Nao Hibino and Oksana Kalashnikova would make an odd pair in any room, but standing next to each other amidst a throng of fans at the L&T Mumbai Open, they stick out like a sore thumb.
The brusque Georgian stands by silently, with as much discretion as her towering frame allows, letting her Japanese counterpart do all the talking for her. Hibino obliges, unwilling to let her faltering English stop her, as she speaks to a group of young children armed with autograph books, smiling and handing out high-fives with abandon.
The differences between the two are not difficult to spot, and they even extend to their style of play on the court, but according to the pair, these variations sync up perfectly, a fact that was first noticed by Kalashnikova. "I don't really remember now, but I think I asked her first," Kalashnikova tells Firstpost when asked on how their partnership began, before stealing a quick glance at Hibino, who nodded fiercely in confirmation.
"Neither of us had a steady partner, so we decided to play together, you know. She plays really well at the nets, and I like to play on the baseline. I hit the groundstrokes and she finishes it off at the nets, so yeah, we fit well," says Hibino, agreeing with her doubles partner.
Unfortunately for the second-seeded pair, their winning formula was not enough to get the better of Olga Danilovic and Danka Kovinic in the L&T Mumbai Open, a WTA $125K event, on Friday. Hibino and Kalashnikova suffered a straight sets defeat to the Serbian-Montenegrin pair, losing 6-2, 6-1. Danilovic-Kovinic, who have only been playing together for a short while, came out the blocks swinging, and their intensity ultimately proved to be too much to handle for Hibino and Kalashnikova.
While the pair is yet to win a major doubles title together, they have enjoyed a moderate amount of success since they began playing together. An excellent run in the Taiwan Open included a win against Timea Babos and Chan Hao-ching, who were the highest seeded doubles partnership in the event. Hibino and Kalashnikova managed to reach the final of the event, where they were beaten 7-6, 7-6 in a tough contest against the Chinese pairing of Wang Yafan and Duan Yingying.
This impressive performance was followed up by a great campaign in 2018 US Open, where the duo defeated ninth-seeded pair Johana Larsson and Kiki Bertens, but they ultimately came up short against the partnership of Dalila Jakupovic and Irina Khromacheva in the round of 16. Hibino and Kalashnikova have also reached the final of the 2017 Tashkent Open, while also managing to reach the semi-final rounds of the 2017 Korea Open and the 2018 Tashkent Open.
This success has come about as a result of their unique styles of play, which complement each other in a manner that allows them to unsettle opponents and play to their respective strengths. Kalashnikova was quick to lavish praise on her partner, saying, "I mean, on a good day, I have a very powerful shot, which pairs well with her ability to volley. She also helps me out a lot at the nets, so it's a balanced partnership."
"And of course, the fact that I'm left-handed and she's right-handed gives us two different types of spin to play with, which helps a lot," adds Kalashnikova.
A string of unforced errors and breakdowns in communication were a factor as Friday's match slipped further out of reach for the pair, but by their own account, they've gotten much better at communicating with each other in recent times, despite speaking different languages. "Her English was not very good when we began, and that was a bit of a problem. But she's gotten much better after spending some time with me," said Kalashnikova. Hibino was quick to interject, claiming, "my English is very good now," before adding, "but maybe I can improve a little more."
Kalashnikova also spoke of the bond between the two, stating that she enjoyed playing beside Hibino and that the two planned to continue working together in the future, despite the language barrier and the fact that the two players are from separate continents. "We are focused on playing at the Shenzhen Open and in Taipei, and we'll keep working towards that. Luckily for us, we're always travelling together, on the WTA tour, so it's not a problem for us to practice together. We make a good team, and on the court, we understand each other well. You don't need language to play tennis," concludes Kalashnikova.