Fans and pundits alike expected a Polish player would compete in the semifinal of this year’s Australian Open – but possibly not an unseeded one.
Magda Linette – and not women’s world No. 1 Iga Światek – finds herself as Poland’s sole remaining representative in this year’s singles tournament and will take on Aryna Sabalenka in Thursday’s semifinal after ousting former World No. 1 Karolina Plísková 6-3 7-5.
Światek was the tournament favorite after reaching the semifinals last year and winning eight titles in 2022, including two grand slams, but was knocked out by 2022 Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina on Sunday.
Ranked 45th, with a career high of 33rd, the right-handed Linette had never progressed beyond the third round of a grand slam, but became the ninth-oldest woman in the Open Era to reach their first grand slam quarterfinal.
Having never before advanced past the round-of-32 in 29 major starts, she made her way to the match against Plísková by beating three seeded players – No. 16 Anett Kontaveit, No. 19 Ekaterina Alexandrova and No. 4 Caroline Garcia – in succession.
“I will never forget this … this will stay with me for life,” Linette, 30, said following her quarterfinal victory over Plísková on Wednesday.
“I’m quite calm, surprisingly, that helped me last time and I think that’s also a good way for the next one,” Linette later told journalists.
Linette credits her wins so far to staying calm and composed, even in the face of adversity or an aggressive opponent.
“I had so much experience on those big courts before because almost every grand slam I ended up on a big court, one way or another,” she explained.
“I played so many big players already – it’s nothing really new for me, it’s just another match,” added Linette, who is the daughter of a tennis coach.
Linette started playing tennis at age five and has represented Poland in the Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 Olympics. But it wasn’t until 2015 that she broke into the top 100.
She has seen success against big names, beating the top-seeded Ashleigh Barty at the French Open in 2021 and reaching the doubles semifinals alongside Bernarda Pera.
Though she eventually lost to Martina Trevisan, she knocked out No. 2 seed Ons Jabeur in the opening round of last year’s French Open.
“When I start beating players like Ash Barty and then Ons, that kind of gave me an extra kick that really showed me that I can really go far in those tournaments. I think it was more frustrating than I would wonder or worry about it. I think it was just more frustration why I can’t do it,” she said, according to the WTA.
Linette’s plans to compete in the 2021 Australian Open came to a tragic standstill after she noticed a knee injury just a day before her flight.
“It was honestly the most painful experience of my life,” Linette reflected on Wednesday. “I had meniscus surgery … but because it was kind of tricky where the injury was, nobody could really see what was happening.
“Literally, one day before my flight, the pain and the uncomfortable feeling that I had came back with some extra force,” Linette said, adding that she couldn’t even walk, let alone think of the tournament.
She added that ahead of the tournament, she “listened to everybody complaining about the isolation, and I was so jealous that they had to do it because I really wanted to be there.”
That injury would remain undiagnosed for 11 weeks and see her held out of action for five months. But two years on, she credits this adversity for her current composure.
“Why? Because I think it couldn’t be really worse, right? I honestly didn’t play for five months, was dropping my ranking and also was dropping points from pandemic times,” Linette said, adding at the time she was worried she would drop out of the top 100.
“In a way, I felt kind of okay with the fact that I may be done soon, and I think that gave me a little bit of space to build everything from the beginning.”
Her injury, coupled with “big changes” in her personal life, “definitely changed a lot for me,” she added.
“I became a little bit calmer. I changed a lot in my life and made some tough decisions, and I think I’m getting rewarded for it now.”
However, Linette’s poise in difficult moments hasn’t always been the case – she burst into tears during a challenging match in Tampico, Mexico, last October.
“In the first set, I was playing one girl, and she was giving me a lot of trouble. I completely broke in tears in the first set. My coaches were really surprised by that,” she said.
“I felt like I threw all that anger out of me. That was the last time when I really lost it. Since then, I really controlled it better.”
While Sabalenka has a 2-0 career record against the unseeded Pole, given her form this tournament, it would be no surprise to see Linette go one further in their semifinal and make a storybook qualification in Melbourne for one of tennis’ biggest prizes.