In January of 2023, Yuliia Starodubtseva found herself in the same spot as many other recent college graduates: six months out of school and eager to find her place in the world.

But as far as her future career prospects, she was nowhere. Though professional tennis was a viable option for her after starring for Old Dominion University's Division I women's team for five years, at this time last season, Starodubtseva didn't have a WTA ranking.

Now, after a scintillating 12 months in which she took the ITF World Tennis Tour by storm -- she won four ITF titles and reached two other finals last year -- the World No.152, will play in one of the biggest tournaments in the sport to start 2024.

In just her second Grand Slam event (she lost in the first round of qualifying at the US Open last summer), Starodubtseva won three matches last week to reach the main draw of the Australian Open -- an effort which included a dramatic, 6-4, 1-6, 7-6[4] win over American-born Czech Gabriela Knutson, herself a former NCAA star for Syracuse University, in the final round. 

"I don't even know if I'm realizing that this is happening," Starodubtseva said, speaking to from Melbourne on Saturday on the eve of the main draw. "Thinking back to one year ago when I didn't have a ranking, it feels like a huge accomplishment in a way. It just feels great."

An unconventional journey has earned Starodubtseva a center-stage moment. In Monday's night session, she'll face No. 6 seed Ons Jabeur, the three-time Grand Slam finalist, in Margaret Court Arena in not only her first-ever match against a Top 10 player. It'll be just her second against a player ranked anywhere inside the Top 100. (The other was against then-World No.73 Wang Xinyu last August.)

Here's more on the 23-year-old, who is also playing her first-career Hologic WTA Tour-level main draw in Melbourne.

No one in her family played tennis, but a current WTA pro's family member played a crucial role in her development.

A native of Kakhovka in southern Ukraine, Starodubtseva started playing tennis at age 5. Her father, Volodymir, was a soccer goalkeeper at one stage in his life -- but "nothing crazy," she said -- and wanted her to play some sort of sport. 

Her first coach until she was 15 was the grandmother of current World No.28 Anhelina Kalinina. But as Starodubtseva grew up, the financial reality of playing internationally at a high level was difficult. She never played an ITF junior event above Grade 2 and didn't break the Top 500 in the under-18 rankings. An extended trip to Egypt in 2016-17 to play the lowest-level ITF events in Cairo and Sharm El Sheikh wasn't as fruitful as she wanted it to be. 

Moving thousands of miles from home to study at a university in the U.S. ultimately proved to be the path that made the most sense.

She chose Old Dominion, one of Virginia's largest universities in its third-biggest city of Norfolk, because there were other Ukrainians on the team when she was choosing a school, she said, and they made her feel comfortable since she spoke little English at that time. She hoped to be able to play more ITF tournaments in the U.S., too. 

Her homeland is close to her heart, especially now. 

Starodubtseva is one of seven Ukrainian women in the singles main draw of the Australian Open -- the most from that country in the women's singles event at a Grand Slam since Wimbledon in 2008 -- particularly at this moment in history, when the war ravaging their homeland is still top of mind. 

Starodubtseva's hometown has been occupied by Russian troops since the early days of the 2022 invasion. She is currently based in the U.S. -- she lives in Westchester County, New York with her boyfriend Pearse Dolan, a native of Sydney, Australia who is an alum of ODU's men's tennis team. Her mother, Lidiia, and sister, Diana, have also left the country, while the rest of Starodubtseva's family is still in Ukraine.

"Things are not easy [in Ukraine], but they stay positive, which helps me," Starodubtseva said.

Diana Starodubtseva, five years Yuliia's junior, has followed her sister's footsteps into college tennis, and is currently a sophomore on the Hampton University tennis team, also in Virginia. Their mother has found refuge in Ireland -- as one of the more than 100,000 Ukrainians who've fled there since the war began -- where Starodubtseva says she has "everything she needs."

She stayed in college for a master's degree as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic -- an important decision for her tennis development.

Starodubtseva made an impact from the minute she arrived on campus. In her freshman year in 2017-18, she had the best record on the team at 19-2, and was a All-Conference USA Second Team selection. Other accolades followed, but her final two years proved her most successful. 

It came at just the right time. Through her undergraduate years, Starodubtseva wasn't getting opportunities to play as many pro tournaments as she wanted to. She was fully committed to the team, but her motivation to continue tennis in the future was waning. But after the NCAA granted collegiate athletes an extra year of eligibility as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic pausing intercollegiate competition for much of 2020, she took advantage of the opportunity to return as a graduate student and as the team's No. 1 player.

"I got to play so many good players," she said of her role at the top of the lineup. "I got an opportunity to see my level a little bit better. I lost one [dual] match the whole semester while playing No. 1, while playing against good teams, so that brought the motivation back a bit."

Twice named the C-USA Player of the Year in the league, Starodubtseva graduated with a bachelor's degree in communications and a master's degree in sports management. But college also helped connect her with her current coach, Carl Thorsen. Needing an internship to get her master's, she found a suitable coaching role at Westchester Country Club in the northern suburbs of New York City. At the end of the summer, she met Thorsen, a former Futures-level player who is a high-performance coach in the area.

Seeing her potential, Thorsen agreed to coach her.

“I’m very thankful for all his help, support and belief in me, and I do enjoy working with him,” she said.

Belief has been key to get her here -- first from others, then herself

Starodubtseva continued to coach part-time at both Westchester and Century Country Club as a means of making money while she started her journey on the ITF circuit, and funded herself early on through UTR-sanctioned tournaments. In March of last year, Starodubtseva was also the subject of a crowd-funding campaign launched by a New York man named Tal Inbar -- whom she now considers a good friend -- that raised more than $23,000 for her expenses. Bouncing between living situations before she and Dolan moved in together in September, she even slept on a friend's couch ahead of her first-round qualifying match at the US Open.

Grateful for the belief shown in her by people like Thorsen, Inbar and others, Starodubtseva said that things also started changing for her once she believed in herself.

"[Leaving college], I didn't really set goals for myself. I just went there under certain pressure, as I am 23 years old. I'm not 17 anymore," she added with a laugh. "Getting my first wins against Top 200 players is when I thought, like, 'OK, maybe this is happening, maybe I can do it and really be a good tennis player."

Her match against Knutson proved a full-circle moment -- and her match with Jabeur is too.

The Ukrainian was two points from defeat against Knutson in Melbourne on Thursday, as the Czech served for the match at 5-4 in the final set. In 2 hours and 49 minutes, though, Starodubtseva reversed the result of the first main-draw match she played at an ITF tournament last year. 

Now, she looks ahead to Jabeur -- who also plays a key role in her origin story, albeit from afar.

"It was actually funny. At the US Open, my first Grand Slam, the first time, I saw everyone," she said. "She was my first person that I saw that and I was like, 'Wow, this is Ons. I'm here, I'm playing this tournament.' And now I have to play her."