Tsurenko Finding Clarity On Court, No Matter How Long It Takes To Win

Lesia Tsurenko (photo: WTA video)

BUDAPEST/WASHINGTON, July 14, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine won the longest WTA main draw match to date this season on Wednesday, competing against Russia’s Kamilla Rakhimova in the second round of the Hungarian Grand Prix in Budapest.

What started as an unassuming second-round match on an outer court at Római Teniszakadémia, on clay, turned very dramatic in front of just a handful of fans – and it wound up lasting three hours and 53 minutes, or about the same time it takes to travel by automobile from Budapest to Zagreb, Croatia or to Brno, in the Czech Republic.

The 97th-ranked Tsurenko, 33, a resident of Kyiv, defeated the 107th-ranked 20-year-old Rakhimova, 6-7 (1), 6-4, 7-5, in which the young Russian served for the win and held one match point at 5-4 in the third set. Two games later, she double-faulted away match point – her fifth double fault of the match. Talk about the thrill of victory for Tsurenko versus the agony of defeat as shown by Rakhimova.

At 3:53, the Tsurenko-Rakhimova tussle became the seventh-longest match of the Open Era, thanks to many excruciating and lengthy rallies between the competitors. The victory, which was Tsurenko’s 23rd of the season against 12 defeats in all competitions, marked the fourth time this year she’s come back to win after losing the first set. She’s won seven of 10 three-set matches she’s been involved in. The victory advanced Tsurenko into the Budapest quarterfinals on Friday.

Looking back, there were 36 break points between Tsurenko and Rakhimova and 20 breaks of serve – Tsurenko converted 11 of 25 break-point opportunities while Rakhimova broke her opponent nine times in 11 tries. Surprisingly, Rakhimova outpointed Tsurenko 126-125.

“What stood out for me about the match was how calm Tsurenko stayed throughout,” Candy Reid Harrop, who commented on the Tsurenko-Rakhimova match for WTA TV, told Tennis TourTalk in an email interview. “She appeared to have a problem with her shoulder all match long as she was rolling in her serve throughout. She also had treatment on her hip toward the end of the first set and seemed to be struggling at the beginning of the second.

“Unbelievable fight from her, a never-say-die attitude.”

After match point was secured, Reid Harrop wrote on Twitter, “An absolute lung-buster!”

As Tsurenko showed against Rakhimova, she plays because she loves tennis. While the money she’s earned from playing the sport that has been a part of her life since age 6 has never motivated her in the past, it certainly does now.

“I play for the money now,” Tsurenko said during the recent Wimbledon Championships, where she beat Jodie Burrage of Great Britain and fellow Ukrainian Anhelina Kalinina, who was seeded 29th. She was eliminated in the third round by Germany’s Jule Niemeier, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3. It was the furthest Tsurenko had gone at Wimbledon since 2017.

“I want to earn so much so I can donate this,” she said. “I feel like that may be a bad quality, because it has nothing to do with tennis, but that is what I am playing.”

Before entering Wimbledon last month, Tsurenko’s career earnings had eclipsed $5 million, including $214,000, this year. She has four career WTA titles to show for her labor. By reaching the third round, she earned $96,000, a solid sum of money. The more Tsurenko can play the more she can earn. It’s simple economics.

After reaching a career-high ranking of No. 23 in February 2019, Tsurenko was beset by a right elbow injury that dropped her out of the Top 100. The most recent of her singles titles came in 2018 at Acapulco, a tournament she also won in 2017.

More recently, the tennis court is where Tsurenko has gained some clarity in her life and enjoyed peace, too. Off the court, it becomes more difficult to keep her thoughts about the Russian invasion of her home country of Ukraine out of her mind. Some days are better than others, such as this week in Budapest, where she’s defeated 181st-ranked qualifier Carolina Meligeni Rodrigues Alves of Brazil in straight sets in the first round on Monday and Rakhimova. By advancing to the quarterfinals, she’s already a earned $5,800. The further she goes in this tournament, of course, the more she will earn.

After losing to Niemeier in two hours and four minutes on Court 18 at Wimbledon, Tsurenko admitted that when she took the court, she “had no idea how to play tennis.”

Because of the war, Tsurenko and other Ukrainian players have not been home in months. The tennis court has been their refuge. Although not technically a refugee because she left home before war broke out in February, Tsurenko has taken up a semi-permanent home in northern Italy, at a academy run by the famed Italian coach Ricardo Piatti. She has been joined by her sister, Oksana, and her brother-in-law.

“Sometimes when I train in Italy, it’s a very nice place, and it’s a small city, a small town by the sea, and sometimes when you are just, you know, eating great food and having amazing Italian espresso, and you see that you are surrounded by beautiful nature, for some moments you forget and you’re, like, you’re relaxed and you think, oh, the life is good. But it’s just seconds,” Tsurenko said at Wimbledon.

“It’s very tough for me to explain to you, but – and I hope none of the people will ever feel this, but it’s just like some part of me is just always so tight, and I think it will be a big release when the war will finish, but not before.”

While playing in Wimbledon offered a respite from competing against Russian and Belarusian players, who were barred from competing, now that the WTA Tour has moved on, they have returned. So, it should come as no surprise that Tsurenko wanted very badly to beat Rakhimova, who was the only Russian in the 32-player main draw of the WTA 250 event. The only Belarusian in the main draw, Aliaksandra Sasnovich, was also eliminated in the second round. She lost to Bernarda Pera of the United States on Wednesday.

“When the war started,” Tsurenko said during Wimbledon, “I start to feel this tension inside of me. I think even if I work every day with psychologist and I try to avoid these emotions, it’s impossible. I think this feeling, this tension will only be released when the war will finish. There is nothing I can do about it.

“It’s just horrible what is going in Ukraine,” Tsurenko admits. “I just feel terrible, and I feel very guilty, and I feel like there is nothing I can do. So the only thing is continue playing, and as I said, I donate 10 percent of my prize money.”

In her press conference at Wimbledon after she defeated countrywoman Kalinina in the second round, Tsurenko put things in bold perspective. “If there is something that every person in this world can do, I think it’s good if they do it,” she said. “If they think that to donate $10 means nothing, no, it’s not true. It means a lot. In the city, in the main city of my region, Mykolaiv, they don’t have water for few months already. So, if you think that $10 is nothing, it is 10 bottles of water for these people.

“I have been at the Polish border with Ukraine, and I saw hundreds, thousands of people. They just don’t know where they go. They have all their life in two bags. They have kids, grandfather, grandmother maybe with them, and also some disabled people. And they are lost. So, any support that you give to Ukrainians is amazing.”