Patient. Poised. Polite.
Few who have watched The Yulia Putintseva Show would use any of those words to describe the demonstrative Kazakh’s on-court demeanor. But as the 18-year-old calmly broke Laura Robson to serve for the match in the final set, many were wondering where the drama had gone.
One day earlier, a shuddering tennis world braced itself for the notoriously over-the-top teenager’s debut. Known for her multilingual affirmatives and incendiary celebrations, Putintseva has set herself apart as her generation’s cartoon villain. To be fair, something like this is, to a slightly lesser degree, what audiences are used to seeing at any given moment from the Putintseva Show. Her wildcard into Dubai’s main draw (at the expense of former finalist Svetlana Kuznetsova) seemed as much a nod to her perceived entertainment value as her talent; assigning her Center Court against Robson, a peer with whom Putintseva had had history in juniors, put the Kazakh in primetime.
Anticipation had reached a fevered pitch as the match got underway. Diehard tennis fans, hip to the often circus-like atmosphere of Yulia Putintseva matches, expected a verbal bloodbath between the youngsters. As the match wore on, it became clear that the Show had undergone drastic retooling. Perhaps knowing the world was watching, the young Kazakh was shockingly quiet in showing off deft feel and exposing her rival’s weaker movement en route to winning the opening set. Drawing errors from the hyper-aggressive Robson, Yulia forced viewers to watch her for her tennis, without any antics to serve as diversions. Some were put off by this unplugged, otherwise weaponless Putintseva; others had signed on too long ago to jump ship now.
Despite making vast improvements after an off-season at the Mourataglou Academy, the diminutive Putintseva still struggles with consistency. To play her brand of brash defense, she must stand close to the baseline so she might successfully absorb pace from players like Robson. As the British phenom edged the match towards a deciding set, Putintseva was falling farther and farther behind the baseline, allowing her taller, more powerful opponent to dictate. Fans who were looking for jubilation when she was winning were equally disappointed to find no histrionics when she was losing. No racquets were smashed. No heavens were screamed up to. When the match reached equilibrium, it had caught up with Yulia Putintseva.
Instigators looking for a boiling point were hopeful in the third set. Putintseva, ostensibly unable to accuse officials of conspiring against her with incorrect calls, challenged a shot that had been called wide. When Hawkeye overturned the call, umpire Kader Nouni called for a replay rather than awarding her the point. Robson had no play on the ball; even British commentators David Mercer and Annabel Croft felt the hitherto reserved Putintseva had been wronged. But rather than theatrically arguing the decision, Yulia politely asked for confirmation, won the replayed point, and proceeded to break Robson a few points later.
A fellow spectator and blogger tweeted me about Putintseva, how her faultlessly calm disposition was, well, boring:
To which I responded:
It is evident that Yulia Putintseva talks a big game. She is on record as having aspirations of winning a major title and being No. 1 (in 2013). But she has yet to assert herself as a clutch match-closer. In her two matches in Australia, she served for the both in the second set, only to lose both sets in tiebreakers. As if on cue, Putintseva sensed the moment and froze. The young woman who is “never scared to lose” did little to silence a talented opponent, and found the set leveled at 5-5, winning only 2 points in 3 games.
Serving to avoid a heartbreaking loss, Putintseva played an inspired game to hold at love. The ensuing tiebreaker that I had promised forty minutes earlier was ugly, one of those tired affairs played on guts alone. Putintseva began the season losing one such sudden death game. But she somehow parlayed the momentum from that revitalizing hold into an 8-6 squeaker.
As Robson’s final forehand sailed long, it became apparent to both the crowd in Dubai and fans around the world that the fiery Kazakh had saved her best reaction for last. Celebrating a win that will propel her into the game’s top 90, Yulia Putintseva unleashed those expertly contained emotions and showed us how much this victory truly meant.