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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Can these Russians become tennis’ next great sister act?

Mirra Andreeva won her first-round match against Alison Riske-Amritraj at the French Open on Thursday.

By Matthew Futterman

Long day for the Andreeva family.

First came an early rise to get Mirra, a 16-year-old Russian, ready for her 11 a.m. French Open debut against Alison Riske-Amritraj of the United States. Mirra was as efficient as they come, finishing her match Tuesday in 56 minutes by improvising an array of easy, smooth winners against an opponent twice her age.

“I just play as I feel inside,” she said.

Then came a long wait for Mirra’s older sister, 18-year-old Erika, who was last up on Court No. 14 against Emma Navarro, another American. She took the court just after 7:30 p.m. in Paris. With the sun dropping toward the banks of the Seine, she gave every ounce of energy she had to try to match her sister’s success before Navarro won in three sets, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, despite Andreeva showing plenty of promise.

One family, more than a dozen hours on the grounds of Roland Garros, a 16-year-old in the second round, and an 18-year-old who came oh-so-close. So it goes for tennis’ newest sister act.

If this all sounds a bit familiar, it should. Sister acts are not exactly new in women’s tennis, which was headlined for more than two decades by the American duo of Serena and Venus Williams. They won a combined 30 Grand Slam singles titles. Venus Williams, 42, has not retired, though another major title seems unlikely.

More recently, Naomi Osaka of Japan and her sister, Mari, had their moments, though Mari never got higher than 280th in the singles rankings before retiring in 2021 at age 24. Leylah Fernández of Canada, a 2021 U.S. Open finalist, has partnered in doubles with her younger sister Bianca. This French Open main draw even had another sister duo — Linda and Brenda Fruhvirtova of the Czech Republic. Both lost their opening-round matches.

Coaches and parents — who are often one and the same — say the reasons for sisterly success is fairly obvious: never having to look far for a practice partner. Also, the younger sibling grows up with the motivation of trying to overtake the older one. And yet the accomplishment still feels a bit astounding each time it happens, even more so when the journey starts in Siberia, as it did for the Andreevas.

Mirra said her mother, Raisa Andreeva, fell in love with the sport while watching Marat Safin of Russia in the Australian Open in 2005, when he won the tournament. She decided then that she wanted her children to be tennis players.

As a toddler, Mirra trailed along to her sister’s tennis practices and matches. At 6, she started playing seriously herself. When the girls showed early promise, the family moved from Siberia, which was not exactly teeming with tennis players or tennis friendly weather, to Sochi, Russia, with a mild climate along the Black Sea, and then Cannes, France, where they enrolled in a tennis academy.

Mirra said she was about 8 years old when she competed in her first international tennis tournament, an under-12 competition in Germany, where she made the semifinals. When she was 12, a recruiter for IMG, a sports and entertainment firm, spotted her at a tournament for top juniors.

“She was a small player but she was feisty and fighting and just running for the ball and a great competitor and that was the differentiator,” said Juan Acuna Gerard, an IMG agent. “Our recruiter said, ‘This girl is special.’ She was undersized for her age but fiercely competitive.”

The company now represents Erika, too.

Last month, still not 16, Mirra became one of the youngest players to beat a top-20 opponent, knocking off Beatriz Haddad Maia of Brazil on her way to the round of 16 at the Madrid Open.

She said she wasn’t nervous then, or before her match Tuesday. She needed her alarm to wake her up in the morning.

“I was excited but in a good way, you know?” Mirra said.

The Andreeva sisters worked under the radar on a day when much of Roland Garros was buzzing about one of the biggest upsets in recent memory, as Thiago Seyboth Wild of Brazil, 172nd in men’s singles, beat Daniil Medvedev, the former world No. 1 who is the second seed at the French Open, in five sets.

Medvedev, who excels on hard courts, has never been a fan of clay-court tennis or had much success at Roland Garros. But he won the final earlier this month at the Italian Open, the main clay-court tournament before the French Open. It seemed like the victory might have been the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Medvedev, the creative Russian, and the red clay. He declared himself cautiously optimistic about his chances.

But Medvedev was never comfortable on a gusty Tuesday afternoon, spraying balls in the wind, double-faulting 15 times and catching an opponent playing the match of his life.

“Every time it finishes I’m happy,” Medvedev said of his clay-court season. “I had a mouthful of clay from the third game of the match.”

Mirra Andreeva had no such issues. Her biggest problem of the day was that her sister’s match started too late for her to hang around to watch it. That may have been for the best. She said she gets far more nervous watching her sister’s matches than while playing her own.

Tuesday evening would have caused plenty of jitters. Erika dropped a messy first set, gritted her way to draw even with a clinic in tennis defense, then surged to a 3-0 lead in the deciding set, only to watch Navarro find her groove and win six of the next seven games. Sitting in the front row, quietly urging her daughter on all evening, Raisa Andreeva finally left her seat as Erika’s lead slipped away.

The loss left Mirra to carry the family torch the rest of the way in Paris. She will face Diane Parry of France on Thursday, no easy task but it beats chemistry, the class that she said befuddles her in her online school.

“Chemistry is so bad,” she said. “I don’t understand anything.”

Tennis, on the other hand, comes much more naturally. Her coaches — she and Erika have separate ones — give her a game plan before each match. She listens, takes it in, then forgets what she was told almost as soon as she walks onto the court, playing by feel instead.

“If I feel that I have to do a drop shot, even though the score is not really appropriate to do a drop shot, I will do it anyways,” she said. “I don’t know how to explain.”

For the moment, she does not have to.

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