Podoroska's Cinderella story continues with Svitolina upset

Argentinian denies No.5 seed to become first qualifier in Open Era to reach Roland-Garros semi-final

Nadia Podoroska, Roland Garros 2020, quarter-final©Philippe Montigny / FFT
 - Dan Imhoff

Nadia Podoroska’s face lights up at the mere mention of a handful of her home city’s most famous sons.

Now the mention of her name in Rosario, Argentina, is eliciting that same jubilant reaction, following the 23-year-old qualifier’s shock upset of world No.5 Elina Svitolina in the Roland-Garros quarter-finals on Monday.

The birthplace of revolutionary Che Guevara and football greats Lionel Messi and Angel Di Maria, the country’s third-largest city had fresh cause for celebration.

“I don't want to wake up,” said Podoroska, who spoke on court of how honoured she was to bring some joy to those back home.

"I know there are many people in Argentina watching my game and following me. The support is a lot and I want to thank them because for me it is very, very important, because we are not having a good time in the country due to the pandemic."

Never could the 131st-ranked player have imagined she was about to embark on a journey to become the first qualifier in the Open Era to reach the semi-finals in Paris when she was drawn to play Magdalena Frech in the first round of qualifying almost three weeks ago.

Eight matches later she pulled off the improbable 6-2, 6-4 upset in her first match against a top-20 player on easily the biggest court she has ever competed on.

This was only her second Grand Slam main draw, having qualified for the US Open in 2016. A right wrist injury sidelined her for eight months from July 2017 and left her weighing up her future in the sport.

Her decision to persevere finally paid off.

"I worked a lot with my coach during my quarantine to improve in various aspects of the game and I understand that thanks to all that work I was able to get here," she said.

“I trained a lot in my shots, my forehand, backhand, the serve. But what I improve most, I think it was my mentality.”

Before Roland-Garros, Podoroska’s career earnings were $301,547. She is assured of $425,250 after she became the first qualifier since Alexandra Stevenson at Wimbledon 21 years ago to book a place in the semi-finals of a Grand Slam and just the third to do so at any major.

Nine qualifiers in the Open Era had fallen in a Roland-Garros quarter-final hurdle before her. None have reached a Grand Slam final.

“Fortunately I [feel] completely fresh,” Podoroska said. “I don't have any pain or any problem in my body. The week before Roland Garros, I also won a tournament. I played five more matches in a row. Fortunately I'm good.

“During all this year I've been playing so, so good. I have a lot of confidence. I think it was good to have too many matches in this year. It's helping me a lot.”

That bounty of matches primarily at ITF level saw her rack up a 43-6 record in a season in which she started as the world No.255. Not only would she crack the top 100 for the first time, but also now the top 50 after she became the first Argentine women’s Grand Slam semi-finalist since Paola Suarez in Paris 16 years ago.

Her country’s greatest women’s player, Gabriela Sabatini, Suarez and four-time NBA champion and Argentine Olympic basketball gold medalist Manu Ginobili were quick to offer their congratulations on Twitter.

“I have been in contact with Gaby. She's always supporting us, all the Argentinian sports,” Podoroska said. “She's a very nice person. I'm happy that she's always with us… I didn't check the social media or my phone yet. Paola sent me weeks before some message, too. I think I have a lot of support from Argentina.”

For the No.3 seed Svitolina, it was on paper at least, her best chance yet to add a first Grand Slam trophy to her 15 tour titles. She was the only top-10 player and the sole seed left in the top half after Simona Halep’s and Kiki Berten’s fourth-round departures.

“It was a tough match for me today. Lots of things were not going my way,” the Ukrainian said. “I wish I could handle the match a little bit different.

“But to be fair, she really played a great match. With the conditions, it was not easy for me to change something. In the end here and there I was not 100 per cent mentally on it today, and that was really disappointing.”

Podoroska’s coach, former Argentinian player Juan Pablo Guzman, was in disbelief at his charge’s unlikely run, though not for lack of dedication.

He said she continued to work hard on her fitness for two months during lockdown back in Rosario and was in no doubt at how much her breakthrough would resonate back home.

“It was an amazing journey here,” he said. “Once she entered into the main draw, she was expecting, like, to do a good job there, but not this, expecting to do a semi-finals. It's really unbelievable… I think they [in Argentina] take it as it is, like a semi-finals in a major, Grand Slam. Everybody there, the family, all the people there, it's crazy with the results.”