LONDON — When Sonay Kartal played at Wimbledon for the first time as a junior, her proud parents were naturally present in the stands to watch her.

But not for long. Her father, a keen Roger Federer fan who still watches hours of the Swiss star’s highlights, got wind that his hero was on the practise courts — so that’s where he headed immediately, abandoning Kartal’s match.

“Of course I forgave him,” Kartal said with a laugh after defeating Clara Burel 6-3, 5-7, 6-3 in the Wimbledon second round. That result made the 22-year-old the first British qualifier to reach the third round at SW19 since Karen Cross in 1997, and set up a tilt against No.2 seed Coco Gauff.

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In a roundabout way, Federer was Kartal’s entry point into tennis. Her father owned two Turkish restaurants in the seaside town of Brighton, where Kartal was born and raised (she still has “lots of family” in Istanbul whom she visits whenever possible). One day, an LTA coach came in to eat, got talking to him, and invited Kartal’s brother to coaching sessions at the local club. Kartal followed — “I wanted to do everything my brother was doing” — and swiftly surpassed him, with coaches swiftly pinpointing her own talent.

Kartal’s route from there to the third round of Wimbledon hasn’t been straightforward. At the under-12 level, she was a frequent rival of Emma Raducanu; the pair would play finals most weeks. After Raducanu won the 2021 US Open, a clip of a remarkable rally she played against Kartal went viral (Kartal was the winner of it). But Kartal herself was on the sidelines, out of professional action for two years due to injury.

On returning in October 2021, it took just 12 months for Kartal to reach the Top 200. But health issues continued to beset her at the start of this year, and she entered Wimbledon at No.298.

“I had a scary few months at the start of the year,” said Kartal. “I said I won’t disclose what it was, but it was health-related. I didn’t think I would be back potentially at all this year. But I’ve got a great team around me, a doctor that when I thought I wouldn’t be back was completely determined, changed my mind that I would. I had full faith and fully believed she would get me back on the court.”

It’s appropriate that one of Kartal’s many tattoos is a symbol of bravery on her wrist. The origins of that go back even further, though.

“I wasn’t the best junior growing up,” she explained. “I wasn’t that great. A bit of a late developer. I lost a lot of matches from playing too safe. I kind of had enough of losing and was like, I need to change something. If I have it on my wrist, I can see it. It’s a little reminder at change of ends.”

One of the key changes Kartal made came during the Covid lockdown, when she began taking her fitness seriously. Her location meant that she was able to run for miles, discovering new routes and “endless areas” both along the south coast of England and in the scenic South Downs.

“It was something to do when there was nothing to do,” she said. “There was only so much telly you could watch. My social media was full of fitness, and I had weights at home. I just did basic home workouts. But it was more that I developed a love for it. When I was younger it felt like a chore, doing gym work and stuff. Now I absolutely love it and it’s so good for my mental health. I feel so good after going for a gym session.”

Shy as a child, Kartal’s coaches remember her pulling her cap so far down over her face that she avoided having to look at others.

“I didn’t want to speak to anyone and I’d hide behind my mother’s back,” she said, pointedly maintaining eye contact. “But all that’s long behind now.”

Kartal is ready for her big-stage moment against Gauff — and now, instead of sending round Federer memes, her father is messaging his friends highlights of his daughter.


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