Guinness World Records celebrated one of Slovenia’s all-time greats last week at the WTA 250 Zavarovalnica Sava Portoroz, where Katarina Srebotnik was presented with an official certificate for the historic career start she made 23 years ago.
As a teenager, Srebotnik won the first singles, doubles and mixed doubles events she played in at the tour level. Her feat was a first in professional tennis, and to this day it has not been matched by another player, female or male.
“It feels surreal to receive such a tribute – I have to pinch myself,” she said before a ceremony on center court in Portoroz, where she was twice a singles finalist. “Winning those tournaments was just the beginning for me, but I feel like everything that I achieved in my career is being acknowledged, and that is just wonderful.
“To win a debut in singles is already a hard task, but to win all three disciplines on the first try – I could never set a goal like that in my wildest dreams. I honestly don’t know how I achieved it.”
Srebotnik’s run began in April 1998 when, at the age of 17, she won her first doubles appearance at Makarska, Croatia, partnering with countrywoman Tina Križan. The following year she turned pro and pocketed the Estoril Open singles title in Portugal, defeating Hungary’s Rita Kuti-Kis in the final.
Six weeks later, she completed a clean sweep of the formats at her first Grand Slam, where she won the mixed doubles with South Africa’s Piet Norval at the Roland Garros in Paris. She was just 18 years 83 days old – a difficult benchmark to beat.
Looking back, Srebotnik identifies an element of fate on her side.
“I started 1999 ranked something like 250, which meant I only played lower-level ITF tournaments,” she said. “But then I won a slightly bigger event in Dubai, as a qualifier – and as luck would have it, the winner was awarded a main draw wild card into Estoril. That’s how I got my chance to play a WTA event when my ranking was so low, and that’s when history had a chance to happen. After winning Estoril, I jumped into the Top 100 and I was on my way.”
Since Srebotnik’s victory at Estoril, more than 500 players have won singles titles. She became the fourth player in WTA history to win her debut in a singles tournament, and to this day, remains one of only six players to win a singles title in her first outing at the tour level.
Funnily enough, she wasn’t aware of the significance of her achievement until 2013, when a journalist suggested the WTA might get in touch with Guinness World Records.
“Can you imagine, I completed the trifecta in 1999, and I didn’t really know about it for 14 years,” she said. “But that just shows my attention was on my tennis, and I’m glad it was that way.”
Guinness World Records – originally the Guinness Book of Records – is widely known as the authority on record-breaking achievements. The organization started out more than 60 years ago as an idea for a book of facts to solve arguments in pubs and its mission remains the same – to document the incredible, and entertain and inform the world.
During her career, Srebotnik has won four WTA singles titles, 39 doubles titles and five Grand Slam mixed doubles titles. Her 39 doubles victories include 2011 Wimbledon, which she captured with Kveta Peschke – a treasured Slam win that sent the pair to No.1 on the doubles rankings for 10 weeks.
Before making the transition to doubles specialist in 2010 (she now owns 754 match wins in the team discipline) she also won 377 career matches in singles and rose as high as No.20 – posting wins over Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, Lindsay Davenport, Kim Clijsters, Amélie Mauresmo, Dinara Safina, Caroline Wozniacki and Serena Williams.
Not done yet on court, Srebonik, now 40, is rightly proud of her country’s ability to punch above its weight on the global stage and her own sporting legacy.
“Slovenia is a small country, we have only two million people, so we are not a big tennis nation,” she said. “But we have not only great tennis players, but great athletes in many sports. For our size, it’s fantastic to see what we can achieve.
“Mima Jausovec kind of started everything for us in tennis, and I was part of the group that followed a bit later. Now, we have this younger generation of girls who are really doing well – Tamara Zidansek, of course, reaching semis at the French, and Kaja Juvan, too.
“As we’ve seen this week in Portoroz, there are even younger ones coming through. I’m really thrilled.”