Elena Vesnina has stormed into the mixed doubles final of the French Open at her comeback Grand Slam after three years out – and revealed her pleasant surprise at her short-notice invitation from breakthrough star Aslan Karatsev.
Unseeded Russian pair Vesnina and Karatsev cruised past third seeds Demi Schuers and Wesley Kolhoff to put themselves one match away from glory at Roland-Garros, setting up a final against American Desiree Kravchik and Briton Joe Salisbury just four months after deciding to form their partnership.
The duo will earn almost $150,000 should they win, with veteran Vesnina, who is returning after the lengthy layoff while she became a mother, praising the Australian Open semifinalist as a “great partner” who she gives occasional pep talks to.
“I was surprised when I received a message from him,” the 34-year-old admitted to ATP before their semifinal victory in Paris.
“He wrote to me in February. I had played only one match in Doha, and he wrote: ‘Hey, would you like to play with me in mixed doubles at Roland Garros?'” I answered: “Aslan, it’s now February.”
That suggestion has led to an immensely successful run that has taken both players far further than their premature defeats in their singles matches.
Karatsev had a rare early exit in the context of his current red-hot run of form, as German Philip Kohlschreiber beat the rising world number 26 in four sets.
The stage is set 🎫Elena Vesnina and Aslan Karatsev are into their first #RolandGarros Mixed Doubles Final, ousting Schuurs/Koolhof 6-4, 6-1. The Russian duo will meet Desirae Krawczyk and Joe Salisbury in the decider. pic.twitter.com/7jbUWiiaFf
— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) June 8, 2021
Vesnina is ranked 1,096th in the rankings but has had her status protected because of her pregnancy, winning her opening matches at the showpiece before going out in straight sets to Kazakhstani Elena Rybakina.
“I like to play together with Aslan,” she said. “He is always serious but I am more relaxed.
“It’s great that we have such big matches. This is what you need: a large arena, important draws, a super tie-break. Such games are needed to grow and make progress.
Vesnina just hit a ball STRAIGHT into the back of Karatsev’s head. We need a gif… Iconic moment.
— Alex | Tennis 🎾 (@Alex_Boroch) June 8, 2021
“He’s a very quiet guy; doesn’t talk much. He is more focused on himself – on his thoughts and play. I try to relax the atmosphere a little.
“I tell him: ‘You are the best on the court. Just play your tennis. Go with the flow, this is your game. You are doing great. You’re just the best now.’ I try to give him confidence.
“He’s a really great example of a player who didn’t give up, who keeps working hard, believing, playing smaller tournaments. He always had the game.
“It was amazing that he broke through with this great run at the Australian Open, going from qualifiers to the semi-finals.
“But I think it was a great push up that he was in the Russian team the week before that won the ATP Cup. I think that gave him some confidence and self-belief, because when you’re on the team and you have the shots, you just need a little bit of belief.”
Vesnina has won each doubles Grand Slam once with the exception of the Australian Open, but her only mixed doubles slam title of her career so far came in Melbourne.
Aslan and Vesnina are the funniest thing ever together.
— Kat (@kmtf2020) June 7, 2021
The oddest of pairing. But it works so well. Could they Tokyo?
— Ang (@4AllSurfaces) June 7, 2021
She is now looking to repeat that win and could even go to the Olympics again, having won doubles gold in Rio in 2016.
“We talked before the tournament, about two months ago, and I asked her to try to play with me in the mixed category,” explained Karatsev, calling their potential trip to the Tokyo games “a good opportunity.” “She has good experience and has had a great career.”
Karatsev admits he is learning, needing the greater doubles nous of Vesnina to navigate an epic win over second seeds Rajeev Ram and Nicole Melichar that culminated in a 10-8 tie-break.
“She was really pumped,” he said of that thriller. “I didn’t show that I was pumped, but I was trying to focus on the game.
“In the second set, she was staying pumped and she was always telling me we were playing good – ‘keep going, keep going’.
“Sometimes she tells me some advice, where I have to cover more and where I have to open more. She shares her experience.”