US Open: Shady Lady—Meet the Appealing, Enigmatic Russian Ekaterina Makarova

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By Bill Simons

She’s oh so obscure, and oh so low-key.

Ekaterina (“You can call me Kate”) Makarova is perhaps the best tennis player you’ve never heard of.

The 26-year-old seems to have it all—well, except a Slam title.

She’s an “ova,” which we define as a tall, imposing Russian woman with a tendency to rather mercilessly beat the beeswax out of unsuspecting tennis wannabes.

She emerged from the fast-flowing Moscow tennis pipeline, which produces highly-refined, premium tennis whizzes the same way that Saudi Arabia produces crude oil. Naturally, she’s got an A-level pony-tail, and is tall (5′ 11″), though not too tall.

Her tennis resume is good, if not yet outstanding. After all, she’s No. 18 in the universe. Before the US Open, she’d reached the quarters of a Slam four times. But this afternoon, by efficiently dismissing a two-time Slam champ—the ailing Belarusian Victoria Azarenka—Makarova reached her first-ever Slam semi.

Okay, she doesn’t have much of a grunt, or a high-profile guy to coach her. (But Makarova is one of the few WTA players with a long-term female coach, Eugenia Maniokova.)

Makarova is different. Unlike some blonde Russians – from Anna Kournikova to Maria Sharapova—she prefers to be out of the limelight, and, as she says, “in the shade.”

With her distinctive nose and endearing beauty, she resembles the most media-shy beauty of our hype-heavy era: Stefanie Graf. Now Makarova hopes to become the first woman lefty to win the Open since Graf’s ace rival, Monica Seles, did it in 1992.

Makarova’s favorite player as a teen wasn’t typical. Instead of worshiping Venus, Serena, Maria, Kim Clijsters, or Justine Henin, she favored the rather forgotten 2004 French Open champ Anastasia Myskina, who has coached her. Plus, Makarova’s name touches off some heated press room debates. Does she have the best dance-related name—think “Macarena”—since the famous long-ago Butch Walts? (who hails from Modesto, California, not Vienna, Austria.)

There is no debating that Makarova has a gentle, sweet-as-a-macaroon personality. But she’s strong, too, and is now on a not-very-gentle roll. In July, she reached the Wimbledon quarters, and on Labor Day, she dismissed this year’s “It Girl,” Eugenie Bouchard, in straight sets.

Over the last two days, the player who some call “Ekat” has beaten Serena and Venus Williams in doubles (with her partner, Elena Vesnina) and two-time Aussie Open winner Azarenka. Those are wins over players who’ve collectively won 26 singles Slam titles, thank you very much.

Next up for Ekat is a catfight with the coolest cat in the game—Ms. Serena. But don’t worry, you hordes of Makarova fans: not only did the Russian just beat Serena in doubles, she defeated her in straight sets at the 2012 Australian Open.

Who knows what will happen? But one thing is clear. Again and again, Makarova has savored her anonymity. “I’m trying to stay in the shade a little bit, to be in my world,” she told IT after her win today.

But if the enigmatic, appealing Russian beauty wins one or two more matches in the Big Apple, that comforting canopy of anonymity that has shielded her from the hype machine will lift, and inevitably, Ekat will emerge from “the shade” into the light—the extremely bright and invasive spotlight.

QUESTION OF THE OPEN: Why so many upsets in the women’s draw? Serena is the only one of the top eight seeds to reach the quarterfinals.

JUST WONDERING: How incredible is it that Federer is making yet another amazing run at age 33?

WHAT, ME WORRY? Swede Mats Wilander was relieved when he was no longer No. 1—less hassle. Similarly, after he failed to defend his first US Open title, young Pete Sampras famously said, “I’m glad to have the monkey off my back.” In contrast, Federer relishes, with a quiet glee, the attention that comes with being perhaps the most famous athlete in the world. And clearly the lack of stress contributes to his health, longevity, and continued excellence.

A ONE-HIT WONDER, REVIVED: Not only did the Arthur Ashe Stadium DJ bust out “Macarena” upon Ekaterina Makarova‘s quarterfinal win, during the late stages of the WawrinkaNishikori match on Ashe Stadium, Stan’s fans used that tune and began calling out, “Hey, Stan Wawrinka!”

A GOOD YEAR FOR LEFTIES: Rafa Nadal almost always delivers on the men’s side, but 2014 has been a good year for lefties on the women’s tour. Three of eight quarterfinalists at this year’s Wimbledon—Petra Kvitova, Lucie Safarova, and Ekaterina Makarova—were lefties, and Kvitova went on to hoist the Venus Rosewater Dish. Now Makarova has reached the semis in New York.