detail-1 Liudmila Samsonova

Liudmila Samsonova




The top-20 player who locked herself in a room for a week

It’s been a long and winding road to the top of women’s tennis for Head ambassador Liudmila Samsonova. That pathway twisted and turned through many years at the lower levels under two flags – Italy and Russia – but saw her reach 12th in the WTA Tour singles rankings in February, at age 24.

So many tennis players are citizens of the world – born in one country, raised in another, perhaps developing in a third. And so it is that Samsonova is now Russian again, even though she was a year old when she left and counts Italian as her native language, with a training base in Italy and an Italian coach.

But she was also the most valuable player and Billie Jean King Cup rookie of the year when she led the Russians to the title in 2021.

Samsonova was born in Olenegorsk, a town north of the Arctic Circle whose name means “Reindeer Mountain” and whose economy is built around iron ore processing. But she was gone shortly after her first birthday when her father, a professional table tennis player, was signed by a team in Turin, Italy.

Samsonova chose tennis over her father’s sport. And with help from the local federation, she began training at the Piatti Tennis Centre between San Remo and Monaco. Later, she moved her training base to Rome.

Practically speaking, she remains a product of Italy. As a junior, she had an Italian flag next to her name, but when she looked to get an Italian passport, bureaucratic complications became a deal-breaker. So she returned to her roots and became available to play for Russia.

At age 15, in only her fourth professional tournament and the first in which she won a match, Samsonova won a $10,000 ITF tournament in Rome. She admits now that she thought the road was going to be a little easier back then.

On her 18th birthday, at a time when most players who break through to the top have already announced their arrival, Samsonova was still ranked outside the top 1000. She was 20 before she finaly broke into the top 200.

Then came the pandemic, and Samsonova wasn’t the only young player whose momentum was stalled. She questioned herself the way so many have along the road, wondering if she should continue on an increasingly challenging journey she wasn’t sure she still had faith in.

She isolated herself in her room for a week, grappling with the question that would determine her life’s path. She found the answer: tennis was the only thing she really wanted to do. And so she set out with renewed determination – by her 24th birthday, she was in the top 20 after a virtually unbeatable streak of play in the second half of the 2022 season.

There’s no secret which road leads to the top in professional tennis: you must produce results on all surfaces, and produce them consistently. That was the missing link to Samsonova’s puzzle – she could play fearless, spectacular tennis at times, but then struggle to win any matches at all.

In 2022, she took on Claudia Gambarino, a sports psychologist who is helping her manage the nerves and the external challenges that made it tough for her to deliver the same level of tennis week after week. She is trying to make that difficult pivot to focusing not on the results, but on the process from which those results will come. It remains a work in progress.

During her junior years and at the lower ITF levels, most of Samsonova’s experience and results came on the red clay, so the fact that her path to the top of the game has come via hard courts and grass is yet another twist in the tale.

So as Samsonova builds upon her hard-court and grass success, the next phase of her career will go through the terre battue. She has played Roland Garros three times but is yet to get past the first round. And she didn’t win a match at the WTA 1000s in Madrid or Rome in 2022.

That means there is a significant opportunity to push her game and her results to a new level. Once this talented shotmaker becomes a major threat on clay, then the top 20 is only the beginning.