PARIS, France - World No.137 Aliona Bolsova has already lost count of how many interviews she’s done today. The 21-year-old qualifier from Spain is barely just catching her breath after setting the tennis world abuzz, having scored the biggest win of her career over Sorana Cirstea, ranked over 50 spots higher than her, in straight sets earlier in the day to reach round three of the French Open.
“This is so overwhelming,” Bolsova laughed in a phone interview with wtatennis.com. “Spanish radio, Spanish TV. I never had this many requests from media in my entire life.”
Bolsova is having to adjust rapidly to the spotlight after a series of career-best moments have thrust her out of relative obscurity, and her eye-catching look - Bolsova’s left shoulder features a growing half-sleeve tattoo of a lion - attracts attention wherever she goes.
Ranked outside the Top 200 just under 11 months ago, the Moldovan-born Spanish player has shot up the rankings after posting strong results on the ITF circuit, including winning back-to-back 25K events last July in Getxo and Darmstadt.
Bolsova took the momentum onto the WTA tour, where she scored her first main draw win in Charleston as well as picking up qualifying round wins at the US Open and Australian Open. In Madrid as a qualies wildcard, she scored her first Top 100 victory when she took down the No.89-ranked Vera Lapko in the first round.
Competing at Roland Garros for the first time, Bolsova successfully navigated the qualifying rounds - even though her on-court success was bittersweet after experiencing a painful personal loss. Before taking the court for her final round of qualies, she received a phone call informing her that one of her longtime coaches had passed away from cancer.
“This has never happened to me before, I never lost anybody close to me before,” Bolsova recalled. “So it was really emotional for me because he coached me for four or five years and I really cared about him, and when I was playing [that final match of qualies] I was thinking about Marcelo.
“When I won I was so emotional thinking of everything he taught me and hoping that wherever he was, that he was watching me and proud of me.”
The oldest child of two Olympic track and field athletes, sports were always present for Bolsova as a child, who picked up a racquet at the age of three.
“My parents, they’re telling me that at home I used to watch more sports on TV than cartoons,” she said. Her first venture onto the tennis court didn’t end happily (“I told my parents, ‘I don’t like this, take me home.’”) but after watching Maria Sharapova’s 2004 Wimbledon triumph, she decided to give the sport another try at five years old.
But it wasn’t until she played college tennis as an Oklahoma State University freshman that Bolsova really found her love for the game. In fact, she considered quitting tennis at the age of 17, burnt out by injury and the family pressure to compete.
“When I started showing tennis talent, my parents started sending me to tournaments, competing in Juniors, ITFs, and things like that. I did it for many years, but it was always more what my father wanted me to do,” she said. “And then I got the foot injury, and had to have surgery, and for me, that was it. I didn’t want to play tennis anymore.
“I said, ‘If I played another month, I’ll never play this sport again.’ I was like, 17 when this was happening.
“But when I went to college, I feel like, that was my choice. And I was playing again and competing again, I was doing it for myself and I realized actually I was enjoying it.”
Bolsova spent one year at Oklahoma State and another at Florida Atlantic University before deciding to give professional tennis a try, and was quickly rewarded with those back-to-back ITF 25K title wins. For the Spaniard, that was all the confirmation she needed.
“I really decided to start putting in 100% effort, putting in the hours and training hard. I knew then that I wanted to do this more, see how far I could go.”
In her spare time, the 21-year-old has stayed in school, working on a degree in “History, Geography and Art” at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya. (In fact, she has an exam on the same day as the French Open final.) Her passion is ancient history, and Bolsova spoke animatedly about visiting the Ancient Egyptian art and antiquities section of the Louvre.
“In Paris there’s so much history. That’s the things I like to study, not just art but history specifically,” she explained. “I really like ancient cultures. I think especially the ones near the Mediterranean coasts are so rich, like ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, Ancient Rome, classical Greece.
“I went to the Louvre yesterday, and saw so many paintings, sculptures. But honestly there’s so much to see that I wish I could go back several days. You really need a week to see and appreciate it all.”
On the tennis court, the qualifier always finds a way to express herself. Bolsova’s signature look is far from the typical tennis player’s style and, despite preferring to stay under the radar off the court, she loves to stand out between the baselines.
“If everyone is wearing the same dresses and skirts, same braid and same visor, it’s so boring,” she said with a chuckle. “It’s not really like, that I don’t like that look personally, because of course I don’t have a problem with skirts or dresses, it’s more of just who is showing their personality.
“I really admire Bethanie Mattek-Sands, for example. She wears skirts, but when you see her on the court you right away know that’s Bethanie Mattek-Sands. She’s so unique, and she shows her personality.”
“For me, it’s important to be myself always, and I feel like I’m the same person on and off the court,” she added. “I want to be the kind of player where you look at them, they stand out from everyone else and you right away know, 'Okay, that’s Aliona.'”
Bolsova might enjoy a few more days at the Louvre as her Parisian dream continues in the third round of Roland Garros, the biggest result of her career to date. She’ll take on the No.58-ranked Ekaterina Alexandrova on Saturday, the second-highest ranked player she’s ever faced.
“I could lose every single match this year after this and I think I would still be happy, because now I know that I can compete at this level and I can challenge people at the top of the sport, inside the Top 100,” Bolsova said. “This experience has given me so much confidence.
“This year I had a lot of ‘big firsts,’ so I think I’m just introducing myself to the world, to the fans of tennis, and now they’re getting to know me. I hope I can continue to show them good tennis.”