No.1 Court to play her pair of semifinal showdowns on Friday, first with Makarova against Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Kveta Peschke, later with Soares to face defending champs Heather Watson and Henri Kontinen.