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"Mistakes were defining me": Linette lights up after learning to let go

  • Gill Tan

Sixteenth seed Anett Kontaveit. Nineteenth seed Ekaterina Alexandrova. Fourth seed Caroline Garcia. Thirtieth seed Karolina Pliskova. Mayar Sharif.

The five talented players have something in common: all fell victim to Magda Linette en route to her breakthrough maiden Grand Slam semifinal at Australian Open 2023.

At 30, the right-hander had never previously advanced past the round of 32 in 29 starts at majors. But a stunning run this fortnight has enabled her to make history as the third Polish woman to reach the final four at the Australian Open in the Open era after Iga Swiatek and Agnieszka Radwanska, the former world No.2 who has been a steady presence in Linette's support box.

Belated as it is, Linette's breakthrough is not totally out of the blue. The right-hander had opportunities to reach the second week of a major – she led Paula Badosa by a break in the third set of their third-round encounter at Wimbledon 2021, and clinched the opening set against Ons Jabeur at the same stage of Roland Garros just weeks earlier before losing in three.

But it wasn't until the Pole exacted revenge against Jabeur in Paris last year that she began to understand that a deep run at majors wasn't impossible. 

"That kind of gave me an extra kick that really showed me that I can really go far in those tournaments," she said.

"It's really [a] dream come true," she added on Wednesday, after posting a straight-sets win over Pliskova to reach the semis in Melbourne. 

"When you work so hard for so many years and you are so close so many times in so many Grand Slams, it's really great that eventually you get that reward."

Linette, who was forced to withdraw from AO 2021 following knee surgery, attributes much of her success to a pre-season that both developed her game and fitness while focusing on emotional management.

"I was usually really working very hard physically – this time we took it a little bit different," she said. 

"We kind of thought, 'okay, I'm not that young any more, I'm after one surgery, so we need to really be careful about how we approach this' – I think I'm so much fresher."

In her words, she invested time in learning to "grow up a little bit emotionally" after finding herself in tears last October during a challenging match in Tampico, Mexico.

Linette, who dropped a sole set to Kontaveit this fortnight, can now process the mistakes she makes during matches – and she said she has the clarity to understand that some errors are a positive indication that she's executing on her game plan.

Linette feels her emotional growth has made a big impact (Getty Images)

"I'm happy that I have this opportunity … finally I'm breaking something that you can't really measure it in any way," she explained. 

"When I'm down, I'm not that dramatic about it – I can still keep fighting against my opponent, not only myself.

"All through my life I've been taking mistakes and losses very personally, so I had to disconnect those two things. It was really difficult, because I felt a lot of times that the misses, the mistakes, were defining me."

Also buoying the Pole this fortnight is a sense of support – she has received a slew of congratulatory or encouraging messages and tweets from not just compatriots Swiatek and Hubert Hurkacz, but WTA rivals including Jessica Pegula and Marie Bouzkova.

This, too, is a relatively new development. In 2021, the right-hander joined the WTA player council where she meets with peers including Pegula and Victoria Azarenka, the latter a fellow contender for the AO women's singles title.

"First time I felt we have this camaraderie between each other, like we basically are on the chat together all the time every single day," said the Pole.

"It feels nice, because I felt I have never made too many friends on my own. I feel like I'm doing [it for] more [than] myself."

The Pole, who turns 31 next month, wasn't cashing in any sponsorship cheques until inking a contract with Joma three years ago, noted that drawing more off-court income earlier in her career could have made a huge difference.

Without it, results and subsequent prize money from individual tournaments begin to dictate decision-making, adding pressure to an already high-stakes situation.

"You win, you can afford to maybe take your coach to go for another tournament," she explained. 

"But if you lose, that kind of is a very difficult question … you can't really practice that well. You can't take [other] people with you, like a fitness coach or a physio. So it's not easy."

Linette's run to the last four comes with a career-best payday (Getty Images)

A mind-boggling run in Melbourne means Linette need not worry about how to pay her team, at least for a while. The Pole is guaranteed to earn at least $925,000 in prize money, roughly a fifth of what she's banked since making her professional debut in 2007.

MORE: AO 2023 women's singles draw

"I will never forget this," said Linette. "It's the first time ever I'm breaking through … I mean, this will stay with me for life, so I'm really grateful."

But she's not done yet.

The next player in her path is fifth seed Aryna Sabalenka – and the prepared Pole said she watched some of the 24-year-old's quarterfinal win over Donna Vekic.

"[Our] last encounter wasn't the best at the Olympics, so I think I have really big room there, because it obviously can't be any worse than the last one," said Linette, referencing her 6-2 6-1 defeat.

"I will just try what I'm doing this whole week. I'm being very consistent, returning really well, and keeping [hold on] my serves."

Should Linette bring her best, there's no reason Sabalenka won't be the latest name added to her list of slayed seeds.