She idolises Maria Sharapova, she looks a bit like Sharapova and if Amanda Anisimova continues to play the way she has been over the past 12 days, she could become the youngest winner of a grand slam title since Sharapova at Wimbledon in 2004.
Anisimova ambushed Simona Halep yesterday, taking just 68 minutes to beat the defending champion 6-2, 6-4 and reach the semi-finals of the French Open. Halep was tense and edgy; 17-year-old Anisimova was brave, bold and, as only a teenager experiencing things for the first time can be, totally unfettered by expectation or pressure. And her backhand – it ought to come with a government health warning.
Two years ago, Jose Higueras, the tennis guru who has guided the careers of many a great from Michael Chang to Pete Sampras via a brief spell with Roger Federer, called Anisimova’s backhand the best shot in tennis in an interview with the New York Times. And Anisimova was only a 15-year-old junior in those days.
Scarier still is the thought that all of this could have happened last year. Then, making her debut on WTA Tour, she developed a stress fracture in her foot and had to miss the whole of the clay court season to let it heal. Now, in her first full season on the tour, she is powering her way up the rankings from No 87 at the start of the year to No 26 today. If she does match her idol and win her maiden grand slam, she will be ranked around the No 13 mark.
“I have been playing very well,” she said. “But today I knew I had to do something different, because playing against Simona, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. She’s an amazing athlete and player.
“I can’t believe it. I’ve been working so hard but I didn’t believe it would pay off like this. It’s more than I could ever have asked for. Going out today, I knew I’d been playing well, because I was in the quarter-finals. I knew I had to do something different. This is one of the best matches I’ve ever played.”
Anisimova’s parents moved from Moscow to the United States in order to help the career of their elder daughter, Maria. She went on to play college tennis – which involved the family moving from New Jersey to Florida – but all the while young Amanda, who was born in the US, was showing signs she was plotting a path to the very top.
“I knew that she’s going to play very well, but she played great today,” Halep said, disappointed but full of admiration. “All credit to her, because she made a good match, a big match. She’s pushing the ball really deep. Sometimes you cannot go from there because the ball doesn’t bounce. She puts pressure on the game. And even if she doesn’t hit strong like with a lot of power, she hits it very long, very deep, with good depth, and it’s tough to return the balls.”
Ash Barty will be the next woman to try and find a way to return those deep, powerful ground strokes. She disposed of Madison Keys 6-3, 7-5 yesterday, to reach her first grand slam semi-final and push her position in the world pecking order up to No 4.
Like Anisimova, Barty was showing herself to be a potential champion as a teenager but then it all became a bit too much. At the end of 2014, when she was only 18, she took an indefinite break from tennis and headed home to Australia. There, she signed for cricket team Brisbane Heat to play in the inaugural women’s Big Bash and moved as far away from the individual pressure of singles tennis as possible.
A little over a year later, she was back on the WTA tour refreshed and ready to make her mark. This season, she reached her first grand slam quarter-final in Australia, won the biggest title of her career in Miami and is now into the last four in Paris and up against a player she has never faced.
“I haven’t played against her,” Barty said. “So it’s a clean slate for both of us and exciting opportunity for all four of us that are in the semis. I know we are all very excited. It’s just an amazing situation to be in.
“I feel like when I’m able to play my game style and my kind of tennis, I can match it with everyone regardless what surface it’s on. I’m just super excited.”