Doncic, Pogacar, Zidansek: French Open underdog boosts Slovenia’s rich sporting heritage

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PARIS: Tamara Zidansek’s breakout display at the French Open is the latest in a long line of outstanding sporting accomplishments by athletes from Slovenia, an Alpine nation of just over two million people.

The world number 85 became the first woman representing the country to reach the semi-finals of a Grand Slam on Tuesday when she beat Spain’s Paula Badosa 7-5, 4-6, 8-6.

She will play Russian 31st seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova for a place in Saturday’s final, and a chance to emulate Maribor-born Mima Jausovec, who won Roland Garros in 1977 while competing for Yugoslavia.

With just three wins from eight previous Slam appearances, Zidansek arrived in Paris a virtual unknown, but she could soon join household names such as Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic and Tour de France champion Tadej Pogacar.

“I like basketball, NBA, so I’m gonna go for the obvious one, Doncic and (Miami Heat guard Goran) Dragic. I guess worldwide known names,” Zidansek replied when asked for her favourite Slovenian athlete.

“We also have cyclists, Pogacar and (Primoz) Roglic, who were first and second here in Paris. We had Tina Maze, who was one of the best skiers in the world. 

“I’m probably forgetting a few, but, you know, Slovenia is a small country, but we have a lot of good athletes.”

Her scintillating run to the last four was almost over before it started.

She was twice two points away from defeat against 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu in the first round, but won 9-7 in the final set — her first victory over a top-10 player and the catalyst for her success.

“It feels overwhelming,” said a beaming Zidansek following her quarter-final win. “It’s hard to take it in like this fast.”

“Winning the first round was a big breakthrough for me. I got a lot of confidence from that,” she added.

The 23-year-old recovered from 3-0 and a double break down against Badosa in the first set and saved three break points at 6-6 in the decider.

She then took her second match point against the in-form Badosa, the 33rd seed who has won the most clay court matches (17) on the WTA tour this season.

“It was a great opportunity for the both of us to get into the semi-finals, but I guess I managed to keep my composure today a little bit better than her.”

The daughter of a judge and school teacher, Zidansek revealed she veered away from repeated attempts by her parents as a child to drum up an interest in music. 

“My mom and dad, they were both musicians. So my mom said that she tried to give me instruments, like guitar… and I always chose a soccer ball, and, like, balls, any balls. 

“So I was always looking for sports, something to do outside. That childhood passion is now her livelihood as she stands two wins from following in the footsteps of Jausovec, in Zidansek’s words “a legend of the sport in Slovenia”. 

Quite an achievement for a player who had never gone beyond the second round of a major before this fortnight.

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