It was always expected that a Polish player would contest the semi-finals of the women’s singles Australian Open this year, but perhaps not this one. Two rounds after world No 1 Iga Świątek and Hubert Hurkacz, the men’s 10th seed, were defeated in consecutive sets, the unlikely run of Magda Linette continued as the unseeded 30 year-old reached a grand slam semi-final for the first time in her career, defeating former No 1 Karolína Plíšková 6-3, 7-5 to advance.
In the semi-finals, Linette will face Aryna Sabalenka, the fifth seed, after Sabalenka survived a bruising opening set against Donna Vekić before opening her shoulders and winning 6-3, 6-2.
Until this week, Linette had never passed the third round of a grand slam tournament. She reached a career high ranking of 33rd in 2020, just before the Covid hiatus, and has otherwise been a perennial top 100 player for the past eight seasons.
Her late blooming career reflects a common understanding on the tour that everyone can play, at least to a certain level, but big results require composure, consistency and the ability to manage the pressure. Linette, who is coached by British pair Mark Gellard and Iain Hughes, points to her improved mental strength as one of the driving forces of her success after making the conscious decision to “grow up” emotionally.
“I think this approach of really trying to look a little bit different, grow up a little bit emotionally, like that was a big thing for us as a team. All of us approached it. It wasn’t only me, but it was the coaches that brought this to me,” she said.
Linette, traditionally a counterpuncher with a sweet backhand and return, showed her improvements by serving well under pressure, dictating inside the baseline against Plíšková, and frequently changing directions as she kept her opponent uncomfortable. Despite her disappointment, Plíšková was complimentary of Linette’s level, but she noted that she does not think the Pole’s game has changed so much.
“I don’t think you can improve that much of the level of tennis what you play. You don’t improve that much your forehand. I think it’s just a belief and the confidence, which obviously she has now,” said Plíšková.
Even though the force of her breakthrough is surprising, there were plenty of indications that she had made significant strides. Linette began to build momentum at the end of last season, reaching finals in two events after the US Open. At the Billie Jean King Cup finals, Świątek’s decision to withdraw from the event thrust her into the spotlight as Poland’s top player. She thrived under the pressure, recording big wins over Plíšková and Madison Keys in Glasgow.
“It’s very difficult. I’m 31 and I’m just getting it right, so obviously it was one of the toughest things for me,” she said. “But I’m happy. I’m happy that I have this opportunity, that actually I tapped into something that finally I’m breaking something that was very, like you can’t really measure it in any way. For me it was something really difficult to change.”
Two years ago, Linette had been struggling with a chronic knee injury as the Australian Open came around. Although she struggled to find a diagnosis for 11 weeks, she was managing the issue and still planning to compete in Melbourne. One day before her flight, her knee crumbled. She couldn’t walk. Linette had no choice but to withdraw from the tournament.
“I did the surgery, basically the next day I withdrew. Had already my flight, had my hotel room. Listened to everybody complaining about the isolation, and I was so jealous that they had to do it, because I really wanted to be there,” she said.
Linette says the injury changed her life. As she returned after a five month layoff, she was tormented by doubts about the future of her career. There was a chance that she could be forced to rebuild her ranking on the ITF tour, a concerning thought for any ageing player. Still, on her return to competition, she found that she was more calm on the court. “Why? Because I think it couldn’t be really worse, right? I honestly didn’t play for five months,” she said.
This time, Linette made the trip. She is healthy and thriving, finally breaking through three weeks before her 31st birthday and 13 years since turning pro. Linette has received support in Australia from former No 2 Agnieszka Radwańska, Poland’s United Cup captain. It is fitting – before Świątek commanded all the attention, it was Radwanska, a former No 2 and longtime top player, who dominated Polish tennis as Linette stood on the periphery. Now, she gets her moment alone.