In a surprising twist during her Wimbledon qualifying debut last month, Diana Shnaider, known for her signature blue-and-white polka-dotted scarf, made a bold choice: She went bareheaded. Unable to find a high-quality all-white scarf, she embraced the unconventional.
“I’m doing it all by myself,” Shnaider said. “I buy the material and send it to a woman to make the right size scarf for my head.”
The scarves were not originally intended as a fashion statement. Fair-haired Shnaider’s parents were worried she would burn playing in the sun, but their daughter didn’t adopt the usual tennis player headgear. Caps and visors prevented her from seeing the ball when she threw it, so they resorted to a scarf they found in a supermarket.
However, the path of a trailblazer is rarely easy. As a junior, Shnaider stood out and had his share of critics.
“Half the girls said they really loved it,” she said. “But the other half would tell me I don’t look good in it. There was actually a period where I didn’t wear it because I felt a lot of pressure from the girls saying I looked bad , and that I shouldn’t wear it..”
Shnaider, 19, has always prioritized being his own unique individual.
“I never thought about inspiration,” she said. “My parents always said you have to find your own style, just like you have to find your own tennis game. You can look for inspiration, but for yourself, it has to be your own.”
This is equally true of the look she has made her own, the unique brand of power tennis she has been making waves with this year. Anchored around a terrific left-handed forehand, Shnaider also hesitates when asked if she has patterned her game around another player.
“Left-handed hitting a big ball like I do? Very difficult to think about,” she said. “[Rafael] Nadal is left-handed, but it’s not the same style as I do on the court. I play a little more aggressively. [Carlos] Alcaraz plays very aggressively, but he is right-handed. [Petra] Kvitova is left-handed and powerful, but she hits more flatly.”
In any case, Shnaider’s results confirm the quality of her game. Before 2023, she had yet to compete for a tour-level main draw. This season she knocked off her first Top 20 player against Veronika Kudermetova in Charleston, and in each of her first two Grand Slams she pushed a Top 15 seed, first Maria Sakkari at the Australian Open and then Beatriz Haddad Maia at Roland Garros. This week at the Hungarian Grand Prix in Budapest, Shnaider knocked off No. 1 seed and defending champion Bernarda Pera 6-4, 7-5 in the first round.
Until Roland Garros, Shnaider was also in the unique position of a Top 100 player, juggling her transition to the main tour with college life. She had been accepted to NC State the previous year, and after her Australian breakthrough, she returned to complete her freshman season — a decision that caused some surprise in the tennis community.
Shnaider doesn’t deny that this made her life tough — earlier this year, she found herself doing schoolwork in the evenings, playing college games on the weekends and preparing for a professional tournament the following week. But she says her decision was made in light of the ongoing geopolitical situation as a Russian with no financial resources behind her.
“I didn’t have a coach and I still don’t have a coach,” she said. “I don’t have a training base where I could go and practice.”
The college route gave Shnaider both, as well as an educational element valued by her family (her mother is an English teacher and her father a law student who traveled with Shnaider as a junior and now accompanies her younger brother).
She also credits her NC State coaches for their good communication. At every step of her rise, and whenever she had questions (for example, about her eligibility for prize money), they were clear and direct.
“They knew I definitely wanted to be professional and had no problem with that,” she said. “But they said they could help me improve my game and my style. We said, let’s see a year. If I was going to be anywhere near the Top 100, they would let me play pro. If I sat stuck around 250 for a while, I would continue to practice with them until I was ready.
We talked about it all year. We were all surprised by my results [in Australia]and we agreed that I would finish the season and then turn pro in the summer.”
Shnaider also feels her time at NC State better prepared her for the professional tour, even though it limited her schedule for five months.
“I improved a lot in college,” she said. “I know how to play the difficult points under pressure, where you don’t think, you automatically know where to go. I learned how to play more aggressively, how to volley better, how to play a double match correctly and how you follow. my energy. I’m still working on a lot of things, but they gave me a lot of information that I will use in the future.”
Shnaider’s pro career got off to a flying start in May when she flew straight from the NCAA Championships in Florida to Roland Garros. She is settling into tour life now and has her sights set on finishing the year in the Top 50. The next task is to find a full-time coach.
“[I want someone] who wants to see my game and improve my pluses, but also turn my minuses into pluses,” Shnaider said. “And to find a connection mentally – that he likes me, how I am on the court and off the court, and that I trust on him. In tennis, it’s hard to trust people. For now, it’s just my parents and the coaches at NC State.”
One thing’s for sure: whatever Shnaider does next, she’ll do it all her own way.