Ukraine's Marta Kostyuk hits a forehand return to compatriot Elina Svitolina during their third round match at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Friday, Jan. 19, 2018.
Ukraine's Marta Kostyuk hits a forehand return to compatriot Elina Svitolina during their third round match at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Friday, Jan. 19, 2018. AP Photo - Dita Alangkara

World swooning over 15-year-old girl

EVEN in defeat Marta Kostyuk emerged a winner.

The 15-year-old Ukrainian lost her third round match at the Australian Open to countrywoman Elina Svitolina on Friday but she leaves Melbourne with a little slice of history. By getting as far as she did she became the youngest woman to reach the third round of a major since Mirjana Lucic-Baroni at the US Open in 1997, and the youngest third rounder at the Australian Open since Martina Hingis in 1996.

Oh, and she did it in her first senior grand slam, if you don't mind.

Kostyuk found herself in the main draw of the year's first major because she won the junior title in Melbourne 12 months ago to get a wildcard into qualifying, then won all three of her qualifiers.

A 6-2 6-2 win in the first round against World No. 27 Shuai Peng from China - ranked nearly 500 places above Kostyuk - was followed by a 6-3 7-5 victory over Australian Olivia Rogowska.

Showing talent to burn and composure well beyond her years, it took a No. 4 seed with 10 career WTA titles to put an end to her eye-catching run.


Raw talent may be enough to attract the world's attention but keeping it is another matter - there are other intangibles to consider. Roger Federer this week spoke of the power of the microphone and how important it is for players to remain authentic when presenting themselves to the media so they can connect with the public - something he's perfected over a 20-year professional career.

We doubt she knows it or did it intentionally, but Kostyuk took a leaf out of Federer's book and did just that. It's why the more the world sees of her, the more likely it is to fall in love with her.

At all her media obligations in Melbourne Kostyuk spoke honestly, funnily, intelligently and emotionally. Not jaded by years of intense public scrutiny and free of external pressure, she came across in the best way imaginable - like the 15-year-old girl she was.

She was charming us all and she didn't even know it.

Whether it was explaining she would buy presents for her family then for herself "a bit" with her whopping pay check of more than $140,000 instead of looking at "some big investment", or saying the biggest thing she learnt from her grand slam experience was there is no "super big difference between all the players", Kostyuk became more and more likeable with every word.

She obviously didn't mean it this way, but imagine telling World No. 4 Svitolina she's not much better than someone ranked 100 places below her. Surely that would be a blow to the ego.

Then there was the moment she answered a question about receiving a code violation for seeking assistance from her box, which she swears she didn't do. Passion? Tick.

"I was so mad," Kostyuk said. "I wasn't upset. I was so mad, because I didn't see what mum was showing me. I just look at her. I showed, like, I didn't do right shot, and I turned so I didn't see what she was showing me. Then when the referee said code violation, I was, like, 'What? I didn't even see her.' I swear I didn't see what she was showing me. I was so mad, because I knew that I would be fined for this, you know."

Being a professional tennis player requires a healthy dose of independence. You may travel with an entourage but it's a deeply individual sport. Playing on the pro tour at 15 means Kostyuk has had to grow up faster than most, which she acknowledged after her loss when she said: "I've had quite an adult life since I was small."

But in an age where kids run the risk of growing up too fast, the Ukrainian has no desire to rush the process.

"I also can be a kid, you know, at the same time," she said with a big smile. "It's not like I'm always like this, serious. I'm still 15."

That reality was made abundantly clear after succumbing to Svitolina on Rod Laver Arena. Kostyuk admitted she couldn't stop the tears - not just because she lost, but because she believed she played "really, really bad" and knew she was capable of so much better.

Watching on in the stands mother Talina Beiko - playing the dual role of coach and loving parent - consoled her daughter when she was overcome with emotion.

"She said, 'Marta, you are good. Nothing bad happened.' Because I was so disappointed. Like, I was crying," Kostyuk said.

"She said, like, that you will play like this. Because she knows me very well and she knows how I will play in this situation. She said it was fine. Everyone knows that you can play better, and you showed everyone how you can play. Nothing, like, nothing bad had happened.

"I don't want to talk about this, because I will start to cry again. I want to - yeah. So she said that everything is OK …"

Here she was, in the third round of one of her first grand slam, the biggest moment of her young life playing against the fourth best player in the world and all she wanted was a shoulder to cry on and for her mum to tell her everything would be alright.

We've all been there. It was raw and it was perfect.

Let's hope Kostyuk is allowed to develop at her own pace and this breakout performance doesn't burden her with unrealistically high expectations. If she keeps trending the way she is, it won't be long before the world thanks her for it.