Patient. Poised. Polite.
Few who have watched the “delightfully offensive” Yulia Putintseva Show would use any of those words to describe the demonstrative Kazakh’s on-court demeanor. But as the 18-year-old calmly broke Laura Robson to serve for the match in the final set, many were wondering where the drama had gone.
One day earlier, a shuddering tennis world braced itself for the notoriously over-the-top teenager’s debut. Known for her multilingual affirmatives and incendiary celebrations, Putintseva has set herself apart as her generation’s cartoon villain. To be fair, something like this is, to a slightly lesser degree, what audiences are used to seeing at any given moment from the Putintseva Show. Her wildcard into Dubai’s main draw (at the expense of former finalist Svetlana Kuznetsova) seemed as much a nod to her perceived entertainment value as her talent; assigning her Center Court against Robson, a peer with whom Putintseva had had history in juniors, put the Kazakh in primetime.
Anticipation had reached a fevered pitch as the match got underway. Diehard tennis fans, hip to the often circus-like atmosphere of Yulia Putintseva matches, expected a verbal bloodbath between the youngsters. As the match wore on, it became clear that the Show had undergone drastic retooling. Perhaps knowing the world was watching, the young Kazakh was shockingly quiet in showing off deft feel and exposing her rival’s weaker movement en route to winning the opening set. Drawing errors from the hyper-aggressive Robson, Yulia forced viewers to watch her for her tennis, without any antics to serve as diversions. Some were put off by this unplugged, otherwise weaponless Putintseva; others had signed on too long ago to jump ship now.
Despite making vast improvements after an off-season at the Mourataglou Academy, the diminutive Putintseva still struggles with consistency. To play her brand of brash defense, she must stand close to the baseline so she might successfully absorb pace from players like Robson. As the British phenom edged the match towards a deciding set, Putintseva was falling farther and farther behind the baseline, allowing her taller, more powerful opponent to dictate. Fans who were looking for jubilation when she was winning were equally disappointed to find no histrionics when she was losing. No racquets were smashed. No heavens were screamed up to. When the match reached equilibrium, it had caught up with Yulia Putintseva.
Instigators looking for a boiling point were hopeful in the third set. Putintseva, ostensibly unable to accuse officials of conspiring against her with incorrect calls, challenged a shot that had been called wide. When Hawkeye overturned the call, umpire Kader Nouni called for a replay rather than awarding her the point. Robson had no play on the ball; even British commentators David Mercer and Annabel Croft felt the hitherto reserved Putintseva had been wronged. But rather than theatrically arguing the decision, Yulia politely asked for confirmation, won the replayed point, and proceeded to break Robson a few points later.
A fellow spectator and blogger tweeted me about Putintseva, how her faultlessly calm disposition was, well, boring:
To which I responded:
It is evident that Yulia Putintseva talks a big game. She is on record as having aspirations of winning a major title and being No. 1 (in 2013). But she has yet to assert herself as a clutch match-closer. In her two matches in Australia, she served for the both in the second set, only to lose both sets in tiebreakers. As if on cue, Putintseva sensed the moment and froze. The young woman who is “never scared to lose” did little to silence a talented opponent, and found the set leveled at 5-5, winning only 2 points in 3 games.
Serving to avoid a heartbreaking loss, Putintseva played an inspired game to hold at love. The ensuing tiebreaker that I had promised forty minutes earlier was ugly, one of those tired affairs played on guts alone. Putintseva began the season losing one such sudden death game. But she somehow parlayed the momentum from that revitalizing hold into an 8-6 squeaker.
As Robson’s final forehand sailed long, it became apparent to both the crowd in Dubai and fans around the world that the fiery Kazakh had saved her best reaction for last. Celebrating a win that will propel her into the game’s top 90, Yulia Putintseva unleashed those expertly contained emotions and showed us how much this victory truly meant.
(GIF courtesy of @TheGrandSlams)
By David Kane
An easy way to write about anything is to opine about what is wrong with it, and tennis is no exception. “Women Grunt Too Loudly.” “Men Aren’t Paid Enough.” “Slamless Player Ascends To No. 1.” Nearly every week, tennis writers straddle a fine line between loving their sport enough to criticize it and tearing down the very thing that they are meant to promote.
I wonder what they will say about new WTA standout and world No. 106 Yulia Putintseva.
Last week, the nationally-Russian, fiscally-Kazakh Putintseva barreled into the finals of an ITF event in Dubai, guaranteeing a spot in her first senior Slam main draw. Along the way, she upset Bojana Jovanovski and junior contemporaries Elina Svitolina and Kristyna Pliskova before losing to the ageless Kimiko Date-Krumm in three tight sets. Putintseva described the experience like this: “It felt like I have just been beaten by my grandmother.” Comments like that are only a taste of the Yulia Putintseva Show.
If most critical Op-Eds on tennis are to be believed, then Yulia Puntintseva represents everything that is wrong with the game today. She fist pumps opponent’s double faults. She screams “Come on!” in up to five different languages (sometimes all at once). She argues even the most obvious of calls. For a young woman only 5’1”, Putintseva has one of the most offensive games this sport has ever seen.
For many, this year’s Australian Open Girls’ final was Yulia’s introduction to the tennis world. The match was streamed live on ESPN3, and viewers were shocked by the Kazah’s on-court ferocity. For me, however, the Yulia Putintseva Show was nothing new. In some ways, I feel like I personally discovered her, as I was in attendance for her first junior Slam final at the 2010 US Open. I was there to watch her compatriot (at the time) Daria Gavrilova, but Yulia undoubtedly stole the show. She is reported to have thrown her destroyed runner-up trophy in the garbage.
It has been said that players who engage in Putintseva’s on-court aggression are insecure and afraid of losing. As often as her bite matches her bark, and as legendary as some of her three-set victories have been, there have been other days where the moment overtook her and she was not able to “DAVAI-COME ON-ALLEZ!” her way out of it.
No better (or more painful) example of such a moment comes to mind than her loss from 6-1, 5-1 up at this year’s US Open qualifying. As the match slipped away, she seemed to be trying to employ various breathing techniques in the futile attempt to quell her rage, but to no avail. Moments like these force the reader to question whether she is really the pure evil many would paint her, or perhaps just a young woman coping with a stressful sport as best she can.
For all the visceral reactions she at least appears to provoke on purpose, there are many (including myself) who would consider themselves fans of Putintseva’s brand of brashness. What makes this contradiction stranger is that she does indeed display the kind of behavior I am known to abhor in other players like Vera Zvonareva, Victoria Azarenka and Ana Ivanovic.
Yet, there is something comically Napoleonic about someone being so tiny yet so terrifying. She gives death glares to any linesperson foolhardy enough not to call the lines as she sees them. She celebrates even the smallest victories like a football fan in a sold-out arena. That level of excitement, I believe, can draw out even the most cynical of critics. Vera gets weepy, Victoria gets sarcastic, and Ana certainly fist pumps too much. But beyond all of that, Yulia gets positively enraged. And that makes her thoroughly entertaining.
So to tennis writers who would be quick to claim they found the witch among us in Yulia Putintseva: consider the possibility that she transcends “offensive,” and is instead “delightfully offensive.” She may, willfully or otherwise, be the tennis equivalent of a cartoon villain, but no one can deny that she loves this sport. Also, winning. Yulia really enjoys winning.