E.t is amazing what is currently going on in Slovenia. The country only has a little more than two million inhabitants, but it is still pressing on the map of the major sporting nations. So far, successful athletes have mostly been produced in winter sports.
The skier Tina Maze, for example, or the Prevc brothers Peter, Domen and Cene in ski jumping. But all of a sudden, Slovenia’s athletes are dominating in completely different areas. Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar and Vuelta winner Primož Roglič are among the best cycling cyclists in the world, NBA star Luka Doncic and Goran Dragic are among the best basketball players.
This week, suddenly, a Slovenian woman appears among the world’s best in tennis. Because at the French Open, Tamara Zidanšek is the first ever player from the Slavic country to be in the semifinals of a Grand Slam tournament. She will meet the Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova there this Thursday (3 p.m. at Eurosport). Nobody would have thought of either before the tournament.
“It feels overwhelming”
But surprises have been a tradition in women’s tennis for many years. Since Serena Williams no longer dominates as it used to be, underdogs have repeatedly mixed up the competitions. Zidanšek is a good example of this. While Pavlyuchenkova was at least in the quarter-finals of all four Grand Slam tournaments, the Slovenian had not even survived the second round to date. Now she is even playing for the title in Paris. “This is crazy,” was all she said on Wednesday. “It all feels overwhelming.”
After all, Zidanšek was once well on the way to continuing the great winter sports tradition of her nation. As a junior she was Slovenian snowboard champion three times. Because her talent in tennis was also noticed at the same time, the 23-year-old now faced a choice at some point. She decided on “white sport” instead of the white winter world. In the long run it was just too cold for her to snowboard, she said jokingly these days.
Tamara Zidanšek’s game is particularly varied. Stops, net attacks and good returns are part of their repertoire, as well as a noisy forehand. It is true that she does not call up all of this as consistently as an absolute top player. But at least often enough to win the game in the end. No player in the tournament has so far had so many winning strokes. Which is also due to the fact that in her first four matches at the Roland Garros she had to walk the full distance of three sets three times.
Because that was the second great strength that Zidanšek has shown in Paris so far: her great fighting spirit. The biggest surprise hit her in round one, when she defeated the world number seven Bianca Andreescu from Canada 6: 7, 7: 6, 9: 7. In round three she then recovered from a 6-0 win in the first round against the Czech Katerina Siniaková. And in the quarterfinals she won against the Spaniard Paula Badosa after a two and a half hour fight 8: 6 in the third set.
Tamara Zidanšek is still the most blatant underdog in the round of the last four. No less unexpected was Barbora Krejčíková’s participation in the semi-finals, who beat American teen star Cori “Coco” Gauff 7: 6, 6: 3 on Wednesday. However, the Czech has proven her class many times in doubles and has won two Grand Slam tournaments, among other things.
The Greek Maria Sakkari, who shortly after defeated last year’s winner Iga Świątek from Poland 6: 4, 6: 4, has already achieved good results on the professional tour. Zidanšek, on the other hand, has only been ranked 86th in the world so far. Accordingly, she cannot really explain her success herself. “Every day is a new chapter,” she said. “I just take one step at a time.” She should certainly find enough role models among her compatriots. “Slovenia is a small country,” said Zidanšek. “But we have a lot of good athletes.” So now in tennis too.