GRANBY, Quebec – The dream of being a tennis star is an awfully difficult one to quit.
That’s especially true for players who had success and, after life and injuries got in the way, find themselves trying to get back there.
You see a lot of players like that in the ITF tournaments. And on Saturday, at the combined ATP Challenger / ITF women’s pro circuit event in Granby, Quebec, two women with great back stories were practicing together.
Both were preparing for first-round qualifying matches at the $60,000 women’s event.
Alexandra Stevenson will be 37 in December. Some 15 years ago, she was in the top 20. In 1999, at 18, she reached the semi-finals in her very first Wimbledon main draw.
She’s currently ranked No. 578 and after years of shoulder troubles, is still out there with mother Samantha trying to chase the dream.
Elena Bovina is 34 now. In 2003, she was top-15 in doubles and in 2005, she was top 15 in singles. In 2002, 15 years ago, she was a quarterfinalist at the US Open. She spent three years at the Bollettieri Academy as a junior and has three WTA Tour titles on her resumé. She also has five doubles titles.
And back in the day, she won those with illustrious names including Rennae Stubbs, Daniela Hantuchova and Justine Henin.
Here’s what they looked like on the practice court.
From the end of 2012 until late in 2016, Bovina didn’t play. But she’s back and competing in ITF events. This is her ninth tournament since March, and she has two main-draw singles wins. Her ranking stands at No. 957.
Stevenson and Bovina played a week ago, in the second and final round of qualifying at a $25,000 event three hours away in Gatineau, Quebec. Bovina came away with the win after Stevenson retired early in the second set.
But back in the day, they met three times on the WTA Tour: in 2001 in Filderstadt, Germany (now defunct). In 2009 in Estoril, Portugal (now defunct). And in 2011 in Quebec City, where Bovina has been living for the last number of years.
Second round on Sunday
On Saturday, Stevenson had an easy one against a 17-year-old Canadian junior who not only had just two matches in pro events on her resumé, but just seven total matches on the junior ITF circuit.
Bovina struggled against a fellow Russian, a 30-year-old named Nina Kukharchuk who has been out there since 2002 but has never broken the top 450 in the rankings. But she got through, 6-3 in the third set.
On Sunday in the second round, Stevenson plays Jessica Failla, a sophomore at USC this year. Bovina plays No. 7 seed Emily Webley-Smith, a Brit currently ranked No. 507 who cracked the top 250 back in 2011.
Webley-Smith, 30, had a busy day Saturday. She played the doubles final at the Gatineau tournament in the morning, travelled to Granby, and won her first round singles qualfying match in the late afternoon. She’s also chasing the dream.
Hard-hitting and powerful
If you close your eyes and listened to the sound of the ball, the sound as the two were practicing was right up there with the hardest hitters at the top of the women’s game.
Stevenson is 6-foot-1; Bovina is a leggy 6-foot 2 1/2. The Russian still has a serve that would rank right up there with the biggest ones on the WTA Tour. Stevenson still has that beauteous, powerful one-handed backhand that was so rare during her best years and remains rare today.
They might sacrifice some on the movement side. But they’re both incredible tennis players. And yet, they struggle to win matches at the lower levels of the pro game even as they face girls half their age on a regular basis. But they’re not giving up.
It’s a tough career path to choose, that’s for sure.