Teen star Alina Korneeva is just getting started

Most times, Alina Korneeva doesn’t really come across as a 16-year-old while playing or talking tennis. But it does hit the Russian in those rare instances. Like when she begins answering a question with, “I think my whole career”. “It’s funny when I say like this,” Alina says, breaking into a laugh, “because I’m just 16 and it has just started.”

“I didn’t expect to qualify for the Australian Open this year and win a match,” Alina says

Started with a bang, and potential to bloom. The teen was the world No.1 junior last year, capturing the Australian Open and French Open girls’ singles crowns with a couple of professional ITF titles to go as well. On her debut WTA Tour event in Hong Kong last October, she made the Round of 16 and on Wednesday, took a step further at the WTA 125K L&T Mumbai Open.

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Alina battled past qualifier Shrivalli Bhamidipaty 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 to make her first WTA quarter-final, overcoming a spirited challenge from the 520th-ranked Indian who dished out a level and groundstrokes quality that matched the Russian (except her 14 double faults). The teen remained unperturbed after the first set, kept going for her winners and was adventurous enough to execute some fine drop shots.

A month ago, the 2023 Australian Open girls champion returned to Melbourne Park and qualified for the main draw among the women this time. Alina won her first round before losing to 10th seeded Brazilian Beatriz Haddad Maia.

“I didn’t expect to qualify for the Australian Open this year and win a match,” Alina says. “Not all 16-year-old girls can do it.”

A wave of teen sensations has gripped women’s tennis lately. Alina too is riding it, with the belief of beating any player on the tour.

“Because now I’ve watched them play. I have a lot of steps to improve, too much. But at the same time, I saw that their level is the same as mine,” she says. “In tennis now, especially women, even a 200 ranked player can beat any top player.”

Alina is currently ranked 134, with bigger and greater things expected of her. There’s already plenty of talk around the tall and well-built teen, and parallels drawn with another towering Russian, Maria Sharapova. The youngster senses that and her heightened potential, and relishes it.

“Of course, I have it. I know what people talk. And I know people expect from me a lot. But I think it’s good, because in my mind, they push me. When they say these words, it really pushes me, pushes my tennis, my physical and mental level. I really like it,” she says.

Tennis wasn’t something she instantly liked. Growing up in Moscow in a family of volleyball players — her father Aleksandr Korneev was part of Russia’s 2008 Olympics bronze winning team while her grandparents too “were really famous volleyball players”, she says — Alina kept asking her parents an oft-repeated question.

“Why tennis?” she recalls. “They said they didn’t want me to play team sports.”

Armed with a mindset of what Alina believes every Russian tennis player possesses — “we work hard, like tigers” — she began making her mark on the junior circuit and enjoying the sport. “When I started to play tournaments, especially in Europe and US, I fell in love with this sport,” she says.

Alina still trains with her coaches when in Moscow but is now largely based at the Rafa Nadal Academy in Spain. That’s where her coaches drilled into her the importance of having a strong body to complement a promising game.

“At the academy, coaches always tell me I have to work more on my physical strength. Because when you’re 16 and when you play with big women, I have to prepare physically more,” she says.

Her junior journey has been prolific, yet Alina understands it will count for little if she doesn’t translate that, and the promise around her, in the professional world where she’s only getting started.

“Sure, last year was a good step into my future in professional tennis,” she says. “But it doesn’t matter how much you win in juniors. Most important is what you do as a professional. Nobody will talk about juniors then.”

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