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When 20-year-old Sebastian Korda arrived for the qualifying rounds at last fall’s pandemic-delayed Roland Garros, he had never before won a tour-level match.

Less than two weeks later, he had become the youngest American to reach the fourth round of a Grand Slam since Michael Chang in 1991, earning a chance to play his childhood idol—and the namesake of his beloved cat, Rafa—on Court Philippe Chatrier.

The idol in question was, of course, Rafael Nadal himself. The clay-court savant ended Korda’s unforgettable run, allowing him just four games in a two-hour demolition. As if hoping to briefly extend his dream Roland Garros experience, Korda unabashedly asked his hero for a signed shirt as they tapped racquets at the net. The Spaniard happily obliged.

“To my friend Sebastian,” he wrote. “All the best in your tennis career.”

Despite the loss, a wide-eyed Korda described the encounter as the coolest moment of his life, betraying the fact that he navigates his matches with an enviable combination of intensity and chill. Standing 6’5”—not counting the unruly blond hair that adds an inch or two to his lanky frame—Korda has a slightly bow-legged stroll that seemingly saves every bit of spare energy for battle.

His approach to tennis has been similarly unbothered, several steps removed from the pressure-packed fast track so often traveled by top American juniors. Despite being a highly touted talent living just down the road from the famed IMG Academy, Korda never seemed to sweat the speed at which his breakthrough would come.

“This is our best American prospect in a long, long time,” Andy Roddick said on Tennis Channel.

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“My parents were big on staying home, growing up and blossoming,” Korda says. “They didn’t want me to burn out, and I’m super grateful for how it turned out.”

While his mother and father may sound like the authors of the latest parenting best-seller, they were simply armed with firsthand knowledge of the challenges that lie ahead. Korda is the son of Czech players Petr Korda, the 1998 Australian Open champion and former world No. 2, and Regina Rajchrtová, who rose to a career-high rank of No. 26. He’s also little brother to Jessica and Nelly, who are sports stars in their own right on the LPGA Tour.

Nicknamed Sebi or Seb—Sebastian is reserved for when he’s in trouble—Korda played a variety of sports as a child, focusing on hockey and dabbling in tennis, golf, skiing and taekwondo. Unlike many serious athletes who opt to study online, he graduated from a brick-and-mortar high school near his hometown of Bradenton, Fla., and found plenty of free time to play video games, have sleepovers with friends and go fishing.

It all sounds relatively normal. But in the world of professional sports, normal is relative.

Korda’s first tennis memory is not of a match he watched on television, but of a day he spent playing around with a Disney-themed racquet his dad brought back from a legends event in Orlando. He broke it in half trying to return the serve of former world No. 8 Radek Stepanek, whom his father was coaching at the time.

In his 2012 Instagram debut, a baby-faced Korda didn’t share a flawlessly filtered image of a trendy subject; rather, he stands on a US Open practice court alongside Novak Djokovic, grinning ear-to-ear as hundreds of autograph-seeking fans wait patiently in the stands nearby.

Even the manner in which Korda officially caught the tennis bug is a reminder of his unique upbringing. At the 2009 US Open, he watched from the players’ box as Stepanek faced Djokovic under the lights inside a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium. Then just 9, he found the New York atmosphere irresistible, and immediately knew that his hockey days were over. Luckily, he had all the resources to make a seamless transition.

With a wealth of tennis knowledge and a host of tennis connections, Korda’s parents were the architects of every aspect of his game. But upon meeting Korda, who is both warm and well-spoken, it’s clear their top priority was his development as a person.

In fact, all three of the Korda kids—or “KORDAshians,” as they have jokingly called themselves on social media—appear to be jackpot material in both the genetics and congeniality departments, dropping everything to watch a sibling on TV or send a text of congratulations to each other.

Korda’s sisters have used the words “goofy” and “silly” to describe him, but he contends he has a serious, thoughtful side as well.

“I just have a lot of love to give,” Korda says with a bashful smile. “Anyone I meet I always try to be super nice to them. It doesn’t matter who you are. I always try to treat you respectfully. That’s just how I was brought up.”

While his father was on the road caddying for eldest daughter Jessica, Korda’s mother became largely responsible for constructing her son’s smooth and simple strokes—with a little outside inspiration.

“I loved [Marat] Safin growing up,” Korda says of the former No. 1. “He was as cool as it got on the court. I think I modeled my backhand after his.”

The right-handed Korda personifies the term “easy power.” Tennis balls explode off his strings like cannons, despite the fact that he seems to be using remarkably little force. Even his footwork lacks the laboring visual common with taller players; his mother insisted his footwork on court be as silent as possible.

But Korda considers his mental game his greatest strength—though that’s not to say it came naturally.

“As a kid, I would always be complaining, whining or crying,” he says, laughing. “My mom wasn’t having it. And there were times where my dad would kick me off the court if I had a bad attitude. I learned a lot of lessons during practice sessions.”

Patience was one of them.

“Oh, I wanted to be No. 1 in the world right away,” he says. “I was always committed to going pro. You can’t have two plans, because you’re going to be 80% in Plan A and 20% in Plan B. You have to be 100% committed.”

Instead of channeling that commitment into never-ending practices and constant international travel on the ITF junior circuit, Korda’s parents often limited him to an hour of tennis a day during his formative years. They hoped to preserve the health of his body as well as his childhood.

