INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Emma Navarro concedes the number 23 ranking feels like an odd companion next to her name. So you can only imagine her reaction after she strolled onto the second biggest tennis court in the world and knocked out Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka from the BNP Paribas Open.

"When I acknowledge my ranking right now compared to a year ago, it's really crazy and seems really fast," Navarro said on the WTA Insider Podcast earlier this week. "But then when I go out and hit or play a match, it doesn't feel like anything's happened that fast." 

'Exhibition tennis!': Navarro wins a wild all-court point vs. Sabalenka

Navarro looked like she belonged Wednesday with a 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 win against World No.2 Sabalenka to reach the Round of 16. The victory is Navarro's best by ranking and boosted into a fourth quarterfinal on the season and first of her career at the WTA 1000 level.

As if those milestones weren't enough to underline just how good the Charleston native's 2024 season has been, she now leads the Hologic WTA Tour with 18 wins.

Not bad for a player who was still battling to crack the Top 100 12 months ago.

Listen to the the full interview with Navarro on the latest episode of the WTA Insider Podcast below:

Navarro made her WTA main-draw debut in 2019 and was the No.1 college recruit a year later. She chose to attend the University of Virginia, where she took home the NCAA title as a freshman. She turned pro in 2022, and after a season of nonstop play last year, she earned a Top 100 debut and season-ending finish at No.38.

The momentum continued in January, when she captured her first WTA title, in Hobart, and posted her best run at a Grand Slam, a third-round appearance in Melbourne. 

"There's been a lot of slow and methodical progressions to my game," Navarro said. "It's like if a grandparent sees their kid once a year, they're like, 'Oh, you've gotten so big,' but the kid doesn't feel that much bigger than last time. That's a little bit how I feel."

On Wednesday, Navarro faced Sabalenka for the first time in her career. In a tight opening frame, Navarro won two tight deuce games on her serve to take a 4-3 lead, before breaking Sabalenka and ultimately holding again to take the first set. 

'It means the world to me': Navarro emerges from under the radar

Sabalenka would break Navarro once in the second set to tie the match.   

After 19 games, the match had yielded only two breaks of serve, but in the third, Navarro and Sabalenka exchanged three consecutive breaks. Eventually, Navarro wiped away Sabalenka's last chance to break to extend her lead to 4-1 and closed out the win.

Navarro finished the match with 22 winners to 14 unforced errors. Sabalenka struck 38 winners to 34 unforced errors. The key difference was in the break points converted. Navarro converted four of the five chances, while Sabalenka was two of six.

Last year, Navarro played 88 singles matches across all levels, crossing the globe in 29 tournaments. For a player who admits she struggled to see herself as a professional athlete, she has become the consummate pro.

"I dedicated a ton of my time to tennis, but there were other parts of my life, so I never, considered myself to be a tennis player, solely," Navarro said. "And I saw the best players in the world as just tennis players, nothing else. They're kind of these untouchable sort of figures that I would never be able to compete with because I'm just Emma. I'm not a world-class athlete. 

"Being able to identify myself as that took a while and it's still a work in progress, I would say. But it's pretty crazy to be in this list of names in the Top 30 in the world, and just competing alongside so many amazing players."

In Indian Wells, she's been a reliable highlight reel, showing off her all-court physicality and ability to improvise. As she racks up win after win, Navarro has become one of the toughest outs in the sport. She is 11-2 in three-set matches this season. 

Watch this: Navarro's hot-shot stunner ends a 35-shot rally vs. Svitolina

Navarro says matches felt like life-or-death situations for much of her career. Now, she's learning how to tap into that competitive intensity without bringing along the anxious baggage.

"Obviously I want to win, but I don't feel it's life or death anymore," Navarro said. "But it's definitely something where, feeling those super intense emotions, like 'I have to win this.' It sort of clicks on this thing in your brain where it's you'll do absolutely anything it takes to win. 

"So it's been an adjustment trying to find that from somewhere else, from a healthier place than this is life or death, but still trying to get to that same place where I'll do whatever it takes."

Navarro will next face either No.9 seed Maria Sakkari. 

"I know there's a lot of challenges coming up for me ahead, just with always consistently playing against the best players in the world," Navarro said. "It's not easy, coming out and performing, week after week. So I know it's going to be challenging. 

"But that's kind of why I do it. I love to be challenged, and I love to push myself, and just try to continue to improve myself all the time. So, yeah, I'm in it for the challenge."