PARIS – Sebastian Korda was 9, heart set on a hockey career, when he went with his father, Petr, to the 2009 U.S. Open. By then, Petr — 1998 Australian Open champion, 1992 French Open finalist — had retired as a competitor and turned to coaching.
Sebastian watched Petr's player, Radek Stepanek, face Novak Djokovic at night in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“Totally packed. I thought it was the coolest thing. Went home, came back the next year, and said, ‘This is exactly what I want to do,’” Korda said. “The rest is history.”
“Sebi,” as he’s called, is now 20 and made a bit of history at Roland Garros on Friday, beating Spain’s Pedro Martinez 6-4, 6-3, 6-1 in a rain-interrupted match to become the youngest American man in the fourth round in Paris since Michael Chang was 19 in 1991.
“Everybody is always asking him: ‘Are you the son of Petr Korda?’ Which I would love to change in the future,” Dad said in a telephone interview, “so that people ask me, ‘Are you Sebastian’s father?'”
The 213th-ranked Sebastian is the first qualifier to make it this far at the clay-court Grand Slam tournament since 2011.
There’s this, too: He joined another 20-year-old, 239th-ranked French wild-card entry Hugo Gaston, as the first men from outside the Top 200 to make it to the French Open’s last 16 since 2002.
“Amazing,” said Gaston, who sat in his sideline seat and cried into a towel while fans chanted his first name after a 2-6, 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 6-0 upset of Stan Wawrinka, whose three Grand Slam trophies include the 2015 title at Roland Garros.
On Sunday, Korda plays 12-time champion Rafael Nadal, while Gaston meets U.S. Open champion Dominic Thiem.
The other men’s matchups on the draw's bottom half: No. 6 Alexander Zverev, the runner-up to Thiem in New York, against 19-year-old Jannik Sinner, and No. 12 Diego Schwartzman against Lorenzo Sonego.
Women’s fourth-rounders set up by Friday’s results are No. 1 Simona Halep vs. 19-year-old Iga Swiatek, No. 3 Elina Svitolina vs. Caroline Garcia, No. 5 Kiki Bertens vs. Martina Trevisan, and Nadia Podorska vs. Barbora Krejcikova.
When the prospect of facing Nadal was mentioned at Sebastian’s post-match news conference — which took place while the King of Clay still was in the second set of his 6-1, 6-4, 6-0 victory over Stefano Travaglia — there was zero hesitation.
“I’m praying that he wins. I mean, he’s my biggest idol. He’s one of the reasons I play tennis. ... From him, I have the never-give-up mentality. Whenever I’m on court, I try to be like him,” said Sebastian, whose tour-level record was 0-3 until this groundbreaking week, which included a win over No. 21 seed John Isner.
And then Sebastian dropped this footnote: “Growing up, I named my cat ‘Rafa’ after him. That says a lot about how much I love the guy.”
Petr sounded just as delighted about what comes next.
“It’s great he’s playing Nadal in his living room, his court," Petr said from Bradenton, Florida, where he woke up at dawn to watch Sebastian on TV, then changed the channel in the afternoon to watch two older daughters, Jessica, 27, and Nelly, 22, play in an LPGA Tour event in New Jersey. “What better place to play him, to see him (up) close, to see what this player can do, to learn about the game? I’m looking forward to it.”
After finishing her round, Jessica said she and Nelly were texting Sebastian during his rain delay and are keeping tabs on his matches, which isn't all that easy considering the 6-hour time difference between the U.S. East Coast and France.
Noting her brother has a picture of himself, from “when he was a little kid,” with Nadal, Jessica said “it's always amazing to be able to play with your idols, somebody that he's looked up to.”
“Good job that he doesn’t need to play tomorrow,” she said, “because I don’t know if he would sleep much.”
In addition to Dad's genes and advice, Sebastian and his sisters got plenty from Mom, too: Regina was No. 26 in the WTA rankings.
When Sebastian dropped hockey for tennis, Petr already was focused on his daughters’ golf, so it was Regina who took charge of the family’s little tennis player.
"One of the biggest influences that I have. The way my strokes are, and everything, is because she’s the one that kind of tuned it that way,” Sebastian said. “We spent a lot of time on court together when I was a kid. Probably more than with my dad.”
He showed a veteran’s poise Friday, staying calm when a rain delay of more than two hours arrived right after he blew a 40-love lead to drop a game.
Sebastian donned headphones to wait out the weather in the locker room, then finished the job quickly when play resumed.
“Things aren’t always going to be smooth, aren’t always going to be easy,” said Dean Goldfine, a national coach with the U.S. Tennis Association player development program who is among the group that works with Sebastian. “He’s gotten a lot more patient with what he can control and what he can’t control.”
The two-handed backhand is dangerous. The slice is improving. Increased lower-body strength — thanks to “growing into” his 6-foot-5 frame, as Goldfine put it, and working on his physique during tennis’ pandemic-forced hiatus — boosted his forehand.
As for a long-term aim?
“My dad, he’s incredibly supportive, but my goal in life is to win two Grand Slams,” Sebi said said, “so I have one more than he has.”
AP Tennis Writer Fendrich reported from Washington; AP Sports Writer Leicester reported from Paris. AP Sports Writer John Nicholson contributed to this report.
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