NEW YORK, NY, USA - Georgia’s Mariam Bolkvadze needed a tour in order to find her way around the US Open grounds on her first of qualifying. Now, she's headed straight for Arthur Ashe Stadium.
The 21-year-old lefty hadn’t even won a WTA-level match in her career - let alone one at the Grand Slam level - but a series of spectacular wins has catapulted her through qualies and into a second round clash with No.3 seed Karolina Pliskova.
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Speaking after a rollercoaster three-setter against Bernarda Pera in the first round - the highest-ranked opponent she’d ever faced - Bolkvadze cut a laidback figure as she grinned her way through her post-match press, unfazed by the fact that she’s in New York City completely alone without her team or her family to support her.
I’m all by myself!” Bolkvadze laughed. “I mean, my friends who are actually in New York, they’re coming to support me whenever they can. Gathering up the Georgian squad, literally.
“My coach was going to come, but plans changed last minute so he couldn’t make it. Then I did think of flying him in once I made main draw, but we just said it’s working anyways, might as well just keep it this way. My mom wanted to come when she realized my coach wasn’t coming, she said, ‘Oh, you’re going to be all alone!’ and everything.
“But, I’m kind of used to being alone and I like being alone, so it doesn’t bother me.”
Indeed, Bolkvadze has learned to manage herself on her own since the age of 13, when she moved from her native Georgia to London in order to pursue her dream of playing tennis. Bunking with her godmother, Bolkvadze benefited from the more robust British tennis program.
“Tennis-wise, Georgia is good but obviously I would have much better facilities [in London], I would take care of myself much better, like the program was better overall,” Bolkvadze explained. “They have lots of players. When I was practicing in [Dukes Meadows in Chiswick] ages ago, it was really good.”
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Bolkvadze, who speaks with British lilt to her Georgian accent and continues to base herself in London, is a former Wimbledon girls' doubles finalist, and the first Georgian to compete in a Grand Slam main draw since Sofia Shapatava qualified for Roland Garros 2014.
The 21-year-old is in the midst of the best season of her career, and sitting at a new high ranking inside the WTA’s Top 200 for the first time. It’s a far cry from just a few years ago, when No.569-ranked Bolkvadze was still finding her feet after returning to tennis in March 2018 following a six-month layoff to treat a hip impingement injury. This year, her hard work has paid off in the form of her first three ITF W25 finals - lifting the trophy in the third of them in Obidos in April.
Seemingly from out of nowhere, Bolkvadze has emerged poised and ready for the big stage - and the moment is shaping up to be exactly what she worked and planned for.
“In previous years, I haven’t really been playing many tournaments,” Bolkvadze explained. “I was injured a lot. So this is honestly my first year that I’m actually playing a full schedule. In a way, I’m still kind of going through some injuries, but I’m just really enjoying being on court.
“For me, [this rise] doesn’t happen too fast because I was kind of… ok, this is going to sound really cocky, but it’s all part of the process.
“I was expecting… well, I wasn’t expecting all this, this tournament, but I was expecting to up my ranking this year a lot because I felt good mentally and physically. I felt good to go.”
Sequestered in her Queens hotel for two weeks and counting, Bolkvadze has been gearing up on her own for the biggest matches of her career and staying in constant contact with her coach back home. (Like any true millennial, Bolkvadze prefers to text: “I don’t like to talk with people on the phone, and he knows that.”)
She’s dutifully delayed all of her Manhattan sightseeing until after her tournament is done, and the excitement is audible in her voice when she speaks of taking on No.3 seed Pliskova on Arthur Ashe Stadium, the biggest court in all of tennis.
Read more: Pliskova powers through Martincova clash to kick off 2019 US Open campaign
“Mentally it’s actually… like, in my head I’ve kind of been through the whole thing already,” Bolkvadze attempts to explain. “You know, I’ve never been here before, but it just feels… once I win the matches it just feels normal. I don’t know if everyone feels like this, but… the only thing that doesn’t feel normal is how my Facebook and Instagram are just blowing up,” she jokes, laughing. “That’s a bit weird. But other than that, it’s just normal stuff.
“I try to treat it like a normal tournament, because it is a normal tournament, just with more people watching and a greater experience. I try to look at it as just one more match, and then we’ll see.
“I’m always trying to enjoy myself when I’m on court. Especially now, because no one many expectations on me, so I’m just trying to enjoy that while I can. I just don’t want to put too much pressure on myself while I can.”