ISTANBUL, Turkey - There was something special about the crowds in Istanbul last year - it wasn't just all the energized Turkish fans, it's that one of those fans was Turkey's No.1 player. Humble, hardworking and historic, Cagla Buyukakcay watched on, hoping to one day reach those heights.
Born in Adana in the south of Turkey, Buyukakcay started playing a little late - at age eight.
"My parents just wanted me to do something in the summertime," Buyukakcay says of her beginnings. "There was one club and I played tennis there that summer. I did well, so they upgraded me to the performance team. I started playing three days a week, then five days a week, then more and more.
"It was never the plan back then to become a professional, because there was nothing like that in Turkey at the time. The plan was just to play tennis and have fun, to just do any sport really."
From there, though, a path less travelled started to emerge for Buyukakcay - little by little, she started taking steps that would eventually lead to a professional career. "I was winning against all the other kids all the time, so they were telling me I should start playing the national tournaments. I won under 12s, under 14s and under 18s, but I couldn't play any tournaments in Europe other than team competitions, because there was no sponsor for individual international competition back then.
"For a while I thought I could eventually go to college in the US on a scholarship, but when I was 15, I moved to Istanbul with my mom - my dad stayed in my hometown. They had better facilities there and better coaches, just more chances for me to improve. It was then I decided to try a pro career.
"It was a big decision - I was 16 and I didn't have a sponsor, so it was hard to travel. But when I was 17 a company in Istanbul asked the federation for a young player to sponsor, and they chose me. Once they came in I started to travel, I got a good coach, and good things started happening for me."
By the end of 2012, Buyukakcay had picked up five titles on the ITF Women's Circuit and cracked the Top 200 - and so far in 2013 she has broken the Top 150 too, currently at a career-high No.142.
"I feel like I haven't had any unbelievable years yet, but I think I played well by my standards in 2010. I won two $25,000 titles that year, which no Turkish player had done before, and I also played US Open qualifying, and no Turkish player had played Grand Slam qualifying in singles before either. Ipek Senoglu had done very, very well in doubles before, but no Turkish player had been to the Top 200 in singles, so I was really proud to do that, and I'm even happier to be ranked in the Top 150 now.
"It has always been my dream to play the main draw of a Grand Slam. I'm so excited about the Grand Slams, and I hope if I can do that, we'll see more juniors from Turkey eventually doing it too."
Buyukakcay - who recently won the Mediterranean Games, in both singles and doubles disciplines, has already broken some barriers - but what else is she hoping to achieve in her career?
"I changed to a new coach last March - his name is Can Uner. He had been coaching Marsel Ilhan. We're working very hard on a lot of things, including the mental part of my game - before my new coach, I didn't really have any guidance in this part of the sport, like body language, coping with stress and so on. This kind of practice helped me a lot to improve to a new level. But of course we're working on technical and tactical stuff too, and I'm also a bit skinny, so I'm trying to gain some weight!
"My closest goal is to play main draw at Grand Slams. And I hope to be Top 125 by the end of 2013."
And back to the beginning of this story, the WTA's crown jewel event, the TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships. Buyukakcay was in awe of one player in particular. "So many people were coming every day - the first day was about 10,000, and by the final we had 16,000 people coming. We didn't expect it. But of course, everyone wants to see the Top 8 players in the world - it's such a nice thing to see. It really brings a lot to Turkey and Istanbul. It brings a lot of attention for tennis in Turkey.
"I wasn't there for the final - I watched it on TV because the next day I had a tournament. But I was there for the semifinals and the other rounds. It was unbelievable. It was so great to see Serena Williams and Sharapova play. Serena's my favorite. At the beginning of the week I was so excited to see her live. I really like her game. She's just unbelievable - I could watch her play for hours.
"I was sure she would win the tournament. I knew she would win, 100%."