By David Kane
The first time I ever saw Elena Vesnina, she was far from a WTA Tour final. She was 19 and playing in US Open qualifying. I was drawn away from whatever match my family was watching to see her fight off a game opponent with a fiery determination that had clearly ingratiated itself with the small but lively Court 14 crowd.
Not long after, Vesnina became a steady top 100 player, peaking close to the top 20 in 2009. Rarely bringing her best at the Slams, the Russian has been known to sporadically catch fire at Tour events, causing minor but contextually notable upsets and taking that good form all the way to the final.
Here is where the strange tale of Elena Vesnina truly begins.
One look at her resumé and it is clear that Vesnina’s has been a career defined by missed opportunities. In the last four years, the 26 year old reached six Slam finals (three in doubles, three in mixed) and lost all six. The trend was similar in singles, albeit on a smaller scale. The word (quickly the joke) on Vesnina centered on her inability to seal the deal, that she could not win a final to save her life.
Such a reputation seems unfair. Indeed, a team loses together when they play doubles, but more often than not, Vesnina proved the steadier while her partner appeared bent on blowing the entire operation. No better example exists than the time when she had to dry the tears of partner Vera Zvonareva during a Wimbledon doubles final in 2010.
She was equally unsuccessful in singles, but a closer look reminds the reader that it was not as if she was losing to scrubs. In two finals, she had the misfortune of playing Caroline Wozniacki. Another saw her runner-up to Elena Dementieva. Most recently, she reached the final of a clay event in Budapest, only to lose to Sara Errani, who would reach the French Open final a few weeks later.
While she may never be the best closer, Vesnina cannot be accused of facing unworthy opponents.
This made today’s Hobart final all the more pressure-filled. On another hot streak, Vesnina had taken out No. 4 seed Yaroslava Shvedova and an in-form No. 8 seed Sloane Stephens en route to her seventh final, where she faced defending champion Mona Barthel. The German has a game akin to a minefield; at any moment, she is capable of unloading screaming winners from either side, flustering helpless opponents in the process. Barthel impressed many in 2012, but she almost certainly lacks the consistency of a Wozniacki or a Dementieva.
This was a final Elena Vesnina had a reasonable chance of winning, and she knew it.
Throughout the match, Vesnina was constantly pumping herself up, shouting “Otlichno!” (Russian for “Excellent!”) as often as she could. In her defense, she had good reason to, as she was playing as well as I had ever seen her play. In a bizarre switch from that which was expected, Vesnina was dominating Barthel from the back of the court one minute, and throwing in viciously effective dropshots to expose the German’s poor movement the next.
The Vesnina of the alleged “fragile psyche” was nowhere to be found today in Tasmania; when she fell behind an early break in the second set, she immediately broke back. Despite squandering break points for a lead of her own, she remained focused on serve and waited for her opportunity. Against the erratic Barthel, that opportunity came when the German served at 4-5, 30-40. On the first championship point of her singles career, Vesnina played smart, keeping the ball deep and eventually drawing the error from her big hitting opponent.
As emotional in victory as she had been stoic in defeat, Vesnina sunk to her knees and looked like a young woman reborn. The good vibrations were felt across the Twittersphere; everyone seemed glad that the Russian’s Susan Lucci-esque streak of losses had come to close. No one, however was more happy than Vesnina herself:
After years of playing second fiddle, a very deserving Elena Vesnina finally got to have her moment.
By David Kane
Tennis is unique in that it completely lacks the often fraternal team aspect so prevalent in nearly every other popular. One may have their favorite baseball or football player, yet fans of those sports ultimately support the team as a collective entity. When singles players take the court, they do so alone; in doubles, the pairings are typically too heterogeneous for one to look at the two players as a “team,” matching outfits aside. If players take the court alone, then fans take their seats in the stands or in front of their televisions to support them alone.
In tennis, unbreakable bonds can be formed between fan and player, ones that are much more personal than those found in other sports. Fans are knowledgeable about every aspect of their players’ lives, off-court activities, even the outfits they plan to wear next spring as early as last summer. Social media strengthens this connection, as fans can literally “follow” a player around the world, waiting for a new 140-character-or-less update on baited breath. Truly, this bond heightens all the senses that come with athletic fandom. It makes the victories sweeter, and the defeats more painful.
When those defeats invariably occur, it is only human nature for the fan to look for someone to blame. Barring a cataclysmic injury, how could fans ever point the finger at their player? They have watched their practices, stayed up to ungodly hours to watch them play early rounds a world away. They have conferred with the opinions of analysts and journalists, all of whom agreed that victory was assured. Then how did they lose? They can do no wrong. With nowhere else to look but across the net, fans usually place the heavy burden of blame on the unlucky soul who beat their guy or girl.
If a fan’s favorite player is infallible, then the opposite is true of a player that fan dislikes. Observed under equal scrutiny as a favorite, a disliked player can do nothing right, least of all win tennis matches. Their shrieks become more piercing, their fist-pumps become more obnoxious, and their attempts at humor only seem to bely their cruel, calculated nature. They even seem to lose matches when fans don’t want them too. Indeed, the hierarchies of a fan’s favorite and least favorite players can be as rigid as a caste system.
These extreme opinions of people fans don’t actually know were all well and good in the comfort of home (or locked inside the mind) until social media arrived and everyone jumped into the same proverbial ball pit. On twitter, Sharapova fans are suddenly confronted with her “haters,” fans who actively campaign to “save the grunt” are forced to resist the urge to enter typographical combat with those who think all on-court noise ought to be abolished. Sometimes, a fan’s opinion of a player can be completely influenced by his or her fan group (for better or worse).
One would be shocked, then, to see the apparent symbiosis that occurs on nearly every tennis fan’s Twitter timeline. It goes without saying that a tennis fan cannot join Twitter and expect an echo chamber of like-minded fans. The lines between fandoms are instead blurred as Sharapova fans follow Azarenka fans, Kvitova fans follow Wozniacki fans, and everyone follows at least twenty Ivanovic fans (in sheer numbers, Ana Ivanovic is the tennis twitter equivalent to Justin Bieber). The bonds tennis fans have formed with each other is arguably as strong as the bonds they’ve already formed with their favorite players. The average Serena Williams fan can expect congratulatory tweets when she wins, and condolences when she loses. Despite often strict party allegiances, tennis fans have realized that, no matter the player, they as fans have all experienced the same emotions at one moment or another. The only thing that differs is the player for whom the emotions are felt.
This is not to say that feelings aren’t sometimes hurt, the #equalprizemoney debate can grate, and that unless you’re a fan, logging off is encouraged during Novak Djokovic matches. But by and large, social media (Twitter in particular) does so much to unite tennis fans around the world, share information at lightning-fast speed and, most importantly, give what sometimes feels like a live-or-die tennis match some much needed perspective.