(Photos via Qatar Tennis Federation)
A couple of days ago, Illya Marchenko was trying to calm himself down after pulling off the biggest upset of his career – a defeat of defending champion and world No7 David Ferrer in the opening round of the Qatar Open.
Today, the Ukrainian world No94 has notched two more victories – over Teymuraz Gabashvili and No7 seed Jeremy Chardy - and finds himself a semi-final opponent for Rafael Nadal in the opening week of the new season.
At 28, Marchenko is no tour rookie. He made two previous ATP semi-finals, at the Kremlin Cup in Moscow in 2009 and St. Petersburg in 2010 – the season which saw him hit a career-high No67.
But his career took numerous turns since then including a forced relocation from Donetsk due to the war in Ukraine.
Marchenko has not been back to Donetsk in two years and since teaming up with his Slovakian coach Tibor Toth (previously worked with Dominik Hrbaty) at the end of 2014, the Ukrainian has been living in Bratislava.
Is it difficult to focus on tennis at times with everything happening back home?
“Right now I don't think about that anymore. I accept the situation what I have, and I'm really enjoying living in Slovakia. The people of Slovakia have really welcomed me, and I'm really appreciating everyone,” said Marchenko.
“Everyone is really helping me there, so I'm happy and I can focus on my tennis. I have everything to work hard and to get the results.”
So far this week, Marchenko has claimed his first top-10 victory of his career and his run to the semi-finals has earned him $57,380 – that is more than a quarter of what he made all year last season.
It is a paycheck he certainly will be pleased with having invested in a pricy offseason, doing altitude training in the mountains in Slovakia with a full team accompanying him – something a player ranked in the 90s cannot necessarily afford.
Marchenko is both happy and surprised it immediately paid off.
“Comparing to the last year we have done some changes. I went to mountains with my fitness coach. Last year it was a different one. Now I was with my full team, my tennis coach and my physio. It was like a bit kind of investment for me,” said Marchenko. “I'm really happy it's paying back that quick.
“I was always investing as much as I can to my career because it's what I do. It's a job. You have to risk something. Really, I was with a team like maybe top guys can compare, and I'm really happy about that.”
He’s relishing the chance to face the world No5.
“It’s a great opportunity,” said Marchenko. “If you play those guys, you can improve your level and try your tennis against them and it's better to see what you have to work on. When you play those guys, your level going up. I'm really happy to play Rafa.”
Reflecting on what has been a stellar week, Marchenko admits refocusing after the high from the Ferrer victory was not easy. “The most important match after you beat David is the next one. It's really difficult to handle the stress,” he explained.
“Honestly, it was bad night for me. I couldn't sleep much. And the second round was a bit hectic. But still, the way I played this week helped me a lot, and I'm gaining confidence match after match.”
On his part, Nadal is preparing himself for another tricky encounter after squeezing past Kuznetsov in the quarters on Thursday in Doha.
“Well, he played amazing, I think, no?” Nadal said of his Russian opponent yesterday. “He played so crazy with amazing shots. It was so difficult to be under control, no?
“I think I played a great third set, because if not, I will not be in that semi-final.”
On Marchenko, Nadal added: “I saw him play during the whole week. He's playing fantastic. The match against David (Ferrer) was great, and today against Jeremy he played amazing, too. He's playing with big confidence. So it will be a big challenge for me tomorrow and I hope to be ready for it.”