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Elizaveta Kulichkova - Star of the Future?

It may have been a relatively weak tournament, but that will not have bothered Elizaveta Kulichkova. The fourth seed had been one of the favourites going into the tournament having reached the semi-final last year before losing to eventual champion, Ana Konjuh, but with the exception of one lapse of concentration, she breezed through the tournament with consummate ease.
It is likely to be the Novosibirsk-born 17-year old’s final junior tournament, but she has already started to make waves on the senior circuit. She won her first senior title in the Turkish city of Antalya back in April 2012, when having just turned 16, she came through qualifying to lift the trophy without dropping a single set. In just her third senior tournament, it was quite a statement.

She really put her name out there in Istanbul almost a year to the day after her first senior title. Just over a week after her 17th birthday, she stormed through a $50k tournament, beating four top-250 players without dropping a set. While she succumbed to defeat against Donna Vekic in the final, she was beginning to develop the confidence to believe that she was destined for bigger things in the near future.

Her second ITF title came in July 2013 in Istanbul. Once again, she had to come through qualifying, but despite playing five players ranked above her, she never looked like losing and lifted the biggest title of her career with a three set victory over Kateryna Kozlova, ranked over 250 places above her.

2014 would see Kulichkova embark on a 15-match winning run to start the new year, lifting a $25k title in Hong Kong with victories over the likes of Pauline Parmentier and a demolition of Zarina Diyas in the final. It would provide good preparation for her first major goal of 2014 – the Australian Open Junior title.
Wushuang Zheng, Lizette Cabrera and Destanee Aiava were dispatched without any problems, before arguably her biggest challenge against the sixth seeded Latvian, Jelena Ostapenko. After splitting the first two sets 6-1, 1-6, she battled through 6-4 in the deciding set to set up a semi-final match against Ziyue Sun in what was virtually a title decider. A straight-sets victory saw her through to the final where she beat unseeded Croatian, Jana Fett, for the loss of just three games to lift the title.

Remaining in Australia, she played a $50k event in Burnie, where she would continue to show her ability. Former top-50 player, Yung-Jan Chan was beaten in straight sets and home favourite, Arina Rodionova, was also unable to take a set off the young Russian. Misa Eguchi was one step too far in a long battle in the final, but it was her 11th match in 14 days, so some fatigue was understandable.

Only 17, her build is reminiscent of Ana Ivanovic. Already 5ft 9in tall, she is very slim, but is capable of generate easy power from both wings. She hits flat, powerful groundstrokes on both the forehand and the backhand, and finds excellent depth when given the time to pick her shots.

Given her age, some inconsistency is expected, but there are already signs in 2014 that she is beginning to mature. The 15-match winning streak to start the year showed that she is capable of stringing back-to-back weeks together already. With the restrictions on the number of tournaments that she can play due to her age, this ability to get her confidence up and put runs together is crucial.

There are weaknesses in her game though, particularly on the defensive side. She has often struggled against other big hitters as her movement and footwork has let her down, leaving her unable to get into position to play her own shots. She struggles to get many big shots back into play with any great depth or angle, meaning that she is liable to be hit into submission.

Her serve requires more work to turn it into more of a weapon, rather than just a tool to get the ball into play. During the Australian Open final, her fastest speed was just 169kmh with an average of 143kmh. As a comparison, that puts her roughly on a level with the likes of Jie Zheng and slightly below Heather Watson.

While her serve may not be a weapon, she makes the most of her powerful groundstrokes on the return. The graphic below shows a variety of statistics from her run in 2014 thus far, but one that most stands out is the break points created per game – 1.26. In other words, she would expect to create at least one break point in every return game. A conversion rate of 47% is solid and around the WTA average, although as she moves up the levels, she will have to improve to keep her conversion rate up there against higher calibre opposition.
The danger she poses on return is clearly presented by the points won on return statistic. It shows that she has won a hugely impressive 53.2% of points on return this year and with figures like that, it is no surprise that she creates a host of break points opportunities.

This is slightly balanced by the 59.9% of points that she wins behind her own serve, which is below the WTA average. This shows that she really needs to work on this aspect of her game as she moves on to tackle more talented opponents. With her height, she should be able to work on that part of her game.

Overall, she has enjoyed a stunning start to 2014, having already improved her ranking by 75 places in January, moving up to 230 and into contention for entry into qualification for the Grand Slam events later in the year. Having said that, it will be interesting to see whether she enters the Grand Slam or focuses on the higher level ITF events in the early part of this year to bolster her ranking ahead of a real push in the later months of 2014 and early 2015.

Whatever she decides to do, the future looks very bright for the young Russian. Whether she can go right to the top echelons of the game remains to be seen, but it would be no surprise to see the name of Elizaveta Kulichkova hitting the headlines in the future.

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