By Alex Boroch
When 18-year-old Diana Shnaider from Russia stepped on court at Margaret Court Arena in the second round of the Australian Open to open action against sixth seed Maria Sakkari, much of the audience was unaware of the incredible talent they were about to witness over the course of the next two and a half hours. Even though I had already seen some impressive performances from Shnaider in the past months – not least thanks to her inspiring success in the WTA 125 Challenger Series at the end of the previous season – I, too, was surprised by the depth of my reverence by the time the match was over.
Although Diana Shnaider’s current success was far from unpredictable early (we are talking about a former world No. 2 on the ITF juniors list), there are more obstacles in the way of her career than you could probably find at Stonehenge.
Shnaider is far from an isolated case in terms of facing obstacles and a lack of support. Since there is a little tennis nerd in all of us, I would like to refer to the legendary Algerian tennis player Lamine Ouahab — the only player to defeat Rafael Nadal in a juniors Grand Slam event. Wondering about a common thread between these two special athletes? I can assure you: There are not too many. At least for now, I do not know about any triumph of Diana Shnaider over Rafael Nadal in a recorded match.
Here’s what I am getting at: All the talent in the world is of no use to a player if their financial situation does not allow for proper training. That is what unites the fate of Diana Shnaider and Lamine Ouahab. At least for now, and hopefully only for a while.
Ouahab, who later switched nationalities to Morocco on the tennis circuit, is now 38 years old and, barring future miracles, is a long way from realizing his full potential – he hit a career high of 114 in the rankings. Ouahab wasn’t the most dedicated to fully exploring the limits of his body, mentality and overall ceiling, but mostly the lack of support and unfairness within the vast tennis cosmos was what cost him – which, like in so many other sports and aspects of life, is driven and fully controlled by the sole aspect of profit.
(Small side note: When we talk about “cosmos” in a more-or-less relevant tennis context, Kosmos with a “k” is rarely the means to success – as the ITF with its “Davis Cup” recently experienced. In an appropriate way: happy retirement to Gerard Piqué.)
To put things in perspective again: Shnaider’s chances of being successful in her career are and have been higher since birth than for Ouahab from Algeria. Those are simply linked to some privileges and lack of furtherance. The place of birth and one’s residence have a huge impact on the chances of a successful career.
But even in Shnaider’s case, it is far from a given for a Russian-born athlete that the necessary support to be a successful professional tennis player will be provided. In recent years, many Russian top athletes in tennis decided to switch nationalities and compete under the Kazakh flag, since the Kazakh Tennis Federation offered more opportunities for financial aid and sponsorship.
It was only last year that 23-year-old Elena Rybakina, a Moscow-born player who decided to play for Kazakhstan in 2018 after five years of competing for Russia, won the prestigious Wimbledon tournament. As Rybakina confirmed in several interviews, her decision to play for Kazakhstan was mainly influenced by the support the country could give her when she was an up-and-coming young player. The current world No. 25 was struggling with financial difficulties after high school and stated:
“It was not an easy decision because, of course, financially it’s difficult. It’s a very expensive sport. Like all the parents, my parents, they were worried if something happens, if you get injured, of course you want your kid to study and not to risk.”
When Shnaider walked into the gigantic Margaret Court Arena in Melbourne early Wednesday afternoon (local time), and many people – myself included – realized that she was not even carrying a bag with a sponsor on it to carry her racquets, I knew immediately that I had to write a detailed text on this topic.
While in modern football teenagers are sometimes traded within clubs for absurd amounts of millions, the three-time major champion in junior doubles could not even land a kit bag sponsorship. An absurdity that is hard to imagine.
If I were a brand ambassador, the Moscow-native would totally fascinate me for various reasons. Her look embodies uniqueness, in the form of a stylish head scarf and a more vintage Fila look reminiscent of – for some generations – the so-called “golden days” of tennis that lie a few decades back.
Not only her look is reminiscent of better times, but her incredible forehand bomb, which is enhanced by her lefty angles and versatility, also brought world number six Maria Sakkari to despair. Contextually, “despair” might even be a slight understatement. The forehand whip – paired with the unbelievable will to win in the form of numerous cheers and fist pumps – eventually drove Maria Sakkari to fury.
“If she screams one more time in my face. No, no, no, no, one more time… she’s coming toward me. One more time and I’m going to speak to the referee,” Sakkari said of the 18-year-old Russian.
At the end of the day, Maria Sakkari narrowly won the match. Although Shnaider ended up leaving the court as the defeated player, she was not really a loser that day. Theoretically, It may also have been the starting point and the help needed for a successful pro career.
Reaching the second round in Melbourne potentially reaped her almost $110,000.
Why “potentially”? A few months back, Shnaider, due to lack of financial aid, announced that she would not be immediately turning pro and instead would be playing college tennis at N.C. State.
“One of my mother’s friends told us about N.C. State,” she explained in a video announcing her commitment to play during the 2022-2023 season. “Right now, the situation is really bad for me, and for Russians to travel, so we made the decision that it would be the right time to come here.”
Here comes the twist: Should Diana Shnaider decide to pursue a college tennis career, she would not be entitled to any prize money she won at the Australian Open due to the applicable college rules. It’s a decision that will certainly keep Shnaider busy for the days and nights to come. With her outstanding performances Down Under dating back to qualifying, Shnaider has already secured a place inside the top 100 of the rankings, currently sitting at #94 in the live-rankings.
One thing is certain: Shnaider’s talent would not get in her way should she decide to turn pro. Later in her press conference, Sakkari spoke of her opponent’s professional prospects:
“It was a very high level from both of us. She played an amazing match,” (via Tennis 365). “She’s very young, she’s very promising. Maybe she should consider not going to college and turning pro.”