Once upon a time, Cinderella defied some fairly formidable challenges. With a big assist from her fairy godmother, she escaped the drudgery of a hostile work environment, attended the ball and, ultimately, married the prince and lived happily ever after.
This transcendent folktale that can be traced all the way back to ancient Greece, oddly enough, has taken on a completely different meaning in today’s sports lexicon: Cinderella has become synonymous with the longest of longshots.
March Madness on the tennis circuit: A look at the lowest-ranked WTA 1000 champs
This year’s Final Four in men’s NCAA Division 1 basketball offers the unprecedented prospect of four Cinderellas vying for the last two spots in the Big Dance. The dozen teams once deemed to have the best chance of reaching Houston on Saturday -- all four No.1, No.2 and No.3 seeds -- are gone. The No.4 University of Connecticut is the highest-seeded team left, along with No. 5 San Diego State, No.5 University of Miami, No.9 Florida Atlantic.
The phenomenon exists in women’s professional tennis as well. For less than 19 miles from the Miami Hurricanes’ campus in Coral Gables, a quick run up Route 95, a similarly uplifting story has been unfolding at the Miami Open.
There is no more exciting narrative than when a low-ranked or unseeded player suddenly finds her game, tears through a loaded field in an important event and reaches the final four. The most recent example was Sorana Cirstea, an utterly unlikely semifinalist. She came into the tournament ranked No.74 but found the wherewithal to upset a pair of Top 10 players, No.2 Aryna Sabalenka and No.4 Caroline Garcia before falling to Petra Kvitova in the semis.
Cirstea became only the fifth player ranked outside the Top 50 to reach the semifinals in Miami -- after Naomi Osaka (2022), Victoria Azarenka and Danielle Collins (2018) and Karina Habsudova (1996).
To celebrate Cirstea’s run, our staff offers their favorite final four gate-crashers (at WTA 1000 events only), including a surprisingly familiar name from nearly a decade ago:
Aravane Rezai, 2010 Madrid winner
Ranked No.24 entering the tournament, Aravane Rezai dropped the opening set of her first-round match to former World No.1 Justine Henin before coming back to win. The 23-year-old Frenchwoman then knocked off Klara Koukalova in the second and overpowered Jelena Jankovic 7-5, 6-4 to make the semifinals, where Lucie Safarova would retire with a thigh injury. Rezai was the heavy underdog going into the final against Venus Williams but sustained the peak form she had showed all week to take the first set 6-2. In the second, Rezai came back from 5-2 down -- saving five set points -- to win the match and the title. Rezai joined a short list of women (World No.1s Amelie Mauresmo, Kim Clijsters, Serena Williams and Martina Hingis) to defeat Williams in a clay-court final -- Kevin Fischer
Madrid Memories 2010: Rezai's peak form, Serena's marathon comeback
María José Martínez Sánchez: 2010 Rome winner
María José Martínez Sánchez had plenty of reason to feel good going into Rome in 2010. The Spaniard was ranked No.26, only one spot off her career high at the time. The previous year, she had defeated Amélie Mauresmo and Nadia Petrova to make her WTA 1000 quarterfinal debut at this event. The title might have seemed unlikely for a 27-year-old who'd never before been to a semifinal above 250 level. Mixing serve-and-volley tactics with fine drop shots, she knocked off seed after seed: that year's Roland Garros champion Francesca Schiavone in the second round, No.2 seed Caroline Wozniacki in the third and former No.1 Ana Ivanovic in the semifinals. Martínez Sánchez capped it by denying No.7 seed Jelena Jankovic, who had defeated both Williams sisters in the top half of the draw. -- Alex Macpherson
Sorana Cirstea: 2013 Toronto runner-up
With Sorana Cirstea’s renaissance during this month’s Sunshine Double, we should shout out her runner-up finish as an unseeded player at 2013 Toronto. After solid results earlier that summer, Cirstea’s hard-court season peaked in Canada, where she made her first final in five years by beating an incredible lineup of players: former World No.1’s Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Jankovic and Grand Slam champions Petra Kvitova and Li Na. Despite a lopsided loss to Serena Williams in the final (no shame in that), Cirstea came out of Toronto with a new career-high ranking of No.21, which is still her best to date. -- Jason Juzwiak
Naomi Osaka: 2018 Indian Wells winner
It’s easy to go back and retcon ourselves into thinking this run was never in doubt. After all, Naomi Osaka would go on to become the youngest active winner of four major titles and the global icon that she is now. But back in 2018, Osaka had yet to win a title and had made only two finals, both coming in Asia. But unseeded and ranked No.44, Osaka tore through the draw at Indian Wells. She lost just one set over the fortnight, to Maria Sakkari in the fourth round. From there, Osaka lost only 13 games in her final three matches. She knocked off Top 5 players Karolina Pliskova and No.1 Simona Halep and, in the final, Osaka defeated Daria Kasatkina. -- Courtney Nguyen
Bianca Andreescu: 2019 Indian Wells winner
Bianca Andreescu began 2019 ranked No.152, but she arrived a few months later in the Coachella Valley as an 18-year-old wild card with something to prove. She nearly failed to escape the first round but rallied to beat Irina-Camelia Begu after losing a first-set tiebreak. Later, Andreescu took down a pair of Top 20 players, Wang Qiang and Garbiñe Muguruza, then World No.6 Elina Svitolina in the semifinals and No.8 Angelique Kerber in the final. “A year ago, I had been struggling a lot with my tennis and with my body, too,” Andreescu said at the time. “So it’s crazy what a year can do.” At the 2019 US Open, Andreescu would become the first player born in the 2000s to win a Grand Slam singles title. -- Greg Garber
Barbora Krejcikova: 2021 Dubai runner-up
As an established doubles player and standout junior, Barbora Krejcikova’s ability was never in question. However, it was not until a Cinderella run two years ago in Dubai that she made her mark on the singles court. The Czech, who only gained entry to the main draw thanks to a series of late withdrawals, belied her lowly ranking by sweeping aside a host of established names to reach the final. Ultimately, Krejcikova’s luck would run out against an in-form Garbiñe Muguruza. Still, Krejcikova announced her as a standout singles player, one who would go on to win Roland Garros a few months later. -- Chris Whitmore
--Sloane Stephens run to the 2017 Toronto semifinals was the most impressive, by ranking anyway. After 11 months out with a foot injury, Stephens was ranked No.934, playing in just her third tournament back, and scored wins against Petra Kvitova and Angelique Kerber. A few weeks later, Stephens would become a US Open champion.
--The 2016 season was a wild one at the WTA 1000 level, with two sub-100 ranked players paving their ways into the final four. No.130 Louisa Chirico came through qualifying in Madrid to post the biggest result of her career, beating Ana Ivanovic and Daria Saville to make the semifinals. Later that summer, it was No.121 Kristina Kucova, who came through qualifying and defeated Carla Suarez Navarro, Eugenie Bouchard and Johanna Konta to make the semifinals.
--Perhaps the most impressive run from a qualifier at a WTA 1000 -- at least before Caroline Garcia won Cincinnati last summer -- belongs to the Czech Republic's Lucie Hradecka. Ranked No.105 in 2012, Hradecka scored two Top 5 wins, against Petra Kvitova and Samantha Stosur before running up against eventual champion Serena Williams in the semifinals.