Turkish Delight In Paris
Published May 25, 2016 12:14
PARIS, France - Cagla Buyukakcay and Ipek Soylu made tennis history earlier this week, when they became the first two Turkish women in the Open Era to qualify for the singles main draw at a Slam. Both women accomplished the feat via qualies, with No.83 Buyukakcay, 26, becoming the first woman through and 2014 US Open girls doubles champion Soylu following suit hours later.
The celebration did not end there. With a 5-7, 7-6(2), 6-2 win over Aliaksandra Sasnovich, Buyukakcay followed up her qualies run to become the first Turkish woman to win a main draw match at a major. This success, not just for Buyukakcay but also for Turkish tennis, has been a long-time in the making.
"I was working so hard for so many years," Buyukakcay told WTA Insider. "I was playing qualies for over five years actually."
Back home in Turkey, Ipek Senoglu is beaming. The retired Turkish trailblazer was the first woman from her country to play qualifying at a Slam and was the first to play in the main draw of a Slam in doubles.
"It's weird because I'm having these emotions right now that no one else in Turkey has," Senoglu told WTA Insider via phone from Istanbul. "Because I had worked so hard to open the roads, to open this dream, and it would be like a waste of my career if someone didn't take the flag and didn't carry it further. And now they have actually over-passed my success. I mean, it's a different level now; it's in singles. So I'm really proud!"
Turkey has long been fertile ground for WTA tournaments. The TEB BNP Paribas Istanbul Cup has been a staple on the tour since 2005, and the WTA Finals had a fantastic run of three consecutive years in Istanbul from 2011-2013.
But its players had yet to make a major impact a the upper echelons of the game. Buyukakcay, who played Fed Cup with Senoglu for years, seems to have picked up the torch. Last month she became the first Turkish woman to win a WTA singles title - on home soil nonetheless - at the Istanbul Cup. That win moved her into the Top 100 for the first time and guaranteed her a main draw slot at Wimbledon. Now with a junior Slam champion behind her, the legacy of Turkish tennis is coming together.
Both Senoglu and Buyukakcay cite the constant presence of top WTA events in Istanbul as a major inspiration. It brought the heady dreams of becoming a top-level professional back down to earth, something that was actually attainable.
"The [WTA Finals] allowed both Cagla, Ipek and anyone who is playing in the women's tour to understand that these players are human. They have two arms, two legs - nothing they can't have.
"I was always trying to say: 'Hey, you can do it. Look, I made it in doubles because I didn't have many options. I didn't have many chances to do this, I didn't have a coach for many of my career years, I didn't have a sponsor for most of that time, but for me to do this it was a dream. So I was able to reach my dreams, to be the first woman to play all the Grand Slams from Turkey."
"But it's one thing to hear it and something else to see them live. Because when you see them live, they are hitting the same ball, they're on the same court, same shoes - same thing, you know? It's just about working hard, it's just about doing it for a long time, working hard each day. And they saw that through the [WTA Finals]. I think it was a wonderful super step for them.
"And that's great because not only they have seen it, our media has seen it, our parents have seen it, that they both can do it. It's wonderful. I think we are getting the fruit of those [WTA Finals] right now. I think it was very very crucial."
Buyukakcay agreed. "We didn't have any examples in the Top 100," she said. "Maybe the idea was too big in our minds before. Ipek had the tougher time than me because she's older than me. When I saw [the top players in Turkey] I realized that we can do that, that we have the inspiration inside."
Senoglu paved her way on tour by going to the United States for college, where she played collegiate tennis at Pepperdine University. Buyukakcay chose to develop her career in Turkey, in hopes of sending a message to future generations. In conversation it's clear how much Buyukakcay wants to inspire more young Turkish women to pick up a racquet and play with ambition.
"I told myself, 'No, I want to stay, I want to improve my tennis in Turkey,'" Cagla Buyukakcay said. "I will try my best. I didn't have an idol in front of me. It was tough. I didn't know how to be a professional. This was my motivation, but the idea came from my love of tennis.
"I grew up in Turkey, I work with the Turkish coaches. If you really want to improve yourself, I want to prove that we can do that. We are also humans. I have that faith inside. For the younger generation, it's important for me that they will be believe for themselves that they can work without any excuses, because if you need excuses we can find a lot of things.
"I am 100% sure I will help the younger generation because when I started as a professional no one qualified for the Grand Slams. It was too big in our minds. If I play in the second round here I'm sure the younger ones will say, 'Yes, Cagla did it. We can do it.' I think it's important to have some people from our culture, from our blood, to do it.
"My footballer friend Arda Turan, he's playing for Barcelona now. This was a dream for us to have a Turkish footballer playing for Barcelona. He made it. He inspired me. He's a big star in Turkey now. I'm telling myself also now if I work hard if I still want to stay in the positive side and be passionate to improve myself, there's no reason not to do it."
For Buyukakcay, winning the Istanbul Cup, breaking into the Top 100, playing in the main draw at a Slam: the last few weeks have been a whirlwind of emotions. But she's careful to remind the public that it will not always be like this. Anyone familiar with tennis knows the ups and downs can give you whiplash and Buyukakcay wants Turkish fans to be in it for the long haul, not just because the emotions are high right now.
"Maybe it's because it's our culture and we get excited so quickly, we want the success too soon," Buyukakcay said. "I'm doing good but it doesn't mean I will do good all the time. This idea for them is tough. It's new. This way we will give them knowledge about sport and how it is. Football is very popular of course, they know everything about football. But individual sports, they are starting to learn. But there is no reason our people will not succeed."
Cagla Buyukakcay's Parisian romp ended on Wednesday in a 6-3, 4-6, 6-1 loss to No.24 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the second round. Next month she will hit another milestone, as the first Turkish woman to earn direct entry into a Slam and the first Turkish woman to play a main draw singles match at Wimbledon.
In the meantime, she will be waiting anxiously by her phone to hear if she will be the first Turkish woman to represent her country in tennis at the Olympics. Her ranking is unlikely to earn her direct entry but the ITF could grant her a special entry spot usually reserved for players from underrepresented regions around the world.
"Turkish people are fanatics," Senoglu said, laughing. "That's why right now, when Cagla won the Istanbul Cup in Turkey she became from a regular player only tennis fans know, to a celebrity in one night. That's wonderful for Turkish tennis, that's wonderful for Turkish athletes and wonderful for Turkish supporters in general. Now, not only Turkish tennis fans know Cagla, now regular people in Turkey know her as well. And what that's going to increase sponsorship, that's going to increase tournaments, it's going to increase everything in Turkish tennis. That's wonderful.
"I hope Cagla will make it to Olympics, because that's the next step. And I think at this point she does deserve it. Whether it will be as direct acceptance or as a wildcard, I don't care, but I do think it will be a wonderful thing for this region if she can make it to Olympics."
Photos courtesy of Getty Images.