On the day that Celine Naef was born -- June 25, 2005 in Feusisberg on the shores of Lake Zurich -- Venus Williams was on the court at Wimbledon on her way to her fifth Grand Slam crown.
Nearly 18 years later, the pair faced off in a Hologic WTA Tour match -- Naef's first and Williams's 1087th. Naef had grown up watching Williams on TV and dreaming of playing on the same courts one day.
She never thought she'd get to face Williams herself, though. Indeed, when Naef was told who she'd be playing in the first round of 's-Hertogenbosch three weeks ago, she thought it was a joke.
"First I laughed," Naef said at Roehampton, where she has been playing in Wimbledon qualifying this week. "I didn't even know Venus was playing the tournament. But I was so happy and so excited, because she was a superstar and a role model for everyone. For me, it was a gift that I had the chance to play against her and see her on the other side of the net."
Naef wasn't content to merely share the court. A former junior No.4 who had also received a wild card from the tournament, she pulled off a 3-6, 7-6(3), 6-2 victory, then backed it up by defeating Caty McNally to reach the quarterfinals. This week, Naef has hit another milestone, scoring impressive wins against Ashlyn Krueger and Dayana Yastremska to reach her first Grand Slam main draw. In between, she celebrated her 18th birthday with a sushi dinner in London.
Naef shares another connection to the era Williams dominated at the start of this century. She's the latest in the line of Swiss prodigies to have been shaped by the tutelage of Melanie Molitor, the mother of Martina Hingis and former coach of Belinda Bencic. Naef, who worked with Molitor when she was 7 years old, said she learned "everything -- technical, mental, physical" from the matriarch of Swiss tennis.
Hingis, a former No.1 and one of Williams' fiercest rivals back in the day, was even on hand to offer advice before Naef's big match.
"Martina always told me that Venus and Serena had big serves and would get a lot of free points," Naef said. "So she had to win it with her movement and maybe also to play smart. That was something I really liked and I try to have it in my game.
"I really liked how Martina played the game. I'm always trying to do a bit like her. So it was a good chance to try that out against Venus, because Martina sometimes lost against her, but sometimes she won."
Naef has been doing a lot of winning lately. Last September, she was winding down a stellar junior career and turning her attention to the pros, with a modest ranking of No.904. Nine months later, she's all the way up to No.165 and guaranteed to rise further after Wimbledon. In that timeframe, Naef has won 47 out of 57 matches, including four ITF titles and, of course, that first WTA quarterfinal run in the Netherlands.
"I knew that when you're a good junior, you have a chance to improve in the pros," Naef said. "But I never expected I would come so far so quickly. The biggest difference is the mental strength of the players. It's mostly in the head, it's mental. You have to learn how to handle difficult situations. In juniors, players sometimes don't know how to handle those. You see the pros who have been very long on the tour know how to."
Despite her rise, Naef has had difficult situations of her own to handle this year. In April, she was on the brink of her biggest title to date at the Chiasso ITF W60 event -- only to lose 1-6, 7-6(3), 6-0 in the final, squandering three championship points along the way. Her opponent? Mirra Andreeva, who used that tournament as a springboard to become this summer's sensation.
Watching Andreeva has helped Naef come to terms with the loss.
"After the match it was very tough," she said. "The whole day after, too. It was a big chance for me to win a title. But I knew I played an amazing game. And I know how she's doing now. So for me it's like, 'OK, you had championship points against a girl who's doing very, very good.'"
It could be tempting to cast Naef in the lineage of Hingis and Bencic, with whom she also messages frequently. But she's wary of the comparisons and insists she has her own path to take. She'll take another step down that path at her first Wimbledon next week, where she'll open against No.22 seed Anastasia Potapova in the first round.