We’ve become so accustomed to longevity in tennis that it’s sometimes easy to forget that not all careers endure so successfully.
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Serena and Venus Williams … for more than a decade, fans have followed the careers of – and ridden the emotional roller-coaster with – these superstars as they have forged Hall of Fame careers.
Venus, now 35 and who turned pro an incredible 22 years ago, has outlasted nearly everyone. Her career stands in stark contrast to that of Aravane Rezai, who six years ago – almost to the day – stunned Venus in the Madrid Open final and announced herself as a future star.
Yet just nine months after peaking at world No.15, the Frenchwoman tumbled outside the top 100. And she’s never come close to those heights again.
Rezai’s story is that of a player whose career, unlike the elder Williams, burned brightly, yet briskly. Her run to the title in Madrid in 2010 – featuring wins in earlier round over Justine Henin, Andrea Petkovic, Jelena Jankovic and Lucie Safarova – catapulted her into the top 20. A few months later, she won the WTA title in Bastad.
Everything about Rezai was eye-catching. She wore garish outfIts, most memorably a glinting, gold-pannelled dress during that week in Madrid and for much of 2010. She was passionate and demonstrative on court, a voluble and intense competitor. She hit the absolute cover off the ball; her power was especially jaw-dropping given her modest stature. And she could be confrontational – she became one of the few players in history to complain to the chair umpire about an opponent’s grunting, eventually overcoming Michelle Larcher de Brito at Roland Garros in 2009 in that acrimonious third-round match.
She reached the fourth round in Paris that year, equalling her best Grand Slam result. She finished 2009 in the top 30 and ended 2010 in the top 20. During those two seasons she won all four of her WTA crowns and from 2006 to 2010 was a top 100 staple.
Her all-guns-blazing persona masked a sweet nature. During her Madrid acceptance speech, she said to Williams: “You are an amazing player. I like you very much, I like your play and I respect you a lot.”
It was not long after that career apex she began to fade from view. Nowadays, the 29-year-old Rezai is barely a presence on the tour. “I was depressed for all the issues I had with my family and I couldn’t be on the court, mentally or physically,” she revealed in an interview with WTA Insider in November 2015. Those family issues, which had simmered below the surface for much of her career, came to a head at Australian Open 2011, when a member of her family – widely reported to have been her father – was barred indefinitely from attending WTA events following “a serious safety matter”.
Five years on, she is ranked No.904 and has not competed in eight months. Between February 2014 and September 2015, she played once – a straight-sets loss in the first round of Roland Garros qualifying as an unranked player in 2015. Since Wimbledon 2013, she has contested just six events.
Tennismash, wishing to talk to Rezai for this story, contacted a couple of prominent French tennis writers, who said – in variations on a theme – that they had lost contact with her. Emails to the French Tennis Federation and WTA produced the same result. Yet around the time of her most recent competitive outings – second-round finishes at ITF events in Luxembourg and France last September – Rezai conducted an interview with French publication Le Figaro. With a bit of help from Google Translate, we discovered that Rezai believed she was far from done.
She was shooting for the 2024 Olympics and said she had at least another five or six years left in her. Rather than relying on tour-level wildcards, she was set on rebuilding slowing and steadily. She was travelling without a coach – “I did not need someone to tell me what to do on the court,” she said – and instead relied on a “sparring partner” and fitness coach. She said getting in better physical shape was her main focus.
She said that her father and brother were now taking a less-involved role in her career, but remained present “if the need was felt”. Yet only two months after that interview, she told WTA Insider that she had begun once again working with her father (as coach) and brother (as hitting partner). “My partnership with (my father) as a coach is still fresh and I would like to try first before saying too much. He has changed a bit but still keeps this sort of fatherly protection around me,” she said.
Rezai has not been sighted on court since, although she has been active on her social media channels. While there have been an abundance of selfies and pictures with friends, there’s barely a racquet, tennis court or training session in sight. She describes herself on Instagram as being “in a dangerous relationship with tennis”.
One wonders if we will see ever see Rezai competing on tour again, let alone at the highest level on the biggest courts against the game’s best. Every time the Mutua Madrid Open rolls around, it serves to remind fans of the French talent who appeared poised to power her way to a fine career.
She burned brightly, but briskly. Just maybe, there’s a little more left to come.
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