PARIS — For its size and global importance as the nexus of Asia and Europe, Turkey is a tennis backwater — especially considering that some of its closest European neighbors, countries such as Serbia and Bulgaria, have spawned top-tier talent.
This year’s French Open is signaling change.
For the first time, Turkey placed three players, two women and one man, in the singles main draw at a major. No female Turk had previously appeared in a Grand Slam singles match.
And in a precedent-setting milestone Monday, Cagla Buyukakcay gave her country another first: a woman in the second round.
In a match suspended by chilly showers the night before, the 83rd-ranked Buyukakcay defeated Aliaksandra Sasnovich of Belarus, 5-7, 7-6 (7-2), 6-2. Buyukakcay had already won three matches last week to qualify for the main draw.
“It means a lot,” said Buyukakcay, whose words flowed in a soft but deliberate cadence. The slightly built 5-foot-8, 128-pound player added: “Tennis is improving in Turkey, and I’m really happy to be a part of it.”
If she advances any further, she will be on her own. Her compatriots both exited Roland Garros on Tuesday.
A predominantly Muslim nation, Turkey is a secular state. But women, in particular, have faced challenges on the athletic front because of a combination of social mores and available opportunities, though that is changing, all three players said.
Buyukakcay pointed to a lack of tennis tradition, not culture or religion, for her nation’s thin history of success.
“I’m proud to be Muslim and proud to be Turkish,” she said in an interview Monday. “I don’t have any problems as a woman.”
A late bloomer, Buyukakcay, 26, conceded that she struggled to transition to life as a professional because tennis is a relatively new sport in her country.
“For the religion part, I never had problems,” she said. “I’m sure a lot of people who visit Turkey — they really see that we are very welcom[ing]. We have a very nice culture. We have very nice cities.”
Buyukakcay (pronounced BYU-ka-ku-chai) is an anomaly as much for where she comes from as for how she became a successful female professional.
A native of Adana, a city about 450 miles south of Istanbul within easy driving distance of the Mediterranean Sea, Buyukakcay relocated with her family at age 15 to pursue tennis.
For the next two years in Istanbul, she continued to attend school and competed only in local and national junior events. At 17, the talented teenager caught a break when sports authorities and a generous sponsor decided to see whether they could help pave her way to the pros.
With money for a private coach and the ability to travel to small professional events, she began a decade-long journey to bridge the gap.
“I had to work harder because I didn’t have any junior career,” Buyukakcay said. “I was motivated because no one in our Turkish history played in any Grand Slam,” she added.
Her rise has been slow and steady. Competing mostly in lower-tier International Tennis Federation Pro Circuit events below the WTA level, Buyukakcay gradually improved and moved up the rankings. By 2013, she cracked the top 150, but stalled when she was finally able to gain entry to top WTA tournaments.
After rebounding from a slow first half of 2015, she notched some significant wins, among them a defeat of last year’s French Open runner-up Lucie Safarova this February on hard courts in Doha, Qatar.
None was more important than last month, when she became the first woman from her country to win a WTA title at her home event on clay in Istanbul. In eight previous attempts, Buyukakcay failed to win a match either in the main draw or qualifying at the same event.
“At the end it was a dream for me,” said Buyukakcay, who won five matches and beat No. 59 Danka Kovinic of Montenegro in a tense three-set final. “The best feelings of my life.”
At the majors, however, she was stuck.
Three times she advanced to the final round of qualifying, only to fall short.
“It was frustrating,” she said.
She arrived in Paris a different player.
“I came here very confident,” said Buyukakcay, who grew up on hard courts but showed patience and a deft drop shot in her first-round defeat of 98th-ranked Sasnovich.
The tours have contributed to the rising tide of tennis in Turkey.
The ATP runs an event on clay in Istanbul and will add a second event in 2017 in Antalya on grass. The WTA has held an event in Istanbul since 2005, and staged its rotating year-end championships in the capital from 2011 to 2013.
Grass-roots efforts and government financial support have also played a role, according to Buyukakcay’s coach, Can Uner.
An influx of lower-rung professional and junior events, combined with participation efforts and coaching education, has greased the fortunes of players such as Soylu, a 20-year-old ranked No. 171, who also qualified at Roland Garros.
For instance, there were a total of 101 Pro Circuit men’s and women’s events in 2015, up from 76 in 2011, according to the ITF.
“The infrastructure has gotten better, I can say that,” said Uner, who helped Ilhan become Turkey’s first player in the top 100 before joining forces with Buyukakcay four years ago.
Buyukakcay next faces No. 24 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia in the second round Wednesday.
A win would guarantee more national history: A new high ranking for a player from Turkey, male or female. Ilhan, who climbed to No. 77 in March 2015, currently holds that honor.
The Olympic Games are another reachable goal. A third-round appearance here would likely qualify Buyukakcay for Rio de Janeiro. Turkey has had no tennis participants in the Summer Games.
“She’s very close,” said Uner.