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“I loved [Marat] Safin growing up,” Korda says of the former No. 1. “He was as cool as it got on the court. I think I modeled my backhand after his.”

“I loved [Marat] Safin growing up,” Korda says of the former No. 1. “He was as cool as it got on the court. I think I modeled my backhand after his.”

“I know from my experience that when you become a professional athlete, you change your train,” Petr says. “Suddenly, it’s a bullet train and you have a lot of responsibility, and so we wanted [our kids] to enjoy their childhood and their time together.”

Korda didn’t compete outside of Florida until he was 15, taking advantage of the considerable number of tournaments in his home state. He didn’t play an international event until he was 16, but still managed to win the Australian Open boys’ title and rise to the top junior ranking before his 18th birthday. At the professional level, he made slow but steady progress as his wiry body continued to mature, finishing 2018 ranked 524th in the world and 2019 ranked just inside the Top 250.

As Korda’s schedule intensified, Petr and Regina delegated some training and travel responsibilities to experienced coaches Dean Goldfine and Theodor Devoty. Korda’s fitness development has come courtesy of another proven veteran in Marek Vseticek, who has worked with Petr and other Czech greats, including Tomas Berdych and Petra Kvitova.

“During quarantine [in 2020], I was running 40 minutes a day,” Korda says. “The most I ran at one time was 15 miles. A lot of the guys now are in the gym doing weights, but my parents and Marek don’t believe in that. I want to be stable in my upper body, but be able to run and play all day.”

Given his focus on endurance, it is perhaps no surprise to hear that Korda’s favorite surface is clay. It’s an unusual admission from an American player, until you remember that he has European DNA. In addition to training extensively on the green version of the surface, he has spent lengthy periods of time in the Czech Republic training and visiting extended family.

When Korda is home, his dad serves as a built-in practice partner. Though they don’t play sets, he raves about his 53-year-old father’s skill level, and thoroughly enjoys the time they spend on court together. Their close relationship stems, in part, from the fact that the elder Korda is not interested in living vicariously through his child.

“I’ve done my share under the spotlight and I enjoyed it, but this is about Sebi,” Petr says. “I just want to be dad.”

An open book when it comes to his son’s character and commitment, Petr is more tight-lipped when it comes to the specifics of his game. He allows the twinkle in his eye to speak for itself.

“When you go to a fancy restaurant and you have a fantastic meal, you talk to the cook who will always be happy that you appreciated the meal, but he will never tell you the recipe,” Petr says. “I know his weaknesses and I know where he is good, but that is part of the recipe.”

The 20-year-old Korda followed up a fourth-round run at Roland Garros with a runner-up finish in Delray Beach and a quarterfinal berth in Miami. His next challenges will come with meeting the sky-high expectations he’s earned.

The 20-year-old Korda followed up a fourth-round run at Roland Garros with a runner-up finish in Delray Beach and a quarterfinal berth in Miami. His next challenges will come with meeting the sky-high expectations he’s earned.

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His foundation meticulously laid, Korda started building skyward with his 2020 Roland Garros run, and followed it up with his first ATP Challenger Tour title less than a month later.

In an effort to keep his momentum rolling in the off-season, he reached out to an old friend of his father: eight-time Grand Slam champion Andre Agassi. Their initial conversation led to a two-week training stint with the Agassi-Graf family in Las Vegas, Nev.

“Andre told me how good I am and how much better I can be,” Korda says, noting that he remains in regular phone contact with Agassi. “My family tells me that, but it doesn’t really sink in until you hear it from someone else.”

To be fair, if Korda hasn’t heard “it” elsewhere, he has wisely distanced himself from the hype.

“He’s going to be an incredible player,” John McEnroe told ESPN.com.

“I really believe that we are looking at a great player [in Sebastian],” added Nadal after their match.

“This is our best American prospect in a long, long time,” Andy Roddick said on Tennis Channel.

But with Agassi’s personal feedback fresh in his mind, Korda began his 2021 season by opting to skip Australian Open qualifying, instead taking a wild card into the Delray Beach Open, and playing Challenger events in Europe.

“Sometimes you’ve got to risk it for the biscuit,” Korda said of the decision, which immediately paid off with a runner-up finish in Delray Beach, a second Challenger title in France and a subsequent Top 100 debut.

If that weren’t impressive enough, he went on to reach the quarterfinals in just his second ATP Masters 1000 event in Miami, notching wins over No. 18 Fabio Fognini and No. 9 Diego Schwartzman in the process. That performance put him within striking distance of the Top 50, and even a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

Even with his recent success, Korda is well aware that his personal recipe, no matter how expertly crafted, cannot guarantee Michelin stars on the ATP tour. The rigors of circuit life, the pressure of expectation and constant injury risk wait indiscriminately to play spoiler. For now, Korda says he’s focusing on the things he can control, which include increasing his serve velocity, adding consistency, approaching the net more often—and enjoying the little things.

When Korda looks back on his breakthrough 2021, his experience in Delray Beach sticks out. His parents sat in the stands, quietly enjoying the fruits of their labor in real time. His sisters joined them for his championship match against Poland’s Hubert Hurkacz, and the tight-knit family unit, often scattered by international competition, found itself in an increasingly rare position: all together.

That, Korda says, may have replaced his Nadal encounter as the coolest moment of his life.

For a player with chill to spare, cool moments may very well define his future.