ROME -- Twelve months ago, Italy's Jasmine Paolini was absent from the biggest tournament in her home country.
Ranked too low to get into the main draw (she had fallen back outside the Top 100) and not awarded a wildcard, Paolini instead dropped down to the WTA 125 level, where she kickstarted a renaissance by reaching the Saint-Malo final.
This year, she arrives in Rome as the No.55-ranked player. Only Camila Giorgi (No.30) is ranked higher among Italian women.
"It's amazing to be here and playing without a wildcard," she said at Media Day. "I remember when I was a child, I was watching Rafa and Roger playing on Centrale and asking for their autographs."
In 2021, the match that put Paolini on most fans' radar was a second round at the US Open against Victoria Azarenka. Making her Louis Armstrong Stadium debut, she went toe-to-toe with the former World No.1 before falling 6-3, 7-6(1) -- but not before some bold shot-making captured the crowd's attention.
"It was very amazing playing with Vika," she said. "I entered the Top 100 when Covid started, so I didn't have the chance to play in front of many people. So the US Open was special because there are a lot of people watching.
Buoyed by the experience, she captured her first WTA title in Portoroz, her very next tournament.
Since then, the results have kept coming. In Indian Wells, Paolini pulled off her first win against a Top 10 player in an upset of Aryna Sabalenka. In Madrid, she stretched eventual champion Ons Jabeur to a marathon first set in the opening round before falling 7-6(9), 6-1.
Ranked No.103 just over a year ago, Paolini had risen to No.64 following Portoroz last September and cracked the Top 50 for the first time in January.
In Rome, she will open up against Madrid semifinalist Jil Teichmann, with the winner earning a shot at No.7 seed Karolina Pliskova in the second round.
Paolini plays with an aggressive panache that's all the more impressive coming from a player who stands at 5-foot-4 -- the kind of stature more associated with speedy retrievers. But to her, it's the reason she has to stay on the offensive.
"I didn't decide to be an aggressive player," she said. "I just liked to play like that. I like to be aggressive, even with the drop shots. And I don't like to run - I mean, I will run, but I don't like it!
"It's because I'm small that I cannot play too much behind the baseline. I have to try to stay aggressive. My serve, it's OK but I have to try to make my game anyway. I'm too short to play behind."
Key to Paolini's rise has been coach Renzo Furlan, a former ATP World No.19. Furlan first collaborated with Paolini in 2015, but began working with her full-time in 2020 after his contract with the Serbian tennis federation came to an end. His tactical focus and use of video analysis have been important, but his belief in her talent has also spurred her on.
"From the first days with her, her potential -- both technical and aptitude -- had been clear to me," he told Super Tennis last month. "I'm not surprised at her current ranking."
For Paolini, having someone in her corner who knows her so well has been crucial.
"I think we are also similar in parts of our characters," she said. "How we think on court - I have to plan everything to be good, I have to practice good, I have to feel good. He says he was like me - but that also sometimes you have to just go and enjoy, not to think about whether you practice well or eat well."
Some of the most memorable moments of Paolini's past 12 months have involved being part of the Italian squad in team competition. She made her Olympic debut in Tokyo last summer, and she spearheaded Italy's win over France in the Billie Jean King Cup Qualifiers last month after saving two match points to beat Alizé Cornet. Along the way, she's bonded with compatriots Giorgi, Lucia Bronzetti and fellow Tuscan Martina Trevisan.
"Martina is so funny," Paolini said. "She lives 40 minutes from where I was born, so we are from the same part of Italy - with her I think we have a special relationship. Lucia, I've known her since we were 3 or 4 years old, but now I'm seeing her more on tour it's like we're just starting again."
During the 2010s, Italy's 'Fab Four' of Francesca Schiavone, Flavia Pennetta, Roberta Vinci and Sara Errani brought the Foro Italico to life on an annual basis. It's been some years since Italian women's tennis has scaled their heights -- but a new quartet of Paolini, Giorgi and Trevisan are now seeking to spark the same electricity.