“Some of my friends at home have been watching,” Louisa Chirico said after her 7-6 (1), 6-2 win over Daria Gavrilova in the quarterfinals of the Mutua Madrid Open on Thursday.


What, exactly, would it take to get all of them to tune in this week? The 19-year-old Chirico, who is ranked 130th in the world, has come out of qualifying to reach the semifinals of one of the WTA’s four Premier Mandatory events, the highest level below the Grand Slams. Granted, Chirico got some help when Victoria Azarenka pulled out of their fourth-round match with a back injury. But this New York-area native, who only found out she had made it into the qualies late last week, has recorded wins over Gavrilova, Ana Ivanovic and the ever-tricky Monica Niculescu.

The semis were probably the last place Chirico thought she would be at the start of the tournament. Prior to this week, she hadn't been past the round of 16 at any event in 2016. She has lost in the first round of qualifying four times. And in Stuttgart, where she did qualify, Chirico was welcomed to the main draw with a 6-0, 6-0 defeat at the hands of Petra Kvitova in the first round. As of Thursday, though, Chirico was starting to sound like a player who believed she could play at this level.


“I don’t think I’m finished yet,” she said of her chances in the semis, where she’ll face Dominika Cibulkova.

Chirico’s confidence has a lot to do with the surface she’s playing on. She's likely the only U.S. player who has ever finished a tweet about the clay swing with the hashtag #favoriteseason. Her results tell you why: After failing to win a match on hard courts in Monterrey, Indian Wells, Miami and Osprey (yes, the road to the top in tennis takes you through some funny-sounding places), Chirico has 12 wins since shifting to dirt in Charleston last month.


“I did grow up playing most of the summers on clay,” Chirico said last year, “which I know is rare, especially for someone from New York, because we play indoors most of the winter. For the summertime I grew up on clay. That’s maybe why I’m so comfortable on it.

"It does suit my game. I play a little bit heavier than some of the girls who play flat. I guess I’ve always just loved it. I move pretty well on it.”

Chirico looked comfortable the whole way against Gavrilova. As she says, she hits a heavy topspin forehand with a Western grip, and likes to take it from above her shoulder. And while she won’t make anyone forget Bjorn Borg or Rafael Nadal, she can slide into her shots, an extreme rarity for a U.S. player. Chirico rocks into her service motion with confidence, and she finished one point with an overhead that inspired Gavrailova to shout out “Nice!” as the ball screamed past her.

It isn’t just Chirico’s background on clay that’s unusual for an American, though; as she told WTA Insider in an interview earlier this week, she played soccer “pretty seriously” until she was 12. Portuguese tennis writer and broadcaster Miguel Seabra has long theorized that the rise of European tennis and the relative decline of the U.S. can be traced in part to the sports each group grows up playing.

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Americans, who learn to throw on the baseball diamond and on the football field, have always been famous for big serves and forehands. Europeans, who grow up playing soccer and learning, as Seabra puts it, to “create with their feet,” are better at moving and defending. In the last decade, movement and defense have become more crucial than ever in tennis, on all surfaces. Now that youth soccer has made major inroads in the U.S., we’ll see if it helps the country produce better tennis players down the road.

For now, Chirico has thrown her hat into the crowded ring of American hopefuls on the women’s side. With this result, she’ll crack the Top 100 for the first time. The question is whether, after Madrid, we’ll hear her name again any time soon. In the past year, Christina McHale, Nicole Gibbs, Alison Riske, Samantha Crawford and CoCo Vandeweghe have popped their heads out of water with brilliant runs of tennis before falling out of view again. Even as Chirico was rising in Madrid, the top two U.S. women under age 34, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, were getting ousted by little-known Romanian Patricia Maria Tig. The U.S. has the quantity, but is still waiting for a Top 5-quality player to follow in the footsteps of Serena and Venus Williams.

For now, the more young faces the better. While the clay season will be over soon, Madrid should be a major boost for Chirico, both in terms of confidence and opportunity. With her result this week, she has guaranteed herself direct entry into Wimbledon’s main draw.

Hopefully all of her friends will tune in for that.