Podoroska hoping to repeat Paris dream

 - Danielle Rossingh

Last year's surprise Roland-Garros semi-finalist is keen to keep up her progress with another deep run at a major

Nadia Podoroska, Roland Garros 2021, practice© Julien Crosnier/FFT

When Nadia Podoroska arrived at Roland-Garros last September, few people outside of Argentina knew who she was.

Ranked No 131, the then-23-year-old had never won a match at a Grand Slam event, and her dreams of following in the footsteps of her famous countrywoman Gabriela Sabatini seemed a long way off.

But three straight wins in qualifying earned her a place in the main draw. Having beaten Greet Minnen of Belgium in the first round, Podoroska found herself up against the No.23 seed Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan, one of the toughest competitors on the tour.

It was then that Podoroska realised she could compete at the highest level.

“The whole two weeks, I think I played the best tennis of my life, so I have great, great memories, not just one,” she told rolandgarros.com.

“It was after the second round against Putinteseva, when I beat her. That was the moment that I thought, woah, I can play really good on clay.”

Nadia Podoroska, Roland Garros 2020, semi-final© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

'Nothing to lose'

A hard-fought three-set win over Putintseva gave Podoroska wings, and she went on to take out the experienced Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, who had beaten former major winners Venus Williams and Victoria Azarenka on her way to round three, before defeating Barbora Krejcikova to reach her first Grand Slam quarter-final.

Few people gave her any chance of success against Ukrainian Elina Svitolina, a three-time quarter-finalist in Paris. But armed with support from home, including messages from former US Open champion Sabatini herself, Podoroska proved them wrong again and crushed the No.3 seed in straight sets to make the semi-finals.

I was super focused during that match,” Podoroska said. “I think I had the (right) strategy to play great tennis. I knew that she has the whole pressure and I had nothing to lose. That's why I played my best tennis. One of my best memories for sure.”

Mastering the mind

Like many other players, including former US Open champion Bianca Andreescu, Podoroska uses visualisation techniques to prepare for the biggest moments in a match.

"I work with a mental coach - he also helped me to not think too much about where I'm playing,” she said.

“Sometimes I visualise some movements, like the shots that I want to improve, or maybe some situations.

"I can visualise myself winning the match or going through a specific situation. If I'm losing or if I'm thinking in a bad way, then I try to change that mindset.”

It took an inspired Iga Swiatek, who went on to clinch the title, to deny her a place in the final.

Still, Podoroska left Paris as the first women's qualifier ever to make the semi-finals at Roland-Garros. It’s an achievement she is proud of.

Iga played great tennis,” she said. “For sure if I play against her now, I will play a different way but she deserved that match.”

On a high

Six months on, she comes to Paris brimming with confidence, with a career-high ranking of No. 42 and some big wins under her belt, most notably over 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams in Rome earlier this month.

Podoroska was drawn against the 10th-seeded Belinda Bencic from Switzerland in the first round.  It’s another tough task, but she will no doubt be ready for the challenge.

“My first goal for this year is keep improving my game, keep competing at this level,” she said.

“It's all new for me. I think I have the level that I need to improve a lot of things so I just try to learn as much as I can. And for my career, I would like to win some tournaments, of course, on the WTA tour and, if I can, in Grand Slams. I have big dreams since I was a child.”

Staying positive

Attitude gets you a long way in tennis and Podoroska said she has tried to look on the bright side during the coronavirus pandemic, happy to simply be out on court, able to do her job, even if the tournament bubbles and restrictions have been tough.

“I really am used to that,” she said. “I understand that it's going to be like this this year, maybe the next one. But I try to think that we are lucky that we are competing and playing, the tournaments are doing a great job for us to keep playing. I think we are lucky and we have to do our best to keep working and playing.”

And did Sabatini – whom Podoroska met in person for the first time on her birthday in 2020 – offer her any tips?

“She said to ‘keep working hard, you have all you need to do that. So just keep working’.”