Appreciating Anastasia Nefedova’s Exhibition Tennis

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If there’s anything good that has come to the tennis world by the coronavirus pandemic, it’s that us tennis fans have been further exposed to the depth on the WTA and ATP Tours. Names such as Alycia Parks, Felix Corwin, and Liam Draxl, who many might have known much about (if anything at all) have all showcases their talents to a wider audience during the pandemic.

But, perhaps the most impressive player of them all during the exhibition season has been World No. 550 Anastasia Nefedova. The 21 year-old American, whose career high sits at World No. 429 in late 2018, has not lit up the tennis universe prior to the pandemic. She had only made three ITF singles finals in her career and was without an ITF title.

Yet, having watched Nefedova play fairly often during the pandemic, it is quite puzzling to me how she is not further up the rankings.

Nefedova has competed in the East Coast U.S. Women’s Pro Tennis Series in Florida. It is a green clay, round robin-style exhibition event featuring players looking to stay sharp with no professional events to compete in. The surface of the event works out well for Nefedova, whose favorite surface is clay.

Nefedova has played in the exhibition since May 10th, often competing in two matches in a day. To make it less physically-demanding on the players, a match tiebreak is played instead of a third set.

As of June 30th, in this exhibition, Nefedova has played in 69 matches, posting a 46-23 record. However, Nefedova started to make a name for herself during the more recent part of this exhibition, where she went on absolute tear.

From her June 16th win over Sofia Sewing through her June 28th win over Luisa Stefani, Nefedova won 19 matches in a row. If that number isn’t staggering enough, she won 38 of 39 sets during this time, including a streak of 20 sets in a row. To sustain the level of play and focus needed to put up these staggering numbers is truly outstanding.

The American’s winning streak came to an end against Maria Jose Portillo Ramirez. But, even in defeat, Nefedova was able to hand out a bagel, losing 2-6, 6-0, 8-10 in a tight match. Perhaps the weight of the winning streak played a part in that defeat.

Since that loss, however, Nefedova has not folded. Also as of June 30th, she is on a smaller four-match winning streak (as of when this article was written), including a dominant 6-0, 6-1 win over Panna Udvardy and a tight win over Deniz Khazaniuk recently.

So, what in Nefedova’s game is responsible for such success. As mentioned earlier, her focus is certainly paramount to the consistency of results that she showed throughout her winning streak.

In addition, Nefedova has very heavy groundstrokes and is able to put her groundstrokes deep into the court. The consistency that she is able to do this without spraying a bunch of unforced errors has been crucial to her success. Nefedova also seems to have a good understanding of court positioning and shot selection.

Now, of course, there is a reason she is World No. 550. One of the things that Nefedova can do better is to focus a little less on topspin and more on hitting through the court.

What got Nefedova in trouble against Portillo Ramirez (and surely would against higher-quality opposition) is that Portillo Ramirez could match her depth and consistency while also having a little more firepower on her groundstrokes.

Speaking of higher-quality exhibition, it’s hard to take too much away from an exhibition, such as this, given that higher ranked players are not playing in the event, so it’s hard to say how she will do when consistently facing players more towards the top of the rankings when WTA points are on the line.

But, Nefedova is still only 21 years old and has plenty of time to continue to develop her game. Though it was a small sample size, the American was on-track to have the best winning percentage of her career in 2020, having won 64% of her matches and posting a 14-8 record.

Nefedova was in the quarterfinals of a $15k hard court event in Cancun when the pandemic struck, so perhaps that event would have been her first ITF singles title.

Nefedova should be very proud of how she has performed during the East Coast U.S. Women’s Pro Tennis Series. The American is clearly very talented and the potential for success is there. Hopefully all of the match play won’t have worn Nefedova out when professional tennis comes back.

If Nefedova can flatten out her groundstrokes just a little bit to pressure her opponents more, then it is certainly a good possibility that Nefedova can make the top 200 fairly soon. Perhaps losing that match to Portillo Ramirez will end up being a good thing, as it will more clearly show her where she needs to improve the most.

In any case, exhibition or not, it’s hard not to appreciate Anastasia Nefedova’s run of form on the green clay of Florida.

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