The Unforgettable Moment - Laureus World Breakthrough of the Year

Laureus World Sports Academy Member Monica Seles writes about what happens when an athlete first takes their place among the elite in their sport as she reveals the nominees for the 2023 Laureus World Breakthrough of the Year Award
There are moments in the life of every elite athlete that are unforgettable; unique to each of us, but in other ways part of a shared experience. Each of the nominees for the Laureus World Breakthrough of the Year Award know what I mean.
When I think about that breakthrough moment, two things come to my mind: my first Grand Slam title; and finding myself across the net from my hero. That’s what happened to the two tennis players who are among our outstanding nominees for this Award. 

I was in Indian Wells in March of last year, watching one of the semi-finals. That tournament is an ATP Masters 1000 event, but as I got lost in the game, it felt like the final of a Slam – the quality, the athleticism and above all, the intensity. I was watching Rafael Nadal and a then 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz. 

Nadal was Alcaraz’s hero when he was growing up and you could almost see that story out on the court in California. They are both from Spain and the tennis culture there is so strong; it was that way for my generation, and it hasn’t changed. But players like Alcaraz – or Nadal – don’t come along very often.
I was taken by how similar their styles were. Alcaraz fights. He’s so impressive on both sides. The serve, the return – I was watching a complete player. But more than anything, I noticed the focus on every point. I imagined this teenager walking out against his idol and thinking: ‘If I want to compete with this guy, I need to up the ante.’ 

It reminded me how I felt when I was starting out and I played Martina Navratilova or Chris Evert. I had a poster of Martina on my wall. The way she played inspired me, because she was so unconventional – a lefty, and no-one was playing serve-and-volley back then; no-one was playing that aggressive game. And she had to go through so much just to follow her dream, very few of us can even relate to that. So, growing up, I always wanted to meet her. I didn’t think I would ever play her. Oh, now I’m supposed to try to beat her? We had some great matches, really feisty. But after we retired, we have been able to form a beautiful friendship.
Maybe Nadal and Alcaraz aren’t there just yet, but I did see a mutual respect. And by the end of the year, Alcaraz proved he belonged in that kind of company. When you’re a talented young player, no matter how talented, if you haven’t won a Grand Slam, that’s what they are going to ask you about. Well, after the US Open, that job was done, and this teenager ended the year as World No.1. 
As a member of the Laureus World Sports Academy, the weeks before the Laureus World Sports Awards are tough. It’s voting season and we are tasked with choosing between some of the best athletes in the world. For this category, the Laureus World Breakthrough of the Year, there are more than just the two tennis players I am talking about here.
Also nominated is Tobi Amusan, who won Nigeria’s first ever World Championship track-and-field gold in the 100m hurdles. And she did it in style, smashing the world record in the process.
Nathan Chen won Olympic gold in men’s figure skating, and his score in the short programme was a world record. At the World Cup, the men’s team from Morocco did something no African nation had ever done, making it through to the semi-finals. And in golf, in a year where a new generation of players swept the board in the Majors, Scottie Scheffler was first among equals, winning The Masters and ending the year, like Alcaraz, with the No.1 spot in his sport. 
I still don’t know where my vote will go, but I can tell you a little more about the achievement of the last athlete on this list: Elena Rybakina. 

When you win that first Grand Slam, as Elena did at Wimbledon in 2022, there really is no feeling like it – and it’s one that you will never be able to replicate. When I watched Elena in that moment, it was beautiful, because she was so natural and true. Her reaction was like: ‘Oh my God, did this really happen?’ Well, it did, and I don’t think it will be the last time. 

This is the beauty of sport. At the start of Wimbledon, each of the 120 players in that draw, and the people around them, could find a way to believe this would be their year. But outside of what the players themselves believe, the number of players who are seen as potential winners is very short. And the name of Elena Rybakina, then the World No.23, was not on that list. Only Venus Williams, who was ranked 31st when she won in 2007, rose from a lower position to become champion – but Venus had already won the tournament three times. 
And if you’re going to win your first Grand Slam, let it be Wimbledon! That place is just different – there are a lot of distractions, with the royal box and all the tradition, it’s easy to forget some of the hard work and preparation that has got you to that point. Elena never seemed to let any of that enter her mind. 

I always think about that side of the journey at these moments: the years of sacrifice and hard work, not just for the athlete but their family also. And suddenly, here is the moment that makes it all worthwhile. When that time came, Rybakina was able to grasp it, and to be true to herself. That memory is hers forever.
The Laureus World Sports Awards are a wonderful celebration of these athletes – an event that is like the Oscars for sport – but the Awards are not the reason I was so thrilled when Laureus asked me to join the Academy in 2012. 

What appealed to me were the words of Nelson Mandela at the first Laureus World Sports Awards, when he said that “sport has the power to change the world”. I know it changed my life, and I want to use that power to help and inspire young people.
I know athletes have the power to do just that. For me, such a moment came in my home city of Novi Sad, in what was then Yugoslavia. I was about eight years old and Yannick Noah, a former French Open champion, came to town for a Davis Cup match. I got to meet him, and he ended up giving me his racket and – oh my gosh! – that racket meant so much to me. I would sleep with it in my bed and as a kid who dreamed of playing tennis, that one moment had such an impact on me.
As members of the Laureus World Sports Academy, we have the chance to have that impact, but on a much bigger scale. The Academy is like a Who’s Who of world sports and we can go all over the world, to the many projects supported by Laureus Sport for Good, and inspire young people to use the power of sport to change their lives.
Our goal is to use that power to end violence and discrimination and inequality. Maybe one day one of the kids we meet will end up having their own breakthrough moment and making their way onto the list from which we have choose a winner. But for now, we have enough contenders to think about. 

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