Daniel Island, S.C., April 5, 2016 — Call them what you like. Newbies. Up-and-comers. The new kids on the block. But every year they gain attention on tour as they strive for the same proud results that their opponents strive for: titles.
Appearing for the first time here are two of these relative unknowns: Daria Kasatkina of Russia and Aleksandra Krunic of Serbia. Kristina Kucova of Slovakia is making her third appearance. Bottom line, though, neither Kasatkina, Krunic, or Kucova has a WTA career singles title.
Kucova’s best result here came last year, when she made a brave run to the quarterfinals. Today she began her campaign here with a win over American favorite, Madison Brengle, 7-5 6-2.
“I don’t know what’s in the air here, but I really like to play here and enjoy,” Kucova said, in an exclusive interview with DownTheTee. “I like to play on green clay, so I feel good and play good.”
All the women had to deal with gusty swirling winds today, although the sun shown brightly.
“In the beginning the wind was a problem,” Kucova began. “I didn’t know if I should put more spin [on the ball] and then sometimes it was out. I need to find rhythm, then it was fine.”
Currently ranked No. 142, she had to qualify for her berth in the main draw at Volvo Car Open. In order to improve her ranking she plans to play more WTA tournaments, not ones sponsored by the International Tennis Federation. However, like all players she’s focused on all clay-court events for the spring and the second Grand Slam of the year, Roland Garros, which begins at the end of May.
Kucova’s career goal is simple — stay healthy. She had missed tournaments last year due to ‘health problems’ and injuries. Now feeling much better she says she’ll be able to, “play relaxed, play free and get to the top one-hundred.”
Kucova is currently between coaches, but looks forward to meeting up with her new coach, her sister Suzanna Kucova, in Istanbul. “She used to play and we’ve confirmed that we’ll start in Istanbul. I’m very glad for that, and looking forward to having my sister as my coach.”
Like millions of tennis players and fans, Kucova’s idol is Roger Federer. While at The Australian Open in January, she happened to be playing cards with ATP player Sergiy Stakhovsky when Federer stopped by to chat with him.
“He was talking a bit with Sergiy and I really just enjoyed being close to him,” she said, smiling. “Yes, he’s very nice.”
Kucova reached her highest ranking of No. 103 in August, 2009. Although she has no WTA singles titles, she has won 15 ITF titles: 10 singles and 5 doubles. Her total prize money is a bit under $415,000.
WTA players tend to be on the taller side. But Kucova stands five-foot-four inches, as does Aleksandra Krunic of Serbia. Also a qualifier here this year, Krunic was not as lucky as Kucova on court today. Krunic lost to 2010 Volvo Car Open champion and No. 10 seed Samantha Stosur, 6-4 6-4.
“I like this tournament,” she began. “A couple days ago we visited downtown and it reminded me of Europe. Similar buildings and restaurants … not the fast-food ones, though. It’s a nice tournament. Everything is easy. It’s like home.”
Tennis fans may remember Krunic’s career breakthrough run to the fourth round as a qualifier at the U. S. Open in 2014. Before losing to Victoria Azarenka in 3 sets, Krunic defeated No. 27 seed Madison Keys and No. 4 seed Petra Kvitova. Since then, though, she has lost in multiple first-round matches, has not won a main draw win since Linz, 2015, and lost in round one at the U. S. Open.
“I felt some pressure at last year’s U. S. Open because I had to defend the points,” she began. “You always try not to think about it, but the harder you try the more you think about it. But I have things to work on, one being more consistent in my practices and more motivated. I need a good habit of working and fighting for every point, every game and for every practice.”
Krunic knows she’s talented, but coming into a match without practicing strategies and tactics she would use in a match isn’t working. “I have to adjust or I’m going to have inconsistent results like I do.”
Apparently Krunic likes to drive cars, too. She admires “old type” cars, like the Jaguar E Type. She’d like to buy after she wins her first tournament.
“I’m afraid to fly,” she said, laughing. “If I could fly myself I’d like it better. I’d know what was happening in the cockpit and be in charge.” At home she drives a ‘Chevy’ Cruz, her first car. It’s a manual transmission, of course. “Automatic is a bit boring.”
Although Krunic lives in Serbia, she is Russian by birth. Her music tastes have remained loyal to her roots, somewhat. “I don’t like Russian music that much, but Russian rap … yeah, I like that.”
Stosur, a Grand Slam winner, was a formidable opponent for Krunic to encounter in an opening round. The Aussie was impressed.
“She’s not a very big girl, but moves very well,” Stosur began. “She’s very fast. There was a couple of times I hit a short ball or a drop shot and I didn’t think she was going to get to it, and she did. Look, she does that stuff well. She moves the ball around the court well. She’s not too, I guess, patterned. You have to be smart when you play her, not to give her the things that she likes. She’s obviously proven that she can play against some very quality opponents, with that run at the U. S. Open. I wouldn’t be surprised is she gets herself back inside the top 100 for sure.”
The youngest and highest ranked player of the three young women is Daria Kasatkina of Russia. The 18-year-old reached her highest ranking recently, No. 35. She is seeded No. 14 at Volvo Car Open. Today she defeated Saisai Zheng of China, 6-2 6-1. Kasatkina also won her opening doubles match alongside veteran and Grand Slam doubles champion, Elena Vesnina.
“We won the Kremlin Cup last year,” Kasatkina said. “We’ve played a couple other tournaments, so it’s probably our fifth one together.”
Her win over Zheng marked her 100th career match win. “They tell me after the match. I didn’t know. It’s very exciting because last year I play pro tour and now it’s already 100 matches.”
Last year Kasatkina was ranked No. 340. “Now I’m top 40 and things go quite quick. But I don’t look at the ranking, just focus on my game, continue hard work and try to improve.”
In 2014 she won the girls Roland Garros title. Two short years later this talented player is likely looking at a seed for the second Grand Slam of the year … and her favorite. She loves to play on clay.
“It’s my favorite tournament and to go there as a professional player, not a junior, it will be great,” she said, smiling, obviously humbled by her experiences and life choice.