A backhand down the line winner is what Luksika Kumkhum had aimed for, only for the ball to strike the let cord and go over. This was her second match point, a second championship point, and she needed just that extra bit of luck to close off the topsy-turvy encounter against Russia’s Irina Khromacheva 1-6, 6-2, 6-3 to win the Mumbai Open. She raised her arms in celebration, in relief and joy – there would be enough time for niceties, apologising for the let cord winner later. This was a moment she had longed for: winning her first WTA title.
And she had to do it the hard way. Khromacheva, a southpaw from Moscow, employed a tactic that was seemingly getting the better of the 25-year-old Thai. At every opportunity, the Russian would moon-ball her returns – lob back her shots to take away the pace Kumkhum thrived in. The strategy worked in the first set against 5’6 Thai player. Kumkhum found some rhythm and started striking the ball early in the second set to pressurise her opponent. But once the world No.103 got the hang of the Russian’s tactics, she started dictating play. After losing the first set 6-1, she raced to a 4-0 lead in the second, pushing her opponent across the width of the court with her rare two-handed forehand. And then she did the same in the third, just as Khromacheva started to deteriorate. The Russian seemed drained, and could barely move between points at times.
“To be honest, she does this quite often,” says Kumkhum. “I’ve played her a few times in when we were juniors. She tries to mix things up because she hits slowly and then hits flat. So it’s difficult to figure out if she’s actually tired or not.”
Kumkhum’s first ever title will potentially take her up to a new career high, 80, when the world rankings are updated on Monday. “That was what I wanted to do,” she says. “Get back into the top 100.”
It’s another breakthrough on court for Thailand’s No.1 player, as everyday she fights a battle off it. As one of the few openly gay active players in the tennis circuit, Kumkhum is challenging conservative attitudes in a country that still hasn’t legalised same-sex marriages. “In Thailand, now they’re a bit more open, but not like Taiwan where you can marry and all,” she had told The Indian Express on Friday. “They’ve started to accept it a bit more, but there is still the old thinking.”
She found solace in her family’s support for her, and in tennis, a game her father taught her back when she was just three.
Now in Mumbai, she had to battle many odds to even get to the final. In her opening match she came from a set-down to beat India’s Pranjala Yadlapalli. She had to overcome another first set deficit against top seed Saisai Zheng of China in the quarterfinals, just as she had to do in the final against Khromacheva.
She credits her rise this year – which saw her beat former top 10 player Belinda Bencic at the Australian Open – to a better fitness regimen. “I’ve had to get much fitter because I play two-handed forehands,” she explains. “My reach is limited because of it, so I have to work on my footwork and endurance to make sure I can run that bit extra to get the shots.”
She had the legs on the night to patiently retrieve the unexpected flat strokes Khromacheva would hit after a series of lobs. The Russian meanwhile, had started to tire as Kumkhum would retrieve and counter-punch at will. Last year at the same event, a certain Aryna Sabalenka used the title to propel herself to the current World No.12. Kumkhum hopes to do the same. For now though, she’s enjoying the moment. So is her coach. “He’s very happy,” she says, smiling. “He’s going to get a big bonus.”