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.