NEW YORK, NY, USA - Paula Badosa doesn't remember much about Manhattan. Born just a borough away from the US Open, the 21-year-old nonetheless feels a deep connection to the home of the season’s final major tournament, where she’s set to make a long-awaited main draw debut.

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“With the energy of the tournament and the city, it’s like you’re awake all day,” she told me as the wind kicked up about the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. “New York has a special place in my heart, and I told my coach that I’ll even come here for my holidays.”

The holiday almost didn’t happen for Badosa, who made her Top 100 debut weeks shy of the main draw cut-off. Seeded No.2 at the US Open Qualifying Tournament, she fell in the final round to Magdalena Frech and spent Friday evening refreshing the nearly-finalized main draw, hoping to get in as a lucky loser.

“I was in my hotel room, looking at the draw, and wondering, ‘Am I getting in?’ The whole time, I was so nervous, until I finally saw my name, and I was very excited.

“When I lost, I was pretty sad because I love this tournament, but I was trying to mostly forget that match and instead focus on the next ones because I knew there was a high percentage of me getting into the draw.”

The draw dealt her a rematch of the Palermo Ladies Open semifinal, where she lost a close second set to Mutua Madrid Open champion and former World No.4, Kiki Bertens, who has won just one match since and made the third round at the US Open for the first time just last year.

“She hits the ball very strong. When I played against her, I might have wanted to finish points too quickly. This time, I’ll need to be more relaxed, and play more points against her.”

"I had zero desire to do anything, personally or professionally. You lose the will to do a lot of things, and I especially lost the will to play tennis. I didn’t enjoy anything when I went to play. It was the opposite: I felt pressure, obligation, and all these fears that I didn’t even want to step on a tennis court, I didn’t want to compete."

- Paula Badosa

Badosa’s words are less strategy and more mantra. The 2015 Roland Garros junior champion hits a big ball of her own – off both sides – and has slowly found her stride after early expectations rushed her into the grind of a senior career sooner than she was ready.

“I had a lot of frustration,” said the Spaniard, thinking of colleagues like Jelena Ostapenko, Daria Kasatkina, and Marketa Vondrousova, all of whom have gone on to reach major finals or crack the Top 10. “I saw that I wasn’t making the results that everyone was expecting, and that was very difficult for me.”

Born to parents who both worked in New York City as models, Badosa was quickly tagged as a total package, an undeniably loaded descriptor for a player seen as able to combine on-court success with off-court endorsements and attention.

“Some people would say I was going to be the next Maria Sharapova, and others, that I should be the next Garbiñe Muguruza.

“In Spain, I remember being a junior and everyone expected me to be Top 10 by the next year. I felt so much stress and anxiety, like I had to win every match I played. It was very complicated for me.”

The complications led to injuries and, more alarmingly, issues with anxiety and depression, issues she shared in a revealing video earlier this summer:

“There was one moment when I felt this big shock, this realization that I could become a professional, I could achieve my dreams, but it came with this fear that I couldn’t explain. I didn’t know what was happening to me or why it came over me, but for two months I struggled to compete. I was going through a hard time off of the court, and on the court it was really, really bad.”

Last season proved toughest for Badosa, ultimately turning things around under Xavi Budo, longtime coach to former World No.6 and countrywoman Carla Suárez Navarro.

“He was there for me 24 hours a day,” she said on Monday, her wide eyes thinking back to their earliest interactions. “Our initial conversations were only about how I wanted to be happy outside of the court. That was the first goal that we marked.

“Once I was happy off court, I played better in matches. That was the key for my change.”

Even with a new coach and more positive mindset, there was still no meteoric rise for the Spaniard, and instead, a steady transition from the ITF Pro Circuit – where she made three finals earlier in the season – to the game’s biggest stages, qualifying for both the Australian Open and Wimbledon and making her first WTA semifinal in Palermo, backing it up with an identical result at the WTA 125K in Karlsruhe a week later.

Open as ever, Badosa is proud to achieve success on her own terms, and happy to help others going through similar struggles.

“I think it was all too much expectations, and I wasn’t ready for it; I was only 17 years old. Some players are readier at 17, but I wasn’t ready in that moment. It was my first year as a pro, and everyone was just getting to know me. That wasn’t easy for me and I wasn’t ready to be Top 200, much less Top 10.

“I had to be very brave to say all that I did, and I’m pretty proud of myself that I could pass through all these moments, and now I’m very happy on court.”

That happiness starts with an arms' length approach to social media, and a total abstention from reading her own press.

“In the beginning, I would read everything all day. I would feel so stressed, so I just want to stay out of this and be myself. Everyone has their own process and that’s what I’m focused on.”

Staying in Manhattan for the fortnight – and aiming to visit the Empire State Building - Badosa begins her days with a walk around the city, entranced by its vitality, and eager to make new memories in a place that fills her with the peace she fought so hard to find.

“At 7AM, it looks like it’s three in the afternoon! You see people walking everywhere, and it gives me fresh air.”


Italicized quotes translated by Stephanie Livaudais.