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Not content with becoming the first UAE-born female to compete in the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, 17-year-old amateur Stefania Bojica underlined her name in the tournament’s history books by defeating World No.63 Danka Kovinic in her first-round qualifying match – to the open-mouthed amazement of her coaching team.

Bojica, born in Dubai to Romanian parents, only discovered she had received a wildcard on Thursday evening, yet she did not look out of place against a 28-year-old opponent who has reached four WTA singles finals. Cheered on by a vocal crowd willing to brave the midmorning sun on Court 3 at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium, Bojica overcame the experienced Kovinic 6-3, 7-6 (2) to book a place in Saturday’s second round of qualifying.

“I was a little bit emotional,” said Bojica, who burst into tears in the arms of her coach Andreu Gimeno immediately after exiting the court. “I still can’t process in my mind that I got my first WTA win. I’m so happy. The crowd was helping me a lot to motivate me to keep going. Today represents an open door – I can see now that I can compete at this level. I still need to work hard, keep progressing, and getting better, but this has been amazing.”

Bojica, who first started playing at the age of four and trains with the CF Tennis Academy, made her WTA debut earlier this month in Abu Dhabi, where she fell in straight sets to American Claire Liu, then ranked World No.52. In Dubai, perhaps with that on her mind, she started a little nervously, dropping her first service game before powering back to race into a 5-2 lead, playing confidently from the baseline, and saving six out of seven breakpoints.

In the second set, after ceding a little momentum, she showed great mental fortitude to battle back from 2-5 down to force a tiebreak, which she closed out when Kovinic double-faulted. “I felt I had nothing to lose,” added Bojica, who will now face Katarina Zavatska on Saturday morning in the second round of qualifying. “I felt I had no pressure as I was playing against someone with a much better ranking than me, so I came on the court with the aim of playing my best tennis and thankfully that’s what I did.”

Coach Gimeno, a director at the CF Tennis Academy and first-born son of 1972 French Open winner Andres, said he was feeling mixed emotions after watching the coming-of-age of a young woman he has been working with since she was just five.

“To see her on the court performing as she did today makes me very proud,” said an emotional Gimeno. “During the game I was trying to keep her calm when the match was not going in her favour. Stefi kept the right tension and recovered the momentum to take it to 5-5. At that moment, I started to believe we had a chance because she served very well. When it went to the tiebreak, she was more relaxed, which was crucial.”

Clark Francis, who founded the CF Tennis Academy in 1997, was lost for words after watching one of his students make history at a tournament that is this year celebrating its 23rd iteration. Stood in the Tennis Village and receiving warm wishes from passers-by familiar with his steadfast commitment to developing tennis talent in the UAE, Francis admitted he was in shock. “I still can’t quite believe it,” he said. “I can’t think of any words other than immensely proud – of Stefi, of Andreu, the whole team at the CF Tennis Academy. It’s just a really special day.”

The women’s event at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships was first held in 2001 and has grown into a WTA 1000 event with a prize purse of US$2.9 million. Salah Tahlak, Joint COO and Tournament Director, formerly a director of the UAE Tennis Federation, has regularly given wildcard opportunities to locally trained players. Unsurprisingly then, he was delighted to see Bojica start a new chapter in the tournament’s history.

“Huge congratulations are in order to Stefania and her entire coaching team,” Tahlak said “To see her make history today by becoming the first female born and raised in the UAE to play in the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships – and to win against an opponent ranked so highly in the WTA Rankings – is a very special moment for everyone. It is proof of the fantastic work being done here in the UAE in terms of developing the game from a grassroots level and creating a pathway to a professional sporting career. We wish her all the best for the rest of the tournament.”

Grab Your Seats
Tickets for the 31st edition of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships are on sale now at dubaidutyfreetennischampionships.com, starting from Dh55. Tickets are also available at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium Box Office between 9am and 9pm daily. This month’s Championships will start with the 23rd staging of the WTA event from February 19 to 25, before the 31st staging of the ATP Tour 500 tournament from February 26 to March 4. Both events carry equal prize money.

The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships is owned and organised by Dubai Duty Free and held under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.