Five players will break new ground at Wimbledon 2023 by contesting the main draw of a Grand Slam for the first time. Get to know them here.
Bai Zhuoxuan (CHN)
Back in February 2020, Bai Zhuoxuan had just reached the Australian Open girls' semifinals, defeating Linda Noskova and Diana Shnaider en route, and cracked the junior Top 10. The Chinese teenager, a fan of Li Na and Rafael Nadal, seemed poised for a smooth transition to the pros -- but then Covid struck. She did not compete professionally again for nearly two years.
With a few exceptions, lower-ranked Asian players took more time than their western counterparts to resume their careers following the pandemic. Most started almost from scratch, returning to the ITF W15 level to slowly rebuild their rankings. Bai, in particular, was a winning machine. She won 61 out of 72 matches between October 2021 and December 2022, including eight ITF titles.
Highlights: Gracheva d. Bai, 2023 Strasbourg R1
In 2023, Bai has continued her momentum to rise to No.191. She picked up another two ITF W25 titles in Indonesia and Georgia, and made an unusual WTA debut in Strasbourg. Having lost from four match points up in the last qualifying round to Sarah Iliev, she made the main draw as a lucky loser -- only to lose from two match points up to Varvara Gracheva in the first round. Her Wimbledon preparation was also idiosyncratic. In between two British grass-court ITF events in Surbiton and Ilkley, Bai travelled to Madrid to reach the semifinals of a hard-court ITF W60 there.
Nonetheless, Bai, 20, was clutch throughout her debut Grand Slam qualifying campaign this week. Her grit and versatility was particularly evident as she edged Maria Lourdes Carle 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 in a 3-hour, 5-minute second round. She'll open against Ysaline Bonaventure in the first round of the main draw.
Jessica Bouzas Maneiro (ESP)
Jessica Bouzas Maneiro can lay claim to a rare, if not unprecedented statistic among Grand Slam qualifiers: the 20-year-old Spaniard currently owns a 100% record in WTA main draws.
The World No.167's only previous tour-level match came at the United Cup in January, where she subbed in for an injured Paula Badosa and promptly defeated Olivia Gadecki 6-2, 6-2. Coincidentally, Bouzas Maneiro faced Gadecki again in the final qualifying round this week, and reprised the result 6-3, 6-3.
Bouzas Maneiro trained at the Ferrer Tennis Academy as a teenager, and is now coached by Javier Marti, who previously worked with Badosa. She compiled a 67-26 record in 2022 to rise from No.352 to No.206 that year, and on her Grand Slam qualifying debut at the Australian Open was denied by Brenda Fruhvirtova in a 3-6, 7-6(2), 6-4 final-round heartbreaker.
Grass may seem like an unexpected breakthrough surface for a player whose ITF finals above W15 level have all come on clay, but Bouzas Maneiro came into Wimbledon off a career-best result. In Valencia two weeks ago, she notched her first two Top 100 wins (over Julia Grabher and Clara Tauson) to reach her first WTA 125 quarterfinal.
Bouzas Maneiro will have an opportunity for another career-best win -- and to preserve that 100% record -- when she opens against No.26 seed Anhelina Kalinina.
Celine Naef (SUI)
As WTA debut opponents go, it doesn't get more memorable than Venus Williams. In the week that Celine Naef was born in 2005, Williams was busy winning her third Wimbledon title. Three weeks ago, they met on court in 's-Hertogenbosch -- and Naef, playing the first WTA main draw of her career, triumphed 3-6, 7-6(3), 6-2.
Coincidentally, there was another connection to Williams's prime. Naef's childhood coach was Melanie Molitor, the mother of Williams's old rival Martina Hingis, and Hingis even offered the teenager advice ahead of the match.
But though Naef is part of an impressive lineage of Molitor protégées that also includes Belinda Bencic, she's been making her own name for herself with a meteoric rise up the rankings since graduating from juniors. Since last September, Naef has compiled a 47-10 record and won ITF W25 titles in Cherbourg, Loughborough and Porto, cutting her ranking from No.904 to No.165. All this came before her 18th birthday, which she celebrated ahead of Wimbledon qualifying this week.
Possessing an all-round solid game with an impressive serve and backhand, Naef has taken to grass with as much ease as she's transitioned into the pros. After defeating Williams, she went on to her first WTA quarterfinal in 's-Hertogenbosch. This week, she's navigated one of the toughest qualifying sections, beating 2021 US Open junior finalist Kristina Dmitruk, last week's Gaiba 125 champion Ashlyn Krueger and former No.21 Dayana Yastremska.
Naef will aim for her second Top 100 win of the grass swing against No.22 seed Anastasia Potapova in the first round.
Natalija Stevanovic (SRB)
Twelve years ago, Natalija Stevanovic (née Kostic) was the junior No.5, with wins over peers such as Eugenie Bouchard and Yulia Putintseva. It's been a long road to her first Grand Slam main draw for the 28-year-old Serb, who styles herself 'Nadalija' on social media.
A liver cyst sidelined her for 16 months in 2015-16, but she battled back to reach a career-high of No.162 at the end of 2019. In February 2020, she enjoyed a milestone tournament in Hua Hin for both professional and personal reasons: in addition to making her WTA main-draw debut, she received a surprise proposal from then-boyfriend Nikola Stevanovic.
Natalija Kostic made her main draw debut at the @ThailandOpenHH but will leave with a different kind title: fiancée.— wta (@WTA) February 14, 2020
See how the WTA family celebrated #ValentinesDay --> https://t.co/0DKs7plzSu pic.twitter.com/qo3jQ05Lld
Two weeks later, the tennis world was shut down due to Covid and her momentum was halted. Natalija and Nikola would eventually marry in 2021, and 2023 has seen her play some of her most eye-catching matches.
In April, she scored her first tour-level in at Bogota over Marina Bassols Ribera. Two weeks ago in 's-Hertogenbosch, Stevanovic also foreshadowed how dangerous her web of spins could be on grass when she pushed Victoria Azarenka to the limit, holding five set points before falling 7-6(5), 6-3.
In the main draw, No.223-ranked Stevanovic will have another shot at a former World No.1 when she takes on No.18 seed Karolina Pliskova in the first round.
Carol Zhao (CAN)
Back at the end of 2017, having cracked the Top 200 for the first time, Stanford alumna Carol Zhao likened her professional career to a startup company and set her sights on the Top 100 the following season.
Since then, entire generations of tech startups have risen and fallen, but Zhao has kept plugging away. In her ninth Grand Slam qualifying competition, the 28-year-old Canadian has been rewarded with a main-draw placement at last. No.166-ranked Zhao did it the hard way, coming from a set down in her first two rounds against Emily Appleton and Arantxa Rus before winning 7-6(4), 6-4 against former Wimbledon quarterfinalist CoCo Vandeweghe -- who had routed her 6-3, 6-1 just a week previously in Berlin qualifying.
Zhao's talents are multifaceted. Her major at Stanford was Science, Technology and Society, and she's also a singer-songwriter whose most recent single, the piano ballad "How To Forget You", was released in 2021. But her tennis has been paying off most this year. She's scored her first tour-level wins on clay (over Maria Lourdes Carle in Bogota) and grass (over Ysaline Bonaventure in 's-Hertogenbosch. She'll have a shot at a maiden Grand Slam win against lucky loser Tamara Korpatsch.
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