Tamara Zidansek, the World No 85 from Slovenia, is the surprise semi-finalist at the French Open after she upset 33rd-seeded Paula Badosa of Spain, 7-5 4-6 8-6, in a thrilling open contest that lasted 2 hours 26 minutes on Tuesday.
I have always liked my forehand. It's always been my favourite shot. It's developed first in consistency and not just power. It's not enough that you just play one winner now and then. You also have to be consistent and keep going for those winners. I knew that I can do a lot of damage with my forehand. I've just got to get into the right position. That's exactly what I managed to do. Tamara Zidansek
The 23-year old is a former 3-time junior national snowboarding champion, who switched sports due to ‘always feeling cold’ and was the outsider in the unexpected quarter-final line-up, but she held her nerve when it counted to win the marathon encounter.
“It feels overwhelming,” Zidansek said. “It’s hard to take it in like this, but I’m just trying to focus on my game, on myself.
“Speaking about [coping with] nerves, that’s exactly what I tried to do.
“Of course it was a great opportunity for both of us to get into the semi-finals, but I guess I managed to keep my composure a little bit better than her. It was a tough battle in the end.”
She battled back from a double break down in the first set to take it 7-5 and led 3-1 in the second, but was then broken in 3 straight service games as Badosa fought back to take the set 6-4 and level the contest.
“I chose tennis because I was really cold snowboarding,” she said. “Oh my god, I don’t like the cold weather at all. It was fun to do it at first, and then I saw an opportunity to make something out of this. So I just went for it, I guess.”
Zidansek did not freeze as the pressure mounted in the decider and, after saving 3 break points in the 13th game, she broke Badosa’s serve to close out the match, 8-6.
She will meet Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who won the second women’s quarter-final of the day that also went the distance with Russian defeating her doubles partner, 21st seed Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, 6-7 6-2 9-7.
Zidansek, who had never previously been beyond the second round at a Grand Slam, looked poised for a more comfortable victory when she led by a set and a break but Badosa fought back and led early in the decider.
The Spaniard was also playing in her first major quarter-final, but she had won more matches than any other woman on clay this season and came into Paris as a dark horse.
That pressure was evident for a set and a half, with Badosa struggling to play freely, while Zidansek handled the occasion superbly.
The 23-year-old reached the final of a clay-court tournament in Colombia in April so had some form behind her, but is certainly one of the more unexpected major semi-finalists of recent years.
Exquisite drop-shots and a heavy forehand that Zidansek can direct around the court at will enabled her to take 11 of the next 15 games to build a 7-5, 4-2 lead as a frustrated Badosa could only find her groove intermittently with her powerful groundstrokes, and was also hampered by 5 double-faults at this point.
From a set and 4-2 down, however, Badosa began to make her power count, and a run of 6 games in a row put her in the ascendancy as Zidansek’s skills faded, but the Slovenian recovered her form in the decider, and a forehand winner gave her victory on her second match point.
At 7-7 in the third set against 6th seed Bianca Andreescu in the first round of Roland Garros, Zidansek had slammed two forehand winners to save break points before closing out her maiden Top 10 win 6-7(1) 7-6(2) 9-7.
Four matches later, at 6-6 in the third set against Badosa in the quarters, Zidansek slammed another two forehand winners to save break points before reaching her first ever Grand Slam semi-final.
“Winning the first round was a big breakthrough for me. I got a lot of confidence from that,” Zidansek added.
“Before the tournament I was feeling really good. I was playing good, especially on clay.
“I would say that my mindset was stay focused, be aggressive. I knew that I can do a lot of damage with my forehand. I’ve just got to get into the right position. That’s exactly what I managed to do.”
Seven points from the biggest result of her career, Zidansek had faltered, lapsing into passivity when her rallies became tentative, central and error-strewn, and a heartened Badosa seized her lifeline, striking her forehand with renewed relish to snatch the second set, and ultimately rattle off 6 straight games for a 2-0 lead in the third.
Almost all of Zidansek’s shots had deserted her, but the first to come back was the drop-shot and she came up with 5 winners in the next 6 games alone to help claw her way back into the match.
At 6-6, the pair played one of the most captivating single games of the tournament when Zidansek, with her back to the wall, came from 15-40 down and found winners to save 3 break points, including 2 of her fiercest forehands of the day.
A smash sealed the hold after 5 deuces and, a game later, going big paid off again as Zidansek pummelled an inside-in forehand winner on her second match point.
“I have always liked my forehand,” said Zidansek afterwards. “It’s always been my favourite shot.
“It’s developed first in consistency and not just power. It’s not enough that you just play one winner now and then. You also have to be consistent and keep going for those winners.
“I knew that I can do a lot of damage with my forehand. I’ve just got to get into the right position. That’s exactly what I managed to do.”
After battling nerves and wild momentum shifts, Zidansek tallied 48 winners to Badosa’s 31 and kept her unforced errors to 39 compared to the Spaniard’s 47.
Badosa admitted she was unable to handle her nerves, saying: “It was a tough one. I think she played a good match. I didn’t feel myself in the whole match.
“I’m a little bit sad about that because I think I played maybe the worst match of the tournament and of the clay season, but sometimes it’s like that.
“I think I was very nervous. I couldn’t control the nerves during the entire match. But at least I fought until the last moment and I had my chances.
“It’s complicated the first time when you’re in a quarter-finals.
“When you want it so, so much, maybe sometimes it’s a little bit too much, and I was putting a little bit too much pressure on myself.
“If I have another opportunity like this, I will try to change.”
Zidansek, 23, arrived in Paris completely under the radar as the World No 85, to become the first singles player representing Slovenia to reach the last four in a major tournament, although due recognition must be given to her compatriot Mima Jausovec for winning the French Open in 1977 under the flag of the former Yugoslavia.
Playing on the clay courts of Roland Garros in 25C heat makes for very different surroundings to where Zidansek spent most of her childhood in Slovenske Konjice, a small town with a population of 5,000, and where she was inevitably drawn to the nearby ski slopes.
She won the national junior snowboarding title three times before the age of 12, when she decided to focus solely on tennis after taking up lessons at a summer camp.
“First I skied,” Zidansek said. “But we lived like 20 minutes away from a ski resort. It was just normal for us to go there every weekend.”
Snowboarding undoubtedly helped Zidansek’s balance on the court and she has developed a solid all-round game with a spin-heavy forehand that can earn her easy winners as well as the remarkable composure that has grown with every match in Paris.
Entry to the world’s top 50 is now guaranteed on Monday, which would be enough to secure her a spot at next month’s Olympics but, in another sign of the growing reluctance among tennis players to travel to Tokyo, Zidansek has already decided that she will not be participating.
“I have officially said that I will not be going to the Olympics this year,” Zidansek said. “That was before I even made the cut.
“With this whole Covid situation, it’s going to be a different Olympics. Not everyone gets to go to the Olympics, but there will be another chance in Paris in three years from now.”
Zidansek has made the most of her opportunities so far in this wide-open French Open women’s draw and the next hurdle is certainly not insurmountable when she takes on Pavlyuchenkova on Thursday for a place in the French Open final.