Sofya Zhuk may have come up short in the Nature Valley Classic’s second round of qualifying, but there are a number of reasons to be excited about this talent as she makes her way on the main tour and gains in experience in doing so.
At just 15 years of age, Zhuk claimed the Wimbledon juniors title, where she cruised through the draw without dropping a single set, in what was her second Grand Slam of her career. Like any player learning the ropes, working out the best way to play and approach each match, Zhuk has had to try to be patient and wait for the opportunities to come on the big stage at WTA level. If you rewind two years from this date, Zhuk was just about in the Top 600 in the rankings, but in two years has shown progress in rising to a ranking of No. 138, which is not too far off her peak ranking of No. 123.
The real signs of Zhuk adjusting to the difference in level and the quality of players on the WTA tour came mostly in this 2018 season, where she won her first WTA main draw match, beating experienced player Alize Cornet in the first round of Indian Wells as a wild card. The Russian also went one better and followed that up with an even more impressive win by ousting Magdalena Rybarikova in a dramatic match, where Zhuk truly battled with her nerves and tried to contend with winning a match at a level she’d never experienced before.
So why is there so much noise and excitement when Zhuk’s name comes into the equation? There are many reasons. In winning Wimbledon, she became the first Russian to win a Wimbledon Juniors title sine Vera Dushevina did it in 2002 and with the tennis world crying out for a new Maria Sharapova and a well-overdue Russian Grand Slam winner, we could be looking at the likes of Zhuk and Anastasia Potapova being those two leading Russian players that can carry the sport in years to come.
In addition to this, Zhuk has showed mostly no fear when it comes to playing on the big courts at events. During her Wimbledon Juniors title win, she constantly mentioned that getting to show how good she is on the big courts, with the big crowds, with the world watching, is something that she looks forward and something that allows her to play better tennis, which is admirable and should put her in a good position to conquer the pressure and nerves if she grows into a top player.
The tennis game and tennis brain of Zhuk is something that I felt set her apart from most of her counterparts when playing in the juniors events. She has the power and easy, free-movement on the backhand side that can change the course of the rally, but the stand-out element to Zhuk’s game is her battling skills from the baseline. She approaches the match well from the first point to the last point, but most importantly, she looks like she wants the success badly and wants it quickly. That drive is something that really could take her a long way and separate her from the others.
One key area I’d say that she could work on is her tentativeness from moving from the baseline to the forecourt. She can create openings with the smoothness and power of her groundstrokes. The athleticism is something that will carry her towards titles and competing in Grand Slam main draws, but a slight adjustment and improvement she has to concentrate on is being confident in her transition to the net. That is vital in her development as she can win so many points much quicker and take advantage of the work she does from the baseline, by finishing the point as quick as possible.
Zhuk is far from the finished article, but the standards she has set from an early age in juniors, in practice and now on the main tour is something that could set her up for the big time. The hard work starts now for the Russian as she comes to terms with just how well her game thrives against the elite players on the WTA. She has the confidence. She has all the tools. Now she has to put it into practice.
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