Yuliia Starodubtseva was at a crossroads. Fresh off of starring for Old Dominion for five years, the Ukrainian had a decision to make as to where her path in life would go.

Professional tennis was an option but with no official WTA ranking, the prospects for Starodubtseva didn't look promising. Over the last 12 months, she has changed that and it has culminated in her debut at a Grand Slam.

Starodubtseva's 2023 sets up chance to qualify in Melbourne

The catalyst to the 23-year-old's success was a brilliant season on the ITF World Tennis Tour where she won four titles and reached two other finals to boost her ranking to 152nd in the world.

Starodubtseva made it through qualifying in just her second attempt after losing in the first round of last year's US Open, her 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (5) victory over Gabriela Knutson in the final round one of the best matches of the qualifying tournament.

"I don't even know if i'm realizing that this is happening", she said prior to learning that she would face sixth seed Ons Jabeur in her Grand Slam main draw debut.

"Thinking back to one year ago when I didn't have a ranking, it feels like a huge accomplishment in a way. It just feels great."

The effect of the war in Ukraine on ODU standout

A native of Kaukhova in southern Ukraine, Starodubtseva began playing tennis when she was just five and her father Volodymir was a former soccer goalkeeper, encouraging his daughter to play some sort of sport.

Her first coach was the grandfather of current world number 24 and countrywoman Anhelina Kalinina until she was 15 but the reality of the financial difficulty of playing at the international level soon began to sink in.

The biggest reason the then 18-year-old chose Old Dominion was the presence of other Ukrainians on the team as she spoke little English at the time and felt comfortable in these circumstances.

With seven Ukrainian women in the draw - the most in a Grand Slam since Wimbledon in 2008 - the war that is decimating their country is at the front of their minds.

Living in Westchester at the moment with her boyfriend Pearse Dolan, a native of Sydney, Starodubtseva's hometown has been occupied by Russian troops since the early days of the 2022 invasion.

Her mother Lidia and sister Diana have fled their homeland while the rest of her family is still in Ukraine with Yuliia saying "things are not easy [in Ukraine], but they stay positive, which helps me."

Diana, five years younger than her sister, is a sophomore at another Virginia-based school Hampton while their mother is residing in Ireland with her saying she has "everything she needs."

Standout college career leads Starodubtseva to greater opportunities

With Old Dominion, Starodubtseva compiled a 19-2 record in her freshman year, earning second-team all-Conference USA honors but her final two years proved to be her best.

With little opportunities to play in professional tournaments, the NCAA's decision to grant athletes an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, gave the Ukrainian the chance to return as a graduate student and the team's top player.

"I got to play so many good players", she said. "I got an opportunity to see my level a little bit better. I lost one [dual] match the whole semester while playing No. 1, while playing against good teams, so that brought the motivation back a bit."

A two-time Conference USA Player of the Year, Starodubtseva graduated with a bachelor's degree in communications and a master's degree in sports management.

After taking up a coaching position at the Westchester Country Club, she connected with former Futures player Carl Thorsen, who is her coach to this day.

He saw the potential that she had and agreed to coach her, a decision that Starodubtseva is still grateful for to this day. 

"I'm very thankful for all his help, support and belief in me, and I do enjoy working with them", the 23-year-old said.

Agreeing to coach part-time at Westchester and Century Country Club, Starodubtseva used those roles as a way to make money which funded her tennis career on the ITF Tour and UTR-sanctioned tournaments.

Assistance of key figures give Ukrainian belief she needed

Perhaps the biggest break came when a New York-based man named Tal Inbar started a GoFundMe page that has raised more than $23,000 for her expenses. 

Prior to moving in with Dolan at the end of last September, the Ukrainian slept on a friend's couch ahead of her first-round qualifying match in New York last year.

With people like Thorsen, Inbar and others believing in her, things began to change for good once Starodubtseva began believing in herself.

"[Leaving college], I didn't really set goals for myself. I just went there under pressure, as I am 23 years old. I'm not 17 anymore", she said while laughing.

"Getting my first wins against Top 200 players is when I thought like, 'OK, maybe this is happening, maybe I can do it and really be a good tennis player."

Starodubtseva set to face Jabeur in Grand Slam debut

Two points from defeat against Knutson, who served for the match at 5-4 in the third set, Starodubtseva managed to turn things around in the two-hour, 49 minute match.

Now as she faces Jabeur, the 23-year-old is ready to confront the three-time major finalist, who has played a key role in her story albeit in the background.

"It was actually funny. At the US Open, my first Grand Slam, the first time, I saw everyone", she said. "She was my first person that I saw that and I was like 'Wow, this is Ons. I'm here, i'm playing this tournament.' And now I have to play her."

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