MELBOURNE — Magda Linette is not the Polish player anyone expected to reach the Australian Open semi-finals.
Iga Swiatek, the world No 1 and comprehensively the best player in the world, was knocked out in the fourth round by Elena Rybakina and with world No 11 Hubert Hurkacz also losing on Sunday, Poland’s passionate and rapidly growing tennis fanbase looked like they would have little to cheer in the second week.
Step forward Magda Linette, 30 years old, ranked 45 in the world and at best (and six times) a third-round loser at a grand slam. Her first goal had been to defend the points she earned here a year ago by getting out of the first round. She has subsequently knocked out four seeded players and faces the big-serving Aryna Sabalenka on Thursday for a place in the final. Linette is already guaranteed to add $925,000 (£750,000), a 20 percent bump to the total winnings from her entire 12-year career, even if she loses.
“I need to check my bonus structure!” her coach Mark Gellard, originally from Reading, jokes to i.
“Honestly I’m still speechless about it. Because as a coach you believe – you have to believe – and I do really believe but until it happens… I don’t know what it’s like, I’ve never done it and as a coach, I’ve never been in this position .
“It means a lot to her. I said today before the match ‘Magda, you are a grand slam quarter-finalist and that’s never going to be taken away from you’. And now she’s grand slam semi-finalist. So we’re just building and I think I believe that even if she’d lost it [the quarter-final]she was doing the right stuff.”
And quietly, Gellard says he saw something like this coming.
“I think people don’t realize this has not just happened,” says Gellard.
“This has been us working on this stuff for a long time. She’s really matured.
“But I’m sort of a glass half empty kind of guy and I told her in November, ‘You’re gonna have the best year of your life, because I know you so well and I’ve seen things happening here that I didn’t even think we could do’.”
Gellard has known Linette for the best part of five years. They started working together in 2018 while based at an academy run by Alan Ma in Guangzhou, China but then split at the end of 2020.
“There were some issues off-court,” adds Gellard, who then spent a year on tour with American Shelby Rogers, helping her to career-best results at the Australian Open and Wimbledon.
“There were a lot of different people and moving pieces and things were just not good. I felt like at that point, it was almost like I was hurting results more than I was helping them. It was getting mundane, it was already three years and it was a bit repetitive.
“I said, ‘You need something else’. And I think what it did is it gave her something fresh, it gave me something fresh, but it also made us realize what we like about each other.
“I didn’t appreciate how hard she works and how much she fights, not that the other players don’t, but she’s just a really good competitor.”
They renewed their partnership for the 2022 season and started making progress, now based in Delray Beach, Florida. The tropical state is a hot bed of tennis talent, and Gellard rattles off a host of top-level sparring partners that are all just five or 10 minutes away: Jessica Pegula, Coco Gauff, Lauren Davis, Ajla Tomljanovic, Victoria Azarenka, Leylah Fernandez .
“Probably 20 in the top 100, plus the academies with all the top junior boys and girls, and the weather, all year round,” Gellard boasts. It sounds dreamy, and dry 35-degree heat in Melbourne is a breeze when you do pre-season in the humidity of Palm Beach.
But as much progress as Linette and Gellard made on the court, they found there was still work to do inside her head.
In 2022, they began working with Ian Hughes, another British coach who had in fact overseen Gellard’s own fledgling career when he was a player at the Sutton academy in south-west London.
- Thursday 26 January, 8.30am GMT: Elena Rybakina (22) vs Victoria Azarenka (24)
- Followed by: Magda Linette vs Aryna Sabalenka (5)
Gellard says: “We’ve had a couple of sports psychologists that have been helpful and then before the grass started last year, Ian had finished working with his player and had some time, so he’s come in and helped stabilize things a little bit. That’s been really good.”
And that relationship between the two coaches has been almost as important as between coach and player, it seems.
Linette says: “Ian is so experienced and brings a lot of calmness in our team, brings a little bit different perspective. I feel like they have this amazing communication.
“Because it’s so much up to them, that one is not really stepping on another one.
“I’m really grateful for them being so good at communicating and never making me feel, like, I have to choose one of them.
“So I think that’s very special, and not many people can have that and I’m really lucky with that.”
So what else has changed to take Linette from never having won more than two matches at a grand slam to being two wins away from a grand slam title?
“I wish I had an answer, that it was a one moment thing – it isn’t,” says Gellard.
“She does have a history of beating some of the bigger players on the big stage. I just think she hasn’t been able to master the consistency and this is the first time she has been able to put it together. I think she knows now what she’s trying to do. She’s got a very clear identity now.”
It wasn’t always that way. When Swiatek broke through and won the French Open as a teenager, it was a little bit of a shock to the system.
“I think when it first happened, there was a little bit of a like, ‘Jeez, I’ve been doing this so long and this girl has just come up here and outdone me in everything, after 12 years of playing pro and she’s just eclipsed me in a couple of months’,” says Gellard.
“But then you realize that having Iga is amazing, because she’s lifted the profile of tennis in Poland. So said Hurkacz, Hubert has done great. It’s just opened more doors for Magda though because people are talking about tennis more in Poland. People want to maybe sponsor tennis players and be involved in tennis.
“We just won the United Cup. Without Hubert and Iga, we’re not qualifying, we’re not even going to be in that. That was a great event. It was a really well run event and a great opportunity. So I think Magda is very good at being one that knows her position and she’s so happy for them as well, because they’re both really nice people.”
Poland has two global tennis stars. Maybe now they have three.