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Breaking New Ground: Ipek Senoglu

Tennis is only now becoming a big sport in Turkey, and a lot of the credit goes to one of their own, Ipek Senoglu.

Published August 22, 2005 12:00

Breaking New Ground: Ipek Senoglu
Ipek Senoglu

"Tennis has not been a big sport until now in Turkey."

The Turkish are renowned for their successes in soccer and wrestling, and other sports are also popular, like basketball, volleyball and handball. With large investments from the government in recent years, organized sports in Turkey, particularly Olympic sports, have gone from upper class social pasttimes to activities for the masses. Although tennis is not at the forefront of this movement, it is certainly a sport that has recently seen noticeable growth. Much of this growth has coincided with this year's inaugural Istanbul Cup and the achievements of Turkey's top player, 26-year-old Ipek Senoglu, whose professional tennis career developed mainly when the sport was not as accessible as it is today.

Senoglu's earliest tennis memories were of venturing out to the courts at the age of four to play with family members, but her early years were mainly devoted to a different, more popular and well-funded sport. She played and excelled in basketball, making it all the way to the junior national team, but injuries prevented her at 14 from continuing, and she turned her attention back to tennis.

Despite the lack of any Turkish tennis role models, decent hitting partners and funding for a coach, Senoglu was determined to learn to play the sport as best she could, with dreams of one day playing professionally. Her talents became apparent quickly, as she soon became the under-14 Turkish tennis champion. She realized, however, that pursuing tennis further than the national junior level meant she would have to leave Turkey, as there was no support from her federation and no national junior development program or team.

"I started to play tennis seriously because it is something I always did," said Senoglu, who knew that she would have to seek opportunities outside of the country to pursue her dream. "I was going to be able to get a university scholarship with it in America."

After winning two ITF Women's Circuit doubles events in Turkey as a teenager, Senoglu was convinced that it was time to commit to the pursuit of a career in the sport. She accepted a tennis scholarship at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, where she received the coaching, hitting partners and funding she needed to take her tennis to the next level. Among other accomplishments, she was a 2000 and 2001 NCAA semifinalist in doubles, and after graduation she turned professional, an idea uncommon to the traditional Turkish school of thought.

"It was always a question in my mind if I could play tennis professionally, not even to play a Grand Slam, but just to play professionally," she said. "The idea was strange in itself."

In addition to continued success on the ITF Women's Circuit, Senoglu has realized many firsts on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour and at the Grand Slams, beginning at Wimbledon in 2004, where she became the first Turk to play at a Grand Slam event when she contested the doubles qualifying.

"It was really amazing for people to even understand me when I said I was going to play a Grand Slam. The idea was so far away, it was even far away from me until I saw all these girls at college in America, then I thought I could do it, but it's tough, because I never had the life of a tennis player."

Shortly afterwards at the US Open, she became the first Turk to play in the main draw at a Grand Slam event, reaching the third round with close friend Laura Granville before losing to top seeds and eventual champions Virginia Ruano Pascual and Paola Suárez.

"I don't think I quite realized what was going on until it was over. It was great playing at Wimbledon, but playing on center court at the US Open against Paola and Virginia, to have the Turkish flag there, that was something I could never imagine."

Senoglu has also played main draw doubles five times on the Tour, reaching the quarterfinals at three, and made her second Grand Slam doubles main draw appearance at the 2005 Australian Open, reaching the second round with partner Yulia Beygelzimer. When a new $200,000 event was confirmed earlier this year by the Tour in Istanbul, Senoglu knew that Turkish tennis had just taken a major step in the right direction.

"It was a dream come true for me," said Senoglu on her reaction to the tournament's announcement. "The sponsors are paying attention and the people are learning what tennis is."

In a spectacular pre-tournament event, top seed and former world No.1 Venus Williams made a grand entrance, having a hit with Senoglu on the Bosphorus Bridge. Two lanes of the 1.2-kilometre bridge, which spans the Bosphorus Strait and symbolically links Europe with Asia, were closed for an hour early on the Sunday morning to allow the two players to trade groundstrokes under clear and sunny skies. The court was laid out in white ribbon by a team of ballkids, as dozens of television crews and reporters captured every shot hit by the two women. Williams ended up going all the way in the clay court event, defeating rising Czech star Nicole Vaidisova, who was seeded No.2, in a much-anticipated final. Just weeks later, she won her third Wimbledon title.

Not only are Senoglu and the Istanbul Cup hoping to promote the sport in Turkey, they are also hoping to cultivate international interest in the country, beginning with the raising of awareness about the Turkish culture. Williams herself has commented on how Senoglu's responsibilities are very different from her own, in that she is not just playing tennis for herself, but for the betterment of the sport, children and women in her country.

"Travelling on Tour, people would ask me if we had cars in Turkey, or if I follow my men in Turkey, or if I have to wear long dresses when I play. I was really happy that at least the girls on Tour weren't going to ask me those questions anymore!"

Although the new Istanbul Cup and Senoglu's achievements are increasing awareness of tennis, things have not always been so positive for the sport in Turkey. Throughout her career, Senoglu has often received little or no support at all from her country. The financial sponsor which she has had for the last three years helps her with travel expenses but not much else, and she has never been able to afford a coach, a manager, or a hitting partner. In addition, she often struggles to obtain visas on time to travel to different countries.

"I guess it's my personality that's helped me. I'm quite adventurous, and I like to do things that have not been done before. I'm doing something for the first time for my country."

Until recently, tennis was also rarely covered on television and in the media to the same extent as it was in the rest of Europe and in other areas of the world, which was unfortunate for fans of the sport as well as for any potentially talented youngsters.

"It was only possible to watch tennis from Grand Slam to Grand Slam, and even that was probably from semifinals to finals."

Senoglu is optimistic that her own best tennis is still to come, confident she can achieve a Top 10 ranking in doubles. She's currently rehabilitating her right shoulder, which she injured at this year's Australian Open and which required surgery on May 29. Regardless, she hopes she is helping the next generation of Turkish players to have an easier time than she did in making it on the professional Tour, knowing how difficult it is to develop a career without anyone to look up to.

"I was offered to become American when I was playing in college, but I don't want kids to have no role model like when I grew up," said Senoglu, who chose to return to Turkey after her education. "Hopefully, I am being a role model for them. I think I'm making it easier for the kids to be where I am, but I think I still have a lot to do.

"I know how hard it is to take tennis seriously when you had no one in front of you who took it seriously before."

Senoglu connects with her fans through her official website, www.ipeksenoglu.com, in the hope she can help young players believe in themselves and follow their dreams like she did, except this time with somebody there to encourage them.

"I try to set aside time every day to talk to people myself, to tell kids they can make their dreams come true. Other days I meet with kids. I think we have a lot of work to do but it's only going to get better."

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