New tennis stars in the making

Maria Sharapova beware! Three young Russian girls are making waves on the international tennis circuit, threatening to overtake her pre-eminent position. 15-year-old Sofya Zhuk, who won the girls’ singles title at this year’s Wimbledon Junior Championships, 16-year-old Anna Blinkova and 14-year old Anastasia Potapova are making their presence felt. A look at the trio waiting to challenge Sharapova’s title of Russia’s queen of tennis.

Sofya Zhuk

Sofya Zhuk

Sofya Zhuk won the Junior Championships at Wimbledon in 2015. Source: Photoshot/Vostock-Photo

It is difficult for any talented female Russian tennis player to escape comparison with Maria Sharapova, but Sofya Zhuk has drawn the likenesses closer. Winner of the Girl’s Singles title at the Junior Championships at Wimbledon this year, 15-year-old Zhuk has attracted attention not only with her athleticism and impressive double-handed backhand, but also with her physical resemblance to Sharapova.

Zhuk proved herself early, winning her first junior tournament at age nine. She was admitted to Belgian champion Justine Henin’s tennis academy when she was just 10, after which she received contracts with IMG, Reebok and Wilson and won the prestigious American Eddie Herr Championship. Zhuk began appearing in adult WTA tournaments at the age of 13, and got a ranking in the world top 1,000.

Sharapova, the reigning queen of Russian tennis, won her first Grand Slam tournament at 17, becoming the first Russian ever to win at Wimbledon. Zhuk still has time to emulate her illustrious compatriot's achievements. Zhuk began playing tennis relatively late, at the age of six, after two years dedicated to artistic gymnastics.

"I like to win, but no victory can compare to my first," said Zhuk in an interview with PROSport magazine. "It was at a tournament in Tver. I had lost the first set, won the second, and was leading in the third, but then probably relaxed too much and did not even notice how my lead of 5:3 turned into a 6:5 lead for my opponent,” she said.

“I will never forget the final game. It had everything: shouts, tears, falls, but in the end I won. When someone asks me why I need tennis, I always remember those emotions, and also because thanks to tennis I can travel around the world. I would be bored just sitting around in one place. A quiet life is really not for me."

Anna Blinkova

Anna Blinkova

Anna Blinkova with the Junior Girls runner-up Trophy at Wimbledon. Source: Imago / Legion-Media

Sixteen-year-old Anna Blinkova, who met Sofya Zhuk in the all-Russian 2015 Junior Wimbledon final, remained in the shadow of her compatriot. However, the loss was not entirely merited: Blinkova, a native of Pavlovsky Posad near Moscow, had already won eight ITF Junior tournaments. And in the Wimbledon quarterfinals she played one of the most spectacular matches of the tournament, defeating American Tornado Alicia Black in the decisive set by 12 games to 10.

After the tournament, in an interview with the Sport Express newspaper, Blinkova said that her loss in the final was due to the fact that she had never played on important courts such as Wimbledon. "It was rather unusual for me: the roars in the stands, all that space. I just couldn't feel the length when hitting the ball… and just lost to Sofya in speed."

Unlike Zhuk, who lives in Belgium, Blinkova trains in Moscow, on the courts of the Russian State University of Physical Education. Anna says that her idol is Serena Williams. Her short-term plans include participating in the U.S. Open Junior championship. Perhaps she will be luckier at Flushing Meadows, since the hard court is supposed to be her favorite surface.

Anastasia Potapova

Anastasia Potapova

Anastasia Potapova is currently ranked 54th in the ITF Junior ranking. Source: OneGlobal Sports Management

The list of achievements already reached by 14-year-old Anastasia Potapova will raise the brow of many a venerable expert: The native of the Volga city of Saratov has already won the Eddie Herr International and the Orange Bowl in the under-14 category, as well as one of the most competitive junior tournaments, the Les Petits As in the French city of Tarbes. Potapova is currently ranked 54th in the ITF Junior ranking. The fact that in the top 100 there is no other girl born in 2001 only highlights her potential.

Potapova, who is unusually confident for her age, gives interview after interview to Russian publications, which are tipping her as the next Sharapova. And she is definitely not opposed to such prospects. "I like the way she plays, her style, manner, behavior. The attacking style, fast tennis – this is my tennis," said Potapova in an interview with championat.com.

Potapova, who trains at the Alexander Ostrovsky Tennis Academy in Khimki near Moscow, is most successful on clay. However, her coach Irina Doronina thinks that the player will develop in a different direction. "Even though Nastya [the diminutive form of Anastasia – RIR] dreams of winning Roland Garros, the hard court is more suitable for her game," Doronina told Sport Express. "The paradox is that up to now Nastya has won most of the important titles on clay, but at the children's and junior level this is not an indicator."

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