NEW YORK, NY, USA - Since making her WTA main draw debut in 2004, Anastasiya Yakimova has posted two Top 100 seasons, rising as high as No.49 in 2006. Along the way the 5'5" Belarusian has won two WTA doubles titles and 11 ITF singles titles, most recently at Nassau in the Bahamas - a setting that could hardly be more different than where she'll be on Wednesday night, facing Maria Sharapova on Arthur Ashe Stadium, under the lights.
We caught up with 84th-ranked Anastasiya after her first round win over Noppawan Lertcheewakarn - a victory that put her through to the second round of the US Open for the first time.
How did you get into tennis?
AY: My parents, Alex and Viktoriya, saw a commercial on TV, advertising for kids to play tennis. I just gave it a try and I liked it. First of all it was with a big group, a lot of kids, and of course on one court. But little by little it got more serious for me.
Did either of your parents play?
AY: No, but my parents are involved in sport - my father is actually a shooting coach, in a junior school. They wanted me to do a sport but left it to me to decide which one I would like.
What's your coaching situation now?
AY: I've been working with Ralph Kok for six-and-a-half years. He's Dutch... we met when I was playing club matches in The Netherlands. At that time he was captain of our team, just for the two weeks of the competition. Mostly he is based in Spain, in Gran Canaria. We started working together and I went there to practice with him. That's where I normally train and he's here with me in New York this week.
Did you model your game on a player you admired when you were growing up?
AY: I wouldn't say I modeled my game on her, but I always liked Steffi Graf because she was a hard worker. She had a lot of talent, of course, but at the same time she was always working really hard every day. I like this because that's what I do, always. I like to see success when it's not only based on talent, but a result of hard work and talent combined.
What's been your best moment in tennis so far?
AY: Lots of little things. Winning my first Grand Slam match, and then I reached the third round in Australia a few years ago. Also I've played a couple of nice matches on center court at Roland Garros, against Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters - these are the sort of matches you work for and look forward to. And of course winning tournaments… I haven't won a WTA tournament yet, but I've won some big ITF tournaments. I cannot really put one thing ahead of anything else, because I've had quite a few experiences I've really enjoyed.
How do you describe your game? What are your strengths?
AY: I'm a baseliner and I move well. I don't have a very powerful game because I'm not so big and maybe don't have the best reach, but I try to combine high balls and slices and drop shots. Of course sometimes, when I can, I try to really hit the ball. But mostly I'm trying to create a point and make openings for my opponent to make a mistake. I don't hit so many winners, but I can make my opponent impatient.
Do you have a favorite surface?
AY: Before I would have said I like to play more on clay. But lately the hardcourts have become more slow, so now I like hardcourts as well. And the last couple of years I also played quite well on grass, which I didn't expect so much but it went well, so I'm OK with the grass!
Do you do any non-tennis training?
AY: No, not really. But of course I enjoy other activities - I like figure skating. Nothing serious, just for fun. Unfortunately I cannot do it too much because it can be dangerous for injuries.
What do you like to do to relax?
AY: It depends. A lot of times, if you have been playing many matches, it's best just to stay calm in your room, maybe read or watch a movie. A few weeks ago I was at a tournament which was not so entertaining, but there was a shopping mall and I went to the movies three times in one week! But usually if I have free time - which sometimes happens if you lose first round at a tournament - I have my hobbies, such as photography. I really like to go out by myself, see the city and make some photos.
What are your goals in tennis?
AY: I don't set goals in terms of numbers and position I want to be in. It's just about trying to play every match the best I can and trying to enjoy it. Because in the end it all depends on how you feel on court and how you perform… the results and the numbers will follow. At the end of the year you will see what you have done.
If not tennis, what might you be doing?
AY: That's a tough question… I haven't really thought about it.
Do you have a favorite song or music group?
AY: I cannot really say I have one, because I like a lot of different types of music and it depends on what I am doing. For example, before a match I like to listen to Eminem. He gives me a bit of energy. But I also like older pop songs from the 80s and 90s. Backstreet Boys are a favorite.
AY: I liked the British Christmas film Love, Actually a lot, and the movie Seven, with Brad Pitt. Lately there have been a lot of good movies, but I also feel they repeat a lot. You know, the same old stories!
What's your most treasured possession? What can't you live without?
AY: With tennis players, it's always computer, phone… but I could live without it. The most important thing is that if you find yourself alone or with nothing to do, you find a way to entertain yourself. It can be a book, it can be a computer, it can be a phone…
What advice would you give to a young kid who is thinking about making a career out of tennis or another sport?
AY: Having fun is of course important, but in their minds they have to know what they want to be. They have to have the will and the discipline. You can't take the attitude that you'll just play, blah, blah, and see what's gonna happen. If you really want to be a professional, you have to put it in your head and do just that little bit extra than the other kids. Mentally it's tough for kids, but that's the way we did it when we were young and that's the way it is in competition. It takes a lot of commitment - and patience. It's important that they understand this from a young age.