As you read the title, you may ask “Who is Marsel Ilhan?” He is a professional tennis player, currently ranked No. 104 in the ATP. He hails from Turkey, a country that neither had a male player ranked in the top 100, nor one that won a match in the Majors, until Ilhan.
Ilhan came into the pro scene in 2006 at the age of 19 and slowly began working his way up in the rankings, shattering record after record in his home country. In 2010, he finally became the first Turkish male player to earn a top-100 ranking. He did not stop there and went on to become the first Turkish male player to qualify for the main draw of majors. He even won a round in both the Australian Open and Wimbledon, breaking his own record for his country. In 2011, he reached a career-high ranking of 87. Since then, he has been out of the top 100 but continued competing in ATP events and challengers.
2014 was the year that marked his second surge. He qualified again for the main draw of Wimbledon and began recording quality wins and started making his climb back to top-100 ranking. In this year’s Australian Open, after qualifying for the main draw, he became the first Turkish player to face a top-five player in the majors when he drew Stan Wawrinka in the first round. The match was played in the Rod Laver Arena and Wawrinka won in straight sets. Ilhan admitted to having the jitters afterwards.
In this week’s ATP Dubai Open, Ilhan yet again made history. After going through the qualifying draw and defeating Alexandr Zverev in the first round of the main draw, he faced the world No. 13 Feliciano Lopez. After a thrilling match, he came back from a set down to defeat the Spaniard 3-6, 7-5, 6-3. To put things into perspective, Lopez is not just any top-20 player. He is one of the feared players on the circuit, left-handed and mostly a serve-and-volleyer with an arsenal of awkward baseline strokes. He is known as a competitor who knows how to win close matches. Just look at his recent run to the round of 16 in the Australian Open. After winning two matches from match points down, only Milos Raonic could stop him after a nail biter that went five set, in which Lopez also saved match points in the fourth to extend the match.
Ilhan’s win over Lopez marked the first time ever a male Turkish player defeated a top -15 player and the first time one reached the quarters of an ATP 500-level tournament. Later in the day, Ilhan connected via telephone with the Turkish television channel SportsTV. The excitement in his voice was bursting through the line. He said that he knew one day he was going to record a big win, but just did not know when and where. He then added “apparently, Dubai was it!” He was happy about the core group of Turkish tennis fans who support him wherever he goes: “Federer was playing at the same time, so there weren’t many spectators, but I had great support. I am serving well, too, so that helps.”
Next, he faced the world number one Novak Djokovic. Ilhan modestly said that playing Djokovic would be a great experience. After continuously making history for his home country, nothing could have topped a win over the best player in the world. It turned out to be a routine win for the latter, as most expected. Yet, it mattered little because the match was broadcast live on Turkish TV. Nothing motivates a younger generation of tennis players more than watching one of their own play against the best player in the world, especially if the country never produced a top-100 men’s player before, let alone one that took the court against high-profile names in the game. The broadcast also added to the interest that tennis has generated for the last decade in the country. Istanbul has hosted the year-ending WTA Tour Championships three years in a row and also hosts a yearly WTA International Tier Tour event in July. Furthermore, it will begin hosting the TEB BNP Paribas Istanbul Open, an ATP 250 event, for the first time this year, featuring none other than Roger Federer.
As to Ilhan, he is already guaranteed to have his name on another category in the history of men’s tennis in his home country: that of the first Turkish male player to break the top-80 barrier when the new rankings come out next week. More importantly, the impact that he has already had, and continues to have, on Turkish tennis is not measurable in numbers.