On Thursdays at TTI, we will be taking a look back at a moment in tennis history, how things have changed or – in the case of today’s subject – how things might be better than ever.
It was a chilly night in New York. A 2008 season full of uncertainty pulled into the US Open very much “looking for a hero.” Winds of change that had taken out two of the top three seeds in the first week swirled about Arthur Ashe Stadium as No. 6 seed and US Open Series winner Dinara Safina battled unseeded (and looming) Swiss youngster, Timea Bacsinszky. Where Safina had eased past a pair of qualifiers to begin her tournament, Bacsinszky was in the midst of a career week. The teenager upset former Top 20 player and then-No. 31 seed Virginie Razzano to reach her first-ever Grand Slam third round, and believed she could sneak into the second week playing pressure-free tennis.
“Everybody said before she was supposed to win,” Bacsinszky said after the match. “Me, I had nothing to lose. I was relaxed.”
It had, thus far, all gone according to plan for the Swiss prodigy. She won the Les Petit As twice as a preteen, matching the record set by a young Martina Hingis. She went on to reach three Grand Slam semifinals as a junior, quickly transitioning to the big leagues with an established pedigree.
Things were darker behind the scenes. She would later reveal in an interview with The New York Times that she faced tremendous psychological hardship with a domineering father at the helm of her career. She began feeling responsible, at an early age, for maintaining a precarious family dynamic.
“I was playing well because I knew that if I would lose a match, my parents would fight,” she said during this year’s French Open. “I wanted for us to live like a happy family and everything, so for sure I was fighting even more on the tennis court just to make all the things right.”
None of that seemed to matter under the bright Manhattan lights. The 19-year-old barreled through much of her Arthur Ashe debut with a brash boldness, black eyeliner to match. Safina struggled on serve and was persistently blunted by the Bacsinszky backhand. As Safina spiraled, Bacsinzsky smiled, wryly looking up at the crowd as a trainer ministered to her lower back injury. But standing two points from upsetting the fiery Russian, the youngster froze at the finish line and faded in the final set.
And there the spell might have been broken for the ostensible also-ran. For Bacsinszky, it was only the beginning.
The Swiss star played the all-court game of her predecessors fortified with the power of her peers. She toppled Sabine Lisicki to win her first WTA Tour title in Luxembourg a year after her fateful US Open run. By the spring of 2010, she claimed what was the biggest win of her career when she edged then-No. 11 Li Na in a third set tiebreaker en route to the world’s Top 40.
A broken foot derailed her progress, almost indefinitely. Physical pain brought back the mental strain that plagued her adolescence. Suddenly seeking a new life in hotel management, Bacsinszky was a heartbeat away from ending her career entirely.
“I had already moved all my tennis things [to my mother’s house] because I didn’t want to see them around my own flat anymore,” the now 24-year-old confessed to Let’s Talk Tennis earlier in the season. An unexpected invitation to play French Open qualifying triggered a sudden and enthusiastic return to the sport for Bacsinszky, who drove herself five hours from Switzerland to Paris.
“It was the first time in my life that I could choose or I want to play or I don’t want to play. It was first time I could choose myself, me, with all my heart and all my body and everything, my mind,” Bacsinszky said on Wednesday.
With Dimitri Zavialoff – former coach of reigning Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka – by her side, Bacsinszky threw herself back into tennis with aplomb. A tear through the ITF Circuit rebuilt her ranking. A trio of Grand Slam second round appearances (two as a qualifier) brought her back to the Top 100. She told Svenja Mastroberardino in March that she aimed to get back to her career-high ranking, but admitted that she had bigger dreams in sight: “[No. 37 is] still a long way short of my actual abilities and limits. But what are those limits? That’s what I would like to find out.”
Bacsinszky has gotten closer than ever to those limits in Asia. A run to the semifinals of Guangzhou foreshadowed a big splash at the inaugural Premier 5 event in Wuhan. Forced to play three matches in two days (in two different cities), Bacsinszky qualified and reached the quarterfinals without losing a set. Flashes of the fearless teenager who took a big-name Russian to the brink in 2008 were palpable as the Swiss romped past two more Russians: US Open semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova and French Open champion Maria Sharapova.
Though she ran out of gas against Caroline Wozniacki in three sets, the successful fortnight puts Bacsinszky back in the Top 50. For a woman who began the year ranked No. 238, it’s just another step.
“It’s a big step forward, and I hope I will keep on doing big steps forward like that.”