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By Richard Pagliaro | @Tennis_Now | Thursday, March 14, 2024

In her prior desert trip, Marta Kostyuk could barely breath.  

Kostyuk was exhaling in elation and blowing kisses to the crowd bursting into the Indian Wells semifinals today.

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San Diego finalist Kostyuk charged through nine consecutive games at the start then withstood a nervy finish fighting off Anastasia Potapova 6-0, 7-5 advancing to her first career WTA 1000 semifinal.

"I'm very happy with how I handled everything, because yeah, I mean, she was missing a lot in the beginning, and then, you know, she kind of tried to find her way," Kostyuk told the media in Indian Wells. "But I didn't let her. So I think that's the biggest achievement anyways."

The 21-year-old Ukrainian will face world No. 1 Iga Swiatek for a spot in Sunday's final.

Reigning Roland Garros Swiatek reeled off six games in a row, building a 6-4, 1-0 lead when former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki retired from their quarterfinal due to a right foot injury.

The top-seeded Swiatek practiced with Kostyuk last month and the No. 31 seed is looking forward to facing off for real in the semifinals.

"She's World No. 1. I think I need to do good, at least good," Kostyuk said. "Let's not put expectations too high. Great competitor, she's been on top of the game for two years already.

"Yeah, I practiced with her in Doha, I was really looking forward to actually play her in the match. I think it will be a great match.

"I don't know what else to say, because I'm excited, and I played her in Paris three years ago, and it was a bit different match. We were both in different positions. Even more exciting now."

It's been a wondrous west coast swing for Kostyuk, who was runner-up to Katie Boulter at the WTA 500 in San Diego earlier this month.

Today's victory propels Kostyuk to a career-high rank of No. 26 in the live rankings—all this from a woman whose Middle East swing was spoiled by a bout with sickness she believes may have been COVID-19.

"In Doha and Dubai I was very sick, so I didn't know how physically ready I'm going to be, because I think I had COVID, I don't know if I did, but, I mean, a lot of people had very similar symptoms that was COVID," Kostyuk said. "Yeah, I was just, I couldn't breathe for, like, one week at all.

"Then, yeah, playing final in San Diego, it was a great week, but then, you know, here is even more difficult than in San Diego, because the draw is bigger, the matches are bigger. I didn't know how I am going to handle all this."

Coping with life on the pro tour, while her friends live a scary and exhausting existence in her native Ukraine was once a source of some guilt for Kostyuk.

"I honestly cannot speak for people who are living in Ukraine because I'm not living there," Kostyuk said. "I was just visiting couple of times. And I feel like people are just, you know, it's very tiring and difficult to live in these conditions for years already. It's just exhausting for everyone.

"Yeah, I feel like the world doesn't understand how quickly things can turn around. You know, you think it's 6-0, 3-0, but in fact, it's much closer, you know."

Reflecting on the pain and suffering her fellow Ukrainians have endured has given Kostyuk a sense of perspective on tennis.

While she can still sometimes show stress and anxiety on court and even bounce her Wilson racquet, Kostyuk says she's driven to make the most of every opportunity.

"Honestly, for me, the person who is competing and trying to achieve something, there are a lot of things that have to align in order for you to succeed, and there are not many people in the world who are better than me in my job," Kostyuk said. "So yeah, I never take it for granted, because you might not have it tomorrow. I'm taking every chance. Obviously things are aligning now, you know. You need to find every day for them to keep on aligning.

"I hope in the future I will not be as surprised about my results. I just want to keep going and seeing how far I can go."

Photo credit: Clive Brunskill/Getty