Amid a leg-burning, lung-busting training session early in the clay season, Paula Badosa turned to her coach, Javier Marti, and asked him to promise the grind would be worth it.
Marti assured her it would. But Badosa had her reservations.
"I wanted to do a good clay-court season," she said after her fourth-round win at Roland Garros. "I was feeling good. I was working hard. I think my game suits quite good on clay. I was wanting it so, so much. I was working hard for it. It's coming."
That it is. Badosa is into her first Grand Slam quarterfinal, and Tuesday, she will take on Tamara Zidansek for a spot in the final four.
Badosa, 23, should have had every reason to believe she could find this level of success at Roland Garros, her favorite tournament and the one she won as a junior six years ago. But the Spaniard knows her way around the perils of pressure and expectations. That the former teenage prodigy made good on her expectations Sunday with a win over 2019 finalist Marketa Vondrousova, speaks volumes about just how far she has come.
"I think I return as a very different person," Badosa said before the tournament. "Because of a lot of experience, during a lot of years I struggled, I have memories. You just improve with all these experiences."
Born in New York to parents in the fashion industry, Badosa was 15 years old when she was anointed the next big thing. She became Spain's first junior girl's champion in more than 15 years at the 2015 French Open, her last at that level before she transitioned to the pros. There were comparisons to idol Maria Sharapova and then to Spain's first major champion since Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, Garbiñe Muguruza.
“In Spain, I remember being a junior and everyone expected me to be Top 10 by the next year," Badosa told wtatennis.com in 2019. "I felt so much stress and anxiety, like I had to win every match I played. It was very complicated for me.”
That transition proved difficult. It took her four years before she cracked the Top 100, in 2019. As her junior cohorts were winning Grand Slams, WTA titles and making Top 10 debuts, Badosa was toiling away on the ITF Circuit. The contrast between the expectations and reality weighed heavy on her mind.
"I had zero desire to do anything, personally or professionally," Badosa said. "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."
With time and space, Badosa slowly found her way. Her rise over the past nine months was triggered by a key coaching decision. Two weeks before Roland Garros last fall, Badosa began working with Marti, a former ATP player. Badosa has been quick to credit the 29-year-old coach with refining her work ethic, game and mentality.
"He believed in me more than me," Badosa said. "That's quite important sometimes to find that person who believes in you more than yourself. That's what he did.
"We started from zero in all aspects, mentally as well. Since I started with him we worked every day, no matter what, with very clear goals. That's my improvement this year."
It helps that Marti has lived through the trials and tribulations of being a teenage prodigy weighed down by "The Next Best Thing" comparisons.
"I think that Javi and I have gone through quite similar trajectories," Badosa told Spanish reporters after the fourth round. "At the time when we were young, they compared him with Rafa Nadal and me with Sharapova. Then at 17, 18, 19 years old, managing all that pressure and expectations is not easy when your head is not prepared to endure certain expectations. So I think it will help me a lot to manage expectations because what is clear is that when I arrived here the first day there were expectations.
"We have managed that very well. He has helped me a lot and if I am managing it well now it is thanks to him, because he understands me 100%, and it is good that a person, my coach in this case has experienced something similar so that. He understands me better right now, [playing] with so much pressure."
Badosa fell into a seeded position, at No.33, at Roland Garros when Alison Riske's withdrawal from the draw, but anyone who has followed the tour from week-to-week would have circled her name regardless. Back on her favorite surface, Badosa came into Paris with the highest clay winning percentage on tour, at 86.7% (13-2). Her four wins and Paris brings that tally to 89.4%.
Badosa had been building a steady head of steam all season. She took her momentum from 2020 Roland Garros, where she notched just her second and third Top 50 wins, over Sloane Stephens and Jelena Ostapenko, to make her first Slam Round of 16. Badosa then went on a string of notable semifinal runs.
- In Lyon, her first of the season.
- In Charleston, her first at the WTA 500 level, with a first win against a Top 20 player (Belinda Bencic) and first over a reigning No.1 (Ashleigh Barty).
- In Madrid, her first at the WTA 1000 level.
And to add one more career milestone to the list, in Belgrade, where she captured her first WTA title.
As a result, Badosa rose from No.71 at the start of the clay season to No.35 ahead of the French Open. The key has been to focus on the task immediately in front of her. No more pondering what has the potential to happen. That's an empty endeavor.
"Sometimes when you have a lot of expectations, your head goes like two matches ahead," Badosa said. "Sometimes unconsciously it goes like that.
"I think the good job I did with Javi is day by day, even the days I wasn't playing, day off, I was focused on that day, being better that day. That's what a little bit we're doing, not thinking about too much about the next match or what can happen [after] that."
Next up is Zidansek, one of her junior contemporaries. The two have not faced off since they met in the semifinals of the 2014 European Junior Championships. While Badosa may have been tapped as a standout talent, Zidansek is the first to tell you she is a late-bloomer.
"I have had some opportunities in the past, and my career has always been progressing slowly and slowly, like building a house," Zidansek said. "It was never like I was 16 years old and I just did one result.
"I have to work for everything, so I guess that kind of made a solid ground for me being able to not have that letdown."
Not that teenage sporting success was elusive for Zidansek. She was a three-time junior snowboarding national champion, specializing in boardercross. She chose tennis simply because she was sick and tired of being cold all the time. Really.
"At the beginning we definitely set up a long-term plan for where we wanted to get," Zidansek said. "Right now we're getting there."
Zidansek has quietly enjoyed a strong clay season before the French Open, kicking it off with a run to the final in Bogota. In Madrid, she took No.1 Barty to three sets, and a week later she defeated Stephens in qualifying. The World No.84 paved her way to a breakout run in Paris by ousting No.6 seed Bianca Andreescu in the longest match of the tournament (3 hours, 20 minutes), edging the Canadian, 6-7, 7-6, 9-7 in the first round. She followed it up with wins over Parma semifinalist Katerina Siniakova and Istanbul champion Sorana Cirstea.
"I was going through a rough time, let's say, tennis-wise, last year," Zidansek said. "It was tough because I do need some sort of a consistency with matches, and I didn't get a chance to get that last year with Covid and everything. So this year has definitely been more helpful with that.
"With Australia, playing matches, getting the rhythm, and then when we switched to clay and went to Bogota, I really liked the conditions there actually with the altitude. So that was definitely a big confidence boost to go into the clay-court season."
After her third-round win over Siniakova, Zidansek was asked whether there was anyone left in the draw that she considered particularly formidable. The easygoing Slovenian smiled.