A week after Cagla Buyukakcay's former coach, Can Uner, passed away at the age of 47 after a three-year battle with brain cancer, the Turkish No.1 took to the court at the TEB BNP Paribas Tennis Championship Istanbul.

A portrait of Uner was spread out over the stands, but every time Buyukakcay turned to her team's corner, he was missing. The wildcard was able to play some superb tennis to edge a tight first set over No.5 seed Barbora Krejcikova, but eventually slipped to a 6-7(8), 6-2, 6-0 loss.

"Sometimes I could forget what happened and sometimes I was realising," said Buyukakcay in an interview this week. "With the picture there, I could feel like he was watching. But I looked at the corner and each time he was not there. I've been working with Albert Portas for two years, but whenever I'm in Turkey, Can was always on the bench with him."

Throughout the match, Buyukakcay, who won her first WTA title in Istanbul in 2016 with Uner by her side, used his memory as inspiration.

"Physically, I was not feeling good. I have not been able to eat. But the first 20 minutes, I was playing with the emotional part of myself. It was very on and off, but I knew he would want me to compete.

Krejcikova beats former champ Buyukakcay in Istanbul dropshot fest: Highlights

"He didn't have a easy life for the last three years, and sometimes he was feeling very bad. You could see what he was never telling you, you could see that he was fighting how he was feeling and doing what he wanted to do. If he wanted to go for a walk, he was pushing himself. He was an unbelievable example that even on a bad day he was fighting. 

"This is the first time in my life that I'm experiencing something like this. So I said, this is a tough and bad day for me, but I will fight for him."

2016 Istanbul champion Cagla Buyukakcay with the trophy.

Istanbul Cup

Buyukakcay started working with Uner in 2012, when she was 22, and says he was instrumental in taking her trailblazing career to the next level.

Ranked outside the Top 200 before he began coaching her, Buyukakcay ultimately became the first Turkish woman to capture a WTA title, break the Top 100 (hitting a high of World No.60 in September 2016) and win matches in Grand Slam main draws. She was also the first tennis player to represent Turkey at the Olympic Games, a milestone she reached at Rio 2016.

"I was a player that was very solid," says Buyukakcay of her game style. "I was a player with strong legs, forcing my opponents to do errors. But starting working with him, I had come to a moment that I felt like I cannot improve any more.

"The first thing he told me was that I have to be brave, I have to go for my shots. Of course, not to change my identity, but just being more aware of the aggressive game. He showed me videos of players with a similar game - Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber, at the time Kim Clijsters."

Uner, she says, also played an important role in helping her manage the psychological rollercoaster of a professional tennis career.

"I was mentally strong, but I was also a very emotional player. He was actually very emotional as well. So it was together that we learned how to manage our emotions. Not to be too excited and not to be too down.

"He was a person who was always learning from other coaches, from books and from other players. And he was a person who would do anything for his player."

- Cagla Buyukakcay on former coach Can Uner

"He had unbelievable energy. It gave me a lot of strength because we have to be so active. We play matches and sometimes we are losing, sometimes winning. We travelled for six years together and my emotional world could be up and down.

"But on a rainy day, on a sunny day, he was always there and always pushing me. And he was an unbelievably nice person - never negative. He was a person who was always learning from other coaches, from books and from other players. And he was a person who would do anything for his player."

When Buyukakcay thinks back to her dream run to the Istanbul title in 2016, she mostly remembers how unexpected it was. The No.118-ranked last direct entrant, she reached the final without dropping a set before overcoming Danka Kovinic 3-6, 6-2, 6-3, cheered on by an enthusiastic home crowd.

"It was the dream of Turkey, the dream of my childhood," she says. "The reason that I was stepping on the court every day. It was the first time I had won a round in my home tournament after nine years. Step by step I was improving my tennis - but also emotionally, I think we came together as a Turkish community.

"The support from our family, friends and also from the fans, it was unforgettable. It was an unbelievable memory for all of us. We did that together - I was very happy that he was the person next to me because he sacrificed so much for me."

Cagla Buyukakcay became the first Turkish woman to win a Grand Slam main draw match at Roland Garros 2016, where she defeated Aliaksandra Sasnovich 5-7, 7-6(2), 6-2.

Getty Images

Coming from a country with almost no history in women's tennis, Buyukakcay had already needed to overcome assumptions that she could not make it to the world stage. Her journey began as a child in Adana, a city on the country's southern coast, where her parents' social life centred around the local tennis club.

"Because we were going almost every day they said, OK, maybe the kids can start playing tennis here," recalls Buyukakcay. "So I was super lucky because I met with the sport and I fell in love completely. I was on the court all day - they were leaving me at the club at 9am and they were picking me up at 9pm. If I was not finding anyone to play with, I was playing with the wall.

"Sometimes I've asked my parents how they supported my journey. The only thing they say is, 'You wanted to play like crazy, you wanted to play tennis any time possible - so we couldn't stop you! We followed how you were.' This is not very usual in Turkey."

Something else that wasn't usual in Turkey was turning a childhood hobby into a top-level career.

"When I was younger, it was a very big mental block," says Buyukakcay. "People were thinking that Turkey cannot have any tennis players in the Top 100. This inspired me a lot and gave me strength to do good. When I got support, I had faith that I could change the destiny of Turkish tennis. We are talented. We are strong. If we really work, if we really commit, we can do anything we want. I'm very happy to be part of this journey and part of this history."

The unexpectedness of Buyukakcay's biggest successes taught her that she could exceed even this positive outlook.

"Actually, I never dreamed to win a WTA title," she says. "So I learned that goals are just numbers. Our dreams have no limits."

"Goals are just numbers. Our dreams have no limits."

- Cagla Buyukakcay on what she has learned from her successes.

Five years on from her home triumph, Buyukakcay feels that there is more support than ever before from the Turkish media and public. The government, too, gets behind Billie Jean King Cup players and potential Olympians. But the country's economic woes mean that there is still a dearth of private sponsors willing to provide financial support for up-and-coming players.

Buyukakcay is keenly aware that her success means that she is a role model, not just in Turkish sport, but in society.

"We need idols," she says. "Our population is very young - we have a big advantage in this. But they sometimes don't have opportunities to do sports or study in the best cities. If they see us do this, for sure it'll be different.

"The mental part is very important, I think. Maybe I'm playing tennis, but the mental part of myself is very similar to someone surviving in another job. I didn't have an easy life. I had to fight for some things, alone or with only a few people. I know some other women are also alone and have big challenges - I would like to show them that we are strong.

"So I think we're inspiring each other. If I am part of that inspiration, I would be the happiest person on earth."