Heavy may be the head that wears the crown, but defending champion Lesia Tsurenko refused to buckle, battling for a second sombrero in a three-set final at the Abierto Mexicano TELCEL presentado por HSBC, one that can only be described as, well, dramático.
“For me, the whole match was mental,” she said following the 5-7, 7-6(2), 6-2 victory over WTA finals debutante Stefanie Vögele. “I was feeling very tight in the beginning. Nothing really worked, especially not the serve, which isn’t my favorite shot. I just said to myself that I had to relax and fight until the end.”
Nine double-faults kept the first set from her grasp, and at one point she stood six points from defeat against Vögele, also 27, who defeated reigning US Open champion and top seed Sloane Stephens earlier in the week.
Tsurenko suddenly won eight of the next nine games, and while a titanic five-deuce return game nearly turned the tide, the Ukrainian held firm and broke at love to improve her WTA finals record to 4-0.
“I kept telling myself to fight even harder, because I wasn’t attacking as well once I went up 3-0. She found her rhythm and started attacking me, which meant I was playing less aggressively. I was just doing everything that I could do, and I’m really happy that it all worked out in the end.”
The two hour, 44 minute tussle was the toughest match of the week for the former WTA World No.29, who two rounds earlier upset No.2 seed Kristina Mladenovic in a rematch of last year’s final. She ultimately credits the tournament’s laid-back atmosphere with helping to bring out her best tennis.
“I like this place. It feels like a vacation for me. I really like that they start matches later in the day. For some reason, this schedule is really good for me; I have a lot of time to recover, and I feel well playing evening matches.”
Tsurenko next heads to the BNP Paribas Open, where she made her career breakthrough back in 2015, knocking out two Top 10 players in Andrea Petkovic and Eugenie Bouchard en route to the quarterfinals.
She went viral last summer when she filmed and provided voiceover work for a commercial with Colavita, a 60-second mini-movie that features the veteran on the court, at home, and indulging in her signature olive oil.
“It was a great experience for me. We filmed it in Rome, and I didn’t even know what we were going to do. They told me that the video would be for the United States and Canada. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s so great!’ I really like their product, and they’re some of the greatest people ever; they’re so supportive.
"A lot of people called me the Queen of Olive Oil. That was very enjoyable for me, because that means a lot of people saw me on TV, and I became more recognizable."
Reaching the second week of the US Open two years ago, injuries have often held her back; the Ukrainian is notorious for sporting visible tape during her matches. but a more balanced approach has helped her enjoy a solid start to the season, which she began with a run to the Hobart International semifinals.
“I think that in the past, I was working too much sometimes and not relaxing enough. I’m trying not to overdo it in practice as much, and I’m working more with a physical therapist.
"I try to involve as many people into my fitness and into my rehabilitation. I think that works well with me because I feel better than ever now.”
Fitter and lighter, the latter especially once she removed the champion’s sombrero.
“They let me take the sombreros home, but I don’t want to because it’s so big and heavy that it would be too tough to travel with. It’s such a big hat!”