As quickly as 2009 Australian Open girls’ champion Ksenia Pervak arrived on the WTA Tour, she was gone — or so it seemed, anyway.
Pervak, a Russian (and briefly Kazakh, but we’ll get to that later) left-hander, reached a career-high ranking of No. 37 in September of 2011 at the age of 20 — a reward that capped off a summer that saw her reach the fourth round of Wimbledon for the first time and win her first career title in Tashkent.
Just four years later, at the age of 24 and having barely picked up the racket during the 2015 season, Pervak was done — announcing her retirement from professional tennis while languishing outside the world’s Top 300 after having dealt with a litany of illnesses and injuries in her young career.
With time on her side to make a full-fledged comeback, it nonetheless seemed a fitting end for the then-24-year-old — because Pervak’s tennis career was peppered with surprises that no one saw coming.
The southpaw’s penchant for the mercurial was evident even as a junior, when she raised the Australian Open trophy in 2009 — defeating Eugenie Bouchard, Heather Watson and Laura Robson along the way — having played just two events on the junior circuit after cracking the Top 5 in the ranks as a 16-year-old in 2007.
In just her fifth women’s Grand Slam main draw, having never won a major match previously, a 20-year-old Pervak reached the second week at Wimbledon in 2011, defeating three players ranked above her — No. 22 seed Shahar Peer, Pauline Parmentier and No. 11 seed Andrea Petkovic — before falling to Tamira Paszek in the fourth round. Pervak’s exploits against the German were particularly impressive, as Wimbledon marked the only Grand Slam in the 2011 season in which Petkovic did not reach the quarterfinals. On a roll, Pervak’s first WTA final came two short weeks later in Baku, before she lifted her first WTA trophy without the loss of a set in September in Tashkent.
On the rise and looking to climb higher, Pervak’s most surprising — and controversial — career move came in the winter of her most successful season. In December of 2011, Pervak announced she would compete for Kazakhstan — the latest in a long line of Russian-born players to change nationalities to that country. Unlike most, however, Pervak’s decision, on the surface, did not appear to be financially motivated. Born in Chelyabinsk to a wealthy family, Pervak was the Russian No. 7 at the time of her nationality switch despite a Top 40 ranking, and instantly became Kazakhstan’s No. 1 player — perhaps with an eye on a special exemption to compete in the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Her switch was the source of much debate among tennis purists, as Russian national coach Vladimir Kamelzon said told RIA Novosti that he was “upset and angry” about her decision, “[couldn’t] understand and [would] never accept” it, and that she was “the personification of the Russian tennis method of developing top-class players.”
But Pervak never set foot on court for Kazakhstan in 2012 — at Fed Cup, at the Olympics, and hardly elsewhere.
Plagued by illness and injury, Pervak lost her first round match in 14 tournaments in 2012, reaching just one WTA semifinal, and plummeted outside the Top 100. The 2013 season didn’t treat her much better, as she missed four months with a right adductor injury in between defeating former World No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in Brisbane for her first (and only) Top 10 win; finally making her Fed Cup debut for Kazakhstan in February; and returning her allegiances to Russia that summer — a winding, alternative road back to career zero.
Pervak seemed on track to rebuild her career in 2014, as she reached one final and six semifinals on the ITF Circuit — but again, however, she was derailed by injury. After a nine-month layoff, she returned to tennis ranked No. 324 in July of 2015. In her first tournament back, Pervak rolled through the draw at a $25,000 ITF event in Astana, Kazakhstan — dropping just seven games en route to the semifinals — before being forced to retire at 6-6 in the opening set of the championship against Natela Dzalamidze. Using a protected ranking to enter her second tournament of 2015 in Vancouver, Pervak defeated the also-on-the-comeback-trail Robson in straight sets in her opener, before falling to Kiki Bertens in the second round.
It seemed for all the world that the loss to Bertens in Canada would be the last match of Pervak’s short, and at times, utterly confounding professional tennis career.
A few months later, she penned an op-ed to announce her retirement from the sport.
“The last few years, my calendar was [more full] with visits to doctor’s offices than tennis tournaments,” Pervak wrote in Championat last fall. “[I] start to recover, train, get in shape, and again [my body] tells me that professional sport isn’t really included in its plans. I’m insanely tired mentally…and [decided] to obey and listen to the signals of [my] body.
“I do not want to, I can not explain, justify — how, what and why [the switch to Kazakhstan happened…Tennis gave me a lot. It’s hard to say whether I would do it all again, but I will look back at that period of my life with a smile! Right now, I’m stepping into the new chapter of my life.”
With her career now over, Pervak — like her prematurely-retired compatriots Anna Chakvetadze and Vera Zvonareva before her — began to try her hand at the popular post-tennis career destination: commentating. She chronicled her visit to Roland Garros as a spectator in Championat in 2015 and conducted on-court interviews at the WTA Premier event in St. Petersburg this February.
A mere seven months later, she was back on court — because, in case you hadn’t noticed, Ksenia Pervak doesn’t really do the conventional.
Despite her previous declarations, the Russian’s name appeared in the draw of a $100,000 ITF Circuit event in St. Petersburg, Russia this week — just three weeks after she appeared on Russian television presenting a US Open preview show with no mention of any plans for a comeback. The draw did her no favors, but Pervak quietly returned to professional tennis with a 6-2, 6-3 loss to top seed Cagla Buyukakcay in the first round at the Neva Cup on Monday.
It’s too soon to say if Pervak’s return to professional tennis is a one-off or the start of something more, but a cameo appearance by tennis’ prodigal Russian-turned-Kazakh-turned-Russian-again — whose first career ended unceremoniously with more questions than answers — is a fitting footnote in what’s been a highly unpredictable 2016 season.