Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko reached her first WTA semifinal in Brisbane and her first third round at a Grand Slam on Thursday.
For the majority of the past decade, the blue and yellow banner of Ukraine was carried by the Bondarenko sisters on the WTA Tour. Alona and Kateryna were the 2008 Australian Open champions in doubles, and each had a noteworthy career in singles in her own right. Alona peaked at No. 19 in 2008, won two career titles and recorded career wins over Jelena Jankovic, Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova. Kateryna, the younger of the two, reached the quarterfinals at the 2009 US Open, won her only WTA title at Birmingham in 2008 and recorded wins over Venus Williams, Agnieszka Radwanska, Ana Ivanovic and Li Na.
However, with Alona suffering multiple injuries and requiring surgeries over the past two seasons and Kateryna marrying and becoming pregnant, 2012 marked the first time in 10 years that no Ukrainian woman finished in the top 100 in the WTA rankings.
Enter Lesia Tsurenko.
The 23-year-old from Vladimirec was born in 1989, grouping her with higher-ranked players like Victoria Azarenka, Agnieszka Radwanska, Dominika Cibulkova and Sabine Lisicki; however, unlike her peers, she only turned professional in 2007. Tsurenko doesn’t come from a sporting family; in fact, she comes from the polar opposite. Her father Viktor used to work in international relations for a nuclear power plant before retiring; her mother Larisa is an economist; her older sister Oxana is a lawyer. Lesia herself studied at Ukraine’s National University of Physical Education and Sports and speaks three languages.
A journey woman of sorts for the early part of her WTA career, Tsurenko began to make strides in 2012. She played in the main draw of all four Grand Slams for the first time and she reached her first career WTA quarterfinal in Memphis. Behind her great two-handed backhand, she was the #1 for Ukraine’s Fed Cup team for the first time in her career in a tie against the United States, and defeated Francesca Schiavone and Sara Errani on clay. She finished the year just outside of the top 100 at No. 102.
Tsurenko travelled to Brisbane to open 2013 and lost in the final round of qualifying; however, she was granted entry into the main draw when Maria Sharapova withdrew with a collarbone injury.
It was made known afterwards that Tsurenko received the lucky loser spot because the two higher-ranked losers in qualifying did not sign in by the deadline. As the underdog in all of her Brisbane matches, Tsurenko defeated both Jarmila Gajdosova and Daniela Hantuchova on her way to the semifinals; she would take the first set from Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova before the Russian would rally for the three set win. As a result of her first career WTA semifinal, Tsurenko broke back into the top 100 at No. 83 – a new career high.
As the entry deadline for the Australian Open had already passed, Tsurenko still needed to play qualifying, but would now be the top seed.
While some players might have had difficulty playing in qualifying with a ranking high enough for the main draw, Tsurenko put her nose to the grindstone and just went about business. She received perhaps the toughest opening round draw against Bethanie Mattek-Sands, a former top 30 player coming back from injury. Tsurenko won the match in three sets and had little difficulty in her other two matches to make the main draw.
She was drawn in the only qualifier spot that opposed a seeded player and would face off against Pavlyuchenkova for the second time in almost as many weeks. This time, however, Tsurenko would get her revenge against the higher-ranked Russian, winning 7-5, 3-6, 7-5. In the second round, she faced off against teenaged qualifier Daria Gavrilova in the sweltering heat on Thursday; after falling behind *4-0 in the opening set, Tsurenko won seven of the next eight games to take command of the match and would pull out the 7-5, 6-3 win.
Tsurenko’s hot start to 2013 is proving that the hand you’re dealt is close to irrelevant if you don’t know how to play your cards. Whatever the result of her third round match against Caroline Wozniacki, she’ll rocket past her previous career-high when the new rankings are released. A stroke of good fortune kicked off her 2013, but hard work and dedication has allowed her to take advantage of it. If you’re not convinced, you can take her word for it.
“I have a boyfriend and his name is tennis. It takes all my time.”