Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
If it's rising stars you're looking for in the world of women's tennis -- then keep your eyes on Iroda Tulyaganova. Uzbekistan's tennis ambassador discreetly climbed her way up the rankings this past season, and looks to do more of the same in 2002.
"Iri" shifted things into high gear last May, stunning 2000 French Open champion Mary Pierce in the opening round of a French Open tune-up in Strasbourg. The victory marked her first one against a top-20 performer.
Tulyaganova didn't go on to win that tournament, but she did team with Italian Silvia Farina Elia to claim the doubles trophy.
Three tournaments later, Iri advanced to her third career semifinal, in Den Bosch, shocking formidable Russian Elena Dementieva in the opening round.
Tulyaganova has already corralled three titles, including her first-ever championship in her native Tashkent in 2000.
Following Wimbledon, the 5-foot-7, 139-pounder shifted into overdrive by capturing two events in as many weeks, in Vienna and Knokke-Heist, ousting the top-seeded Dementieva in Vienna and top-seeded Kim Clijsters in Knokke-Heist. The Belgian Clijsters, of course, is your reigning French Open runner-up.
Later in the campaign, Tulyaganova stopped Belgium's other top player, Justine Henin, on her way to a semifinal in Linz. Henin, of course, was your 2001 Wimbledon runner-up.
As a result of all her recent success, Iri impressively qualified as an alternate for the season-ending Sanex Championships in Munich. She finished the year ranked 20th in the world after entering it at No. 75.
The 19-year-old Tashkent resident is your typical youngster on the pro circuit, with her forte being powerful groundstrokes. The terrific teen, who features a bold forehand and a two-fisted backhand, is just a solid player all-around. Her capable serve was clocked as high as 119 m.p.h. in Miami last spring.
She's already corralled three titles, including her first-ever championship in her native Tashkent in 2000. Her run in Tashkent made her the first-ever player from Uzbekistan to title on the WTA Tour.
The 1999 Wimbledon junior singles champion, however, will have to improve upon her showings at the Grand Slams, having gone a disappointing 3-4 in 2001. To her credit, she's appeared in only five Grand Slam events to date (4-5), starting with a second-round exit at the 2000 U.S. Open.
Tulyaganova's also ranked in the top 50 in doubles (49th), and actually paired with her fellow former Soviet, Russian Anna Kournikova, for some doubles action this past season. The two made it all the way to a final in Tokyo last February, falling to the top-seeded tandem of Lisa Raymond and Rennae Stubbs.
I see Iri as one of the "breakthrough" players in 2002, as she boasts both the skills and determination to challenge the game's top stars.
Admiring the likes of Steffi Graf and Martina Hingis, Tulyaganova will soon be the admiree, with her star clearly on the rise.
This athlete possesses big-time talent.
Since the Grand Slams now feature 32 seeds, Iri will be among the seeds at next month's Australian Open. Don't be surprised to see her make some noise Down Under.