Giant strides: From RG2020 qualifying to new heights

 - Dan Imhoff

Karatsev, Podoroska, Korda and Tauson were part of last year's qualifying and have all made big inroads since

Aslan Karatsev, Roland-Garros 2020, qualifying second round.©Julien Crosnier / FFT

Bigger results were just around the corner for a select group of four at Roland-Garros last year, even if they did not all make it through their respective qualifying draws.

Here's a look at some players who have made a huge leap since their qualifying campaigns on Parisian clay last autumn.

Aslan Karatsev (RUS)

A straight-sets defeat to rising teen Sebastian Korda out on Court 7 in the final round of qualifying at Roland-Garros last year came as a considerable disappointment for Russian seventh seed Aslan Karatsev. Desperate to make his main draw debut at a major, for the third time he had fallen at the final hurdle.

Then came Melbourne to begin 2021. As the Russians’ so-called “secret weapon”, Karatsev played a supporting role in helping Russia claim the ATP Cup.

A fortnight later he had contested his first main draw of a major and became the first qualifier since Vladimir Voltchkov at Wimbledon 2000 to reach a Grand Slam semi-final before defending champion Novak Djokovic had his number.

It was a stretch that included a top-10 win over Diego Schwartzman, victory from two sets down against Felix Auger-Aliassime and a quarter-final triumph over Grigor Dimitrov. Proof it was no flash in the pan, the late-blooming 27-year-old cracked the top 30 with his first tour title in Dubai.

Success has followed, too, on clay. Revenge over world No.1 Djokovic came in the Belgrade semi-finals, while he again downed Schwartzman in Madrid, and Daniil Medvedev in Rome.

Karatsev, Medvedev, Rublev©Tennis Australia / Fiona Hamilton

“It’s not just happening right now, there is work that was done before,” the world No.25 said after beating Djokovic. “I had some injuries before and some troubles, and now we’re doing a good job with my coach. It’s been two and a half years and it’s just paying off in 2021.”

In the span of eight months, Karatsev went from not making it through Roland-Garros qualifying to being seeded at this year's Grand Slam in the French capital. He has amassed five top-10 victories along the way and will likely cause some serious damage this upcoming fortnight.

Nadia Podoroska (ARG)

One of the standout underdog stories from Roland-Garros 2020 came via unheralded Argentine qualifier Nadia Podoroska. The 23-year-old world No.131 had contested a sole major back in 2016 at Flushing Meadows.

Four years later, she qualified for her Paris main draw debut without the loss of a set. Podoroska had never beaten a top 50 player or won consecutive tour-level matches but brought down seeds Yulia Putintseva and No.3 Elina Svitolina en route to her first major semi-final. It took eventual champion Iga Swiatek to end her stay.

Podoroska started 2021 in form with victory over fourth seed Petra Kvitova at the Yarra Valley Classic in Melbourne and earlier this month, in her return to clay, she saw off Serena Williams in the second round in Rome for her third top-10 victory in eight months.

“Since Roland-Garros, I think for sure it's the best tennis that I play on clay, no? It's also my first tournament [on clay] after that,” the world No.44 said after beating Williams. “I played a few weeks ago the Billie Jean [King Cup against Kazakhstan], but I wasn't comfortable playing on clay at that moment. So, I think it's the best tennis I play."

Sebastian Korda (USA)

Roland-Garros 2020 will always hold a place in Sebastian Korda’s heart as the site where he first announced himself. Blessed with athletic genes to boot – as the son of former professionals, one-time world No.2 and Grand Slam champion Petr Korda and former world No.26 Regina Rajchrtova – there was no guarantee the teenager would live up to his famous name.

After forging his way through qualifying without conceding a set, the then 19-year-old became the first qualifier since Alejandro Falla in 2011 to reach the fourth round in Paris last October. Despite falling to his idol, 13-time Roland-Garros champion Rafael Nadal, it set the wheels in motion for his first Challenger title in Eckental, Germany, a maiden tour-level final at Delray Beach to open 2021, before his second Challenger title in Quimper.

On home soil, Korda impressed with a run to his first Masters 1000 quarter-final in Miami where he claimed his first top-20 triumph over Fabio Fognini and first top-10 victory over Schwartzman.

“My parents are super big on just baby steps,” Korda said during his Miami run. “Any win is a good win. I'll always put my head down and keep working, and hopefully one day I could achieve something that my dad achieved.”

Clara Tauson (DEN)

The 18-year-old Dane already had a soft spot for France following her qualifying run and first main-draw win at a major in Paris last year. The former junior No.1 sprung a remarkable upset of No.21 seed Jennifer Brady, saving two match points to prevail 9-7 in the third set of a two-hour, 45-minute opening round tussle in her Roland-Garros debut.

After she won through qualifying and went on to claim her first tour title in Lyon in March this year, Tauson’s love of all things French only grew.

With Coco Gauff the only woman younger among the top 100, the world No.90 returns to Paris hoping to emulate the feats of her Grand Slam-winning compatriot and idol, the now retired Caroline Wozniacki.

“Denmark is such a small tennis country, and of course she was my biggest role model growing up,” Tauson said at Roland-Garros last year. “She made it out, and that made me think I could make it out also on the tour.”

Clara Tauson, Roland Garros 2020, first round© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT