Reem Abulleil spoke to Ukrainian teen sensation Marta Kostyuk at various tournaments throughout the season to find out more about what it's like being 16, talented, and competing on tour.
Marta Kostyuk does not sound like your average 16-year-old. There is an edge to her speech, a heaviness to her words, and shocking honesty in her rhetoric.
The Ukrainian teen has sped up the rankings this season, rising from 523 to a career-high 129 last month, and her rapid ascent has come with its own set of challenges.
“For sure it’s been fast, but when you start to lose, you’re like ‘oh my God, I’m never going to play well again’. So it’s up and down,” Kostyuk told Sport360 during Wimbledon qualifying in June.
“But I’m happy I’m going through this, I’m going to be stronger,” she adds sternly.
She certainly showed incredible strength at the US Open on Tuesday, where she saved six match points and came back from 1-5 down in the final set to defeat Valentyna Ivakhnenko 4-6, 7-6(6), 7-6(4) in the first round of qualifying. She returns to the courts again on Thursday to face Czech Republic’s Marie Bouzkova.
Kostyuk exploded onto the scene last January when she qualified for her maiden Grand Slam at the Australian Open, where she had won the junior title in 2017.
The then 15-year-old took out Peng Shuai and Olivia Rogowska to become the youngest female player to win a main draw match at the Australian Open since Martina Hingis in 1996 and the youngest to make the third round of a Slam since Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in the 1997 US Open.
Kostyuk kept up her good form and immediately won a $60k ITF title in Burnie then upset world No. 26 Daria Gavrilova in Fed Cup. Not many can follow up a breakthrough like the one she had in Melbourne with more success right away and Kostyuk herself isn’t sure how she did it.
“I don’t know. It was probably my first big win so I had to prove that I have this level so I had to win it. And it wasn’t like I had to win, like I was crazy about it. It was just match by match, it was just my level,” she told Sport360 in an interview in Madrid in May.
“So that’s why I won. My goal was actually in the beginning of the year – like it would be a good year for me if I would finish 150 but now I think a very good year if I would finish in the top-100.”
She qualified for the WTA tournament in Stuttgart in April and reached the last-16 before falling in three sets to world No. 7 Caroline Garcia.
Things got tougher for Kostyuk after that. She won just three of her next 10 matches, and had trouble within her team that led to her splitting with her coach of 10 months Luka Kutanjac. She hired Dmytro Brichek, who previously worked with fellow Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko, instead.
Parting ways with Kutanjac was not easy.
“I’m the kind of person, I’m so kind, even if we have so many problems, I’m going to wait until the end and everything will be completely bad so then I’m like ‘okay, we have to split’ and then I feel so bad, for weeks. It was the first time I’ve split with a coach and it was very tough,” she said on the sidelines of the Madrid Open.
“Even though I’m only 15, I have a lot of say in my decisions. I always talk to my mother, we talk first, she explains some things to me, and then I decide what is better to do. I’m a player, I feel what I should do, even though I’m 15, I feel it, and it’s been like this since I started to play.”
Managed by ex-world No. 3 Ivan Ljubicic, who is the coach of Roger Federer, Kostyuk has many eyes on her at this early stage of her career.
She pays credit to the Croatian, who helps her navigate the emotional highs and lows of the tour, and says she is constantly learning and “growing not by days, but by hours”.
When told she sounds a lot more mature than what you’d expect a teenager would sound like, Kostyuk says with a hint of sadness: “From adult life I think. I’ve been through a lot of things in my life and I obviously don’t have a teenager’s life at all, zero per cent. I cannot even let myself be a teenager because it will affect me, it will affect my tennis. It’s tough, but it is the way it is.”
She adds: “Yes of course [there’s a sad element to it]. I’m starting to realise it. Before it was like fun, fun, like nice, I’m playing, I’m winning, now it’s getting tough. But we’ll see, I think I’ll get through it.”
Is there anything in particular she feels she is missing out on from a typical teenager’s lifestyle?
“I don’t know, I’ve never been a teenager, I don’t know what they do. I don’t know what these crazy people do. Because I heard that they are crazy. I’m also crazy but not maybe that way crazy,” she concludes.
Kostyuk believes she’s improving fast and is happy to forge relationships with her peers on tour. She gets along well with the Ukrainian players and was a bit surprised by how welcoming everyone has been.
“So many people outside of the tour have such a bad opinion about tennis players. Especially about WTA, because I heard a lot of times that ATP players, they practice with each other, they don’t need sparring partners – in general women are complicated, there’s nothing to do about it, but it’s very nice and very friendly,” she explains.
“I speak with a lot of players. You feel good when you become part of something you were dreaming about.”
Since she’s still 16, Kostyuk can only play a limited number of professional tournaments due to age restrictions. She is so eager to play more and is frustrated by the rule.
She also struggles with the constant scrutiny online although tries to ignore all the negativity on social media.
“You post a photo from the beach, you lose a couple of matches and people are texting you, ‘why aren’t you practicing, why are you on the beach?’ and you’re like ‘oh my God!’. The people judge you so much that they don’t deserve an explanation,” she says.
Kostyuk isn’t setting any high targets for herself and insists big goals are not her thing.
“I don’t think if I’ll be world No.1 I’ll be the happiest person in the world, maybe I’ll be world No.1 and I’ll be so unhappy. That’s what I think. For me it’s just trying to enjoy the ride,” she said during Wimbledon qualifying.
She admits that the most pressure she gets is from herself and is hoping to find a way to experience more joy from the sport.
“I have to do it. From the beginning I wasn’t enjoying it. I liked tennis, I loved it, but I wasn’t enjoying it, because I’m a perfectionist, and everything had to be perfect. But now I have to, because otherwise I’m going to stop in one or two years,” she concedes.
“I don’t know how I’m going to find the enjoyment from now. Because I have the limit on the tournaments. You have to have the right people around you so you don’t feel it, I guess.”