If you have never heard of a Russian tennis player called Maria Kirilenko, you have now.
Maria Kirilenko has, over the last 12 months, shown a lot of improvement as evidenced by her results at major tournaments and will next week make her top ten debut at the age of 26.
This comes on the back of a quarter-final appearance at the French Open where she pushed her friend, former doubles partner and World No. 3 Victoria Azarenka, to a first set tiebreak, before ultimately losing in straight sets.
Over the last 12 months, Kirilenko has achieved a lot.
She reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon last year, pushing eventual runner-up Agnieszka Radwanska to three sets, and later lost the Bronze Medal match to Azarenka at the 2012 London Olympics.
She also paired with another Russian, Nadia Petrova, to win the doubles title at the year-end championships.
And this year she has continued to make progress, winning her first title in over a year at Pattaya City and reaching the semi-finals at the prestigious Indian Wells event in March, knocking out Radwanska and former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova en route.
However, her runs at bigger events have ended at the hands of higher-class opponents, such as Serena Williams (twice, at the Australian Open and in Madrid) and Sara Errani (in Sydney and Rome, the latter coming on a retirement).
This is because Kirilenko was, at the time, ranked in between 13 and 16, which means that those players must draw one of the top four in the Round of 16 (the round which decides quarter-final places) at any tournament.
Runs to the third round in Madrid and Rome was enough for her to clinch the 12th seeding for the French Open, which she used to her advantage.
She would have drawn 2011 champion Li Na in the fourth round, but Bethanie Mattek-Sands upset her in the second round. Kirilenko then defeated the American, dubbed the ‘Lady Gaga’ of tennis, to reach the quarter-finals.
Being seeded 12th has its pros and cons. You can avoid the top four until the quarter-finals, but you would have to draw one of the bottom half of the top eight in the Round of 16.
By luck, one of those players could lose in the first or second round, and thus your path to the quarter-finals could get much easier than first thought.
As an example, consider the US Open last year. Marin Cilic and Ana Ivanovic were the 12th seeds in their respective fields, and thus they could avoid the top four until the quarter-finals.
Their projected fourth round opponents, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Caroline Wozniacki, both lost early, meaning they could potentially face very easy fourth round opponents.
Both ultimately went on to make their first Grand Slam quarter-finals in a while, and both fell to the respective eventual champions (Cilic to Andy Murray and Ivanovic to Serena Williams).
At the Grand Slam tournament before that, the Wimbledon championships, both players reached the fourth round but lost to Murray and Victoria Azarenka respectively.
That’s how unlucky being seeded between 13 and 16 can be.
Back to the main topic. Kirilenko’s run to the final eight in Paris represents her third Grand Slam quarter-final, after the aforementioned run to the Wimbledon quarter-finals last year and at the 2010 Australian Open, where she beat Maria Sharapova in the first round.
Her performance in the first set against Victoria Azarenka was encouraging, in particular being able to break the double Australian Open champion as the latter served for the first set at 6-5.
Though she ultimately lost in straight sets, her quarter-final run in Paris shows just how far she’s come over the last 12 months, and next week she will debut in the top ten for the first time.
However, she will be tested at Wimbledon, where she has to defend a quarter-final appearance. For the time being, though, let’s just hope her top ten joy isn’t short lived.
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