After losing 6-2, 6-1 to Serena Williams in the Australian Open third round, Dayana Yastremska walked to the net for the customary handshake. But while most players look sad after losing a match, Yastremska went to the extreme; she bore an utterly dejected look that suggested she had lost a heartbreakingly close match, rather than struggled to win a mere three games.
By the time the two reached the net, the Ukrainian couldn't hold back the tears any longer. Williams whispered a few words of encouragement in her ear, and when asked later in her press conference what she thought about Yastremska's reaction, the American said, "I kinda liked that. It shows that she wasn't just there to play a good match; she was there to win."
Yastremska is here to win alright. Her latest triumph being the title run at the Thailand Open this week.
The win is not exactly a surprise considering the 18-year-old had made her breakthrough last year, winning her first WTA trophy in Hong Kong. Yastremska hadn't faced any legit heavyweight en route to her first title and we had no idea how she would respond when put under pressure by a quality opponent. But the very next week, in Luxembourg, she dismantled two-time Grand Slam champion Garbine Muguruza to record her first ever top-20 win and showcase her potential.
Yastremska has started 2019 on a good note, seemingly determined to prove that her fall run was no fluke. She reached the quarter-final in Hobart and followed it up with a third-round run at Australian Open beating Samantha Stosur and Carla Suarez Navarro before bowing out to Williams.
This week in Thailand she defeated Muguruza again, along with other strong opponents like Peng Shuai and Magda Linette, before toppling Ajla Tomljanovic in the final. But the match against Tomljanovic was anything but straightforward.
Until the last 15 minutes, it was a rollercoaster ride with the momentum swinging in every possible direction. It had seemingly settled for good in Tomljanovic's favour as she got a double break in the third set and served for the title at 5-2, but a sudden bout of nerves from the Australian gave Yastremska a lifeline.
While Tomljanovic started double faulting and missing routine forehands, Yastremska rediscovered her composed tennis from the first set. The Ukrainian took the decider to a tiebreak, where she again came from behind to win 7-3.
It was a messy conclusion to a messy match, but Yastremska never panicked at any stage, which ultimately made all the difference. Maybe it is Yastremska's smooth game that prevents her from panicking. She moves well and doesn't have a lot of jerky movements in her technique and both of those things mean that her groundstrokes are not prone to breaking down mid-match.
Yastremska plays first-strike tennis at all times, but with a subtle difference. Her timing and her aggressive streak make up for the relative lack of power in her shots. She seems intent on getting closer and closer to the lines with every shot in a rally until she has finally struck the ball with enough precision that it doesn't come back.
Yastremska's forehand is undoubtedly her kill shot. She can hit it to any part of the court with depth and pace, even when she is on the backfoot. However, it is her backhand that stands out – not because of its technique or power, but because of its counterintuitive placement. For most players, the crosscourt backhand is the stock shot and they go down the line only when they want to change things up. With Yastremska, it is the opposite; she hits her down-the-line backhand as the stock shot and goes crosscourt when she wants to change things up.
Going for the riskier, more attacking option is seemingly Yastremska's sworn mission in life and that is reflected in every part of her game. Not only does she have a good first serve but she also goes big on the second serve. She often registers upwards of 160 kph on the second serve – even if she is making double faults by the dozen.
The Ukranian's return of serve also embodies her devil-may-care attitude perfectly. She takes the return early and on the rise and can blast a string of winners off it to take the wind out of her opponent's sails. In the first set of her match against Muguruza this week, Yastremska broke back with as many as three clean return winners in a single game. It's no wonder Muguruza looked a little shell-shocked by the end of the match.
Such a high-risk approach naturally has its pitfalls too. Yastremska is an aggressive shot-maker who can hit winners past anyone, but she won't always be able to thread the needle. There's a fine line between aggression and recklessness and better women than Yastremska have fallen on the wrong side of that line for months on end – sometimes even years.
Whether Yastremska can consistently find the right balance in her play will play a big role in how high she can climb. While she seems to have all the ingredients to join the ranks of the Next Gen top-tenners, she has a long way to go before she gets there.
As she continues on that journey though, the memory of those tears that she shed at the Australian Open will likely be of big help. A player who feels as despondent after a loss as Yastremska was is not someone who can be subdued easily.
Hatred of losing is a useful quality to have in the sporting world. And if Yastremska can channel that quality, she might be headed for a lot of success – in the near future as well as the long-term one.
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Updated Date: Feb 04, 2019 13:35:20 IST