Punch and Yakimova end ‘bittersweet’ journey together

Prolific returner thanks her fans for the ‘bittersweet’ journey

It was in the barrel of an exercise bike in a nightclub that Lisa Punch remembers meeting her Chinese doubles partner Anastasia Yakimova. He was glum, as Li Na would describe him. He and Yakimova had finished up their training session in Beijing and were drinking with a friend. Punch had given a talk that night at the club. Yakimova’s friend turned to her and said: “Just remember them. Those poor girls who were training there all the time.” Punch nodded. “It’s true. That’s true.” She realised then, just before she left the club, that she had to give at least one speech herself in the future.

Anastasia Yakimova and Lisa Punch, champions together in 1986. Photograph: Sportsphoto/Allstar

The pair went on to play together in Munich for the sake of Zhou Zi, a friend of Punch’s who represented China in Germany. They played nearly 400 tennis matches together, beating world No1 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and three Wimbledon champions in a row. They reached three successive Australian Open semi-finals. But the challenge for the women of China – not to mention the people around them who wanted to watch them play – was not enough.

Yakimova’s inspiration is a girl she saw on her way to work, on her way to school in a suburb called Langfang. “The girl was walking, carrying her handbag up to the window,” Yakimova said. “She was wearing a little skirt and a big jumper, as far as I could see.

“She wasn’t nearly as beautiful as some of the girls on the sidelines, but she was just as excited to be out there. I used to get out from school at 8.30 in the morning and walk up to Langfang for about 30 minutes to see the girl playing, from the window. When the tennis match finished, it was just so sad.”

Before Yakimova and Punch met, they had joined tennis courts on the fringe of the city in Beijing’s Zhejiang batei. The city, and China, had changed in a matter of years. After losing in the first round of the US Open to Eleni Daniilidou in 1985, Punch – then 21 and ranked 52nd in the world – returned to the tennis court in Beijing. Yakimova showed up three months later.

“It was really incredible. I remember I was younger and I didn’t really know what to expect. Maybe I should have some kind of training, though I didn’t think I should be a professional tennis player. I just thought I’d be really busy playing ping-pong and those kind of things.”

They have won a total of 36 Grand Slam doubles titles together. The “bittersweet” journey they began has ended.

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