Nothing intrigues tennis like a new wave, a group of players with their own way of walking, talking, and hitting the ball. The game has come to know quite a collection of personalities in the last decade, from Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki, to Agnieszka Radwanska and Dominika Cibulkova — all of whom more than made good on the promise they showed as juniors. But even as the next generation begins to rise, one from the last is still in search of that elusive crest.
With metronomic swings and effortless flow, a teenaged Tamira Paszek was a wave all her own. The Austrian burst onto the scene in 2005, playing a smooth game that contrasted a fiery competitive spirit. Best known for reaching back-to-back Wimbledon quarterfinals, Paszek admits to starting slow on the surface that would bring so much success.
“My first time ever playing on grass, I lost my first round match at Roehampton the week before Wimbledon. I was really down and disappointed,” the former World No. 26 told The Tennis Island. “I practiced a lot then, trying to adjust to the surface and things worked out well.”
How quickly the tide turned. Unseeded at the Championships, Paszek upset No. 1 seed Azarenka to reach the finals of the girl’s singles event. She had grown up on clay, but that first week at the All-England Club was a rush unlike any other.
“Ever since, I absolutely love the grass. I think it just suits my game well, and every time I arrive here in the UK it feels like home.”
Paszek is back on the British Isles as the WTA Tour turns to grass, a mere 20 minutes from SW19 playing a 50K Challenger in Surbiton. Once a Centre Court staple, the 24-year-old has seen her ranking fall outside the Top 200 after illness and injuries conspired to curtail her progress. A bout of mononucleosis followed her through the first half of 2013, with pressure mounting to stage a third straight grass court miracle. Returning to Eastbourne as the defending champion, her fortunes sunk even deeper.
“I tore my left adductor muscle during my first round match, and it has been an ongoing injury ever since. My body suffered a lot due to the permanent compensation.”
She persisted in playing through the pain — qualifying for Roland Garros and Wimbledon along the way — before choosing to step away from the game last fall to properly treat the chronic injury.
“It was a very tough decision to make last October, but it sure was the wisest one — to stop and give my body the chance to get back to full health and strength.”
Paszek is no stranger to stops and starts. A serious back injury in 2009 prompted a hiatus that many close to the Austrian feared would be permanent.
“It wasn’t an easy time. Doctors told me that I might never be able to play professionally again due to my disc injury, so I really needed to learn how to be patient. But you grow from tough moments like these; it makes you stronger.”
It had all begun so brightly for the Austrian. A year after that fateful Wimbledon final, Paszek repeated the feat in Flushing, but it was a seaside Slovenian city that proved to be the scene of her first real splash. As a qualifier, she won eight matches to become the seventh youngest in the Open Era to claim a WTA Tour title. Three months shy of her 16th birthday, Paszek hardly noticed the historical implications of hoisting the trophy.
“Looking back on Portoroz brings back wonderful memories. I was there with my dad, had just played the US Open Junior final and two weeks later there it was: my first WTA title. It was just an amazing feeling for both of us. I didn’t really think of transitioning from juniors to the pros; I was just doing what I loved: playing tennis and competing.”
Paszek’s passion and pure ballstriking soon served notice on bigger stages, none bigger than her first encounter with a reigning World No. 1. On the Middle Eastern coast of Dubai, she pushed Justine Henin to within five points of defeat in 2007; later that year, she found herself in the second weeks of Wimbledon and the US Open. Even when her focus was elsewhere, doing what she loved paid dividends.
“I didn’t expect success at such an early age or even think about rankings or tournament goals. I was still in school and my studies were the main priority. But I always went on court wanting to win. I loved being out there, working hard during practice, trying to improve. It made being successful in what I love doing even nicer.”
The Austrian began 2008 with a titanic tussle against future No. 1 Jelena Jankovic. Playing aggressor to the Serb’s signature counterpunching, the two put on a show that went deep into a final set, with Jankovic eventually escaping, 2-6, 6-2, 12-10.
“It was absolutely crazy, like 3h 09min, or something. She ended up playing the semis, and I lost in the first round. That’s the brutal part of our sports sometimes!”
Any of her three match points would well have been converted against a less wily opponent, but Paszek prefers not to dwell on disappointment.
“You never know what would’ve happened if I had won. Maybe I would’ve had a great run, maybe not. Once things are done, you can’t change them; it’s pointless to look back. You can only learn from a situation in the present.”
What she did learn from the loss was to better channel her raw determination, becoming a more clutch competitor. Paszek went on to win eight of her next eleven three-setters in 2008 — including one against reigning No. 1 Ana Ivanovic — and showed off that indomitable spirit through several spectacular grass court seasons.
“I was always a fighter and never gave up. I hate to lose!” Paszek said when thinking back on her thrilling victories over Francesca Schiavone, Angelique Kerber, and Caroline Wozniacki. The Austrian was a set down in each encounter, but pulled through thanks to some fearless hitting and tenacious grit.
“Having good results is not just about playing well; a lot of things have to fit together during that week. But of course you feel when your game is coming together, when things you practiced start working out during matches.
“You sense your chance, I would say.”
That first chance came against No. 6 seed Schiavone, fresh from another French Open final. Paszek outran and outgutted the Tour’s resident marathon woman, clinching an 11-9 deciding set en route to her first Grand Slam quarterfinal.
“2011 was just a great moment; I had my whole family there, and I enjoyed every minute on the court, playing great tennis.”
Just when the wave began to build momentum, Paszek struggled through the high tide of that initial breakthrough, winning just two matches to start the 2012 season.
“I didn’t have good results for the first half of the year, and then leading into the grass season there obviously was pressure — knowing that if I don’t do well, I would drop out of the Top 100.”
Paszek once more drew strength by the sea, planting three seeds (and two Top 10 players) to win just her second title since Portoroz. The Austrian was down a set and two breaks to eventual Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli in the semis, and saved five match points — three in a row at 0-40 — against an in-form Angelique Kerber in the final.
“I tried to live in the moment and to give my best every day. I had my team around me, supporting and believing in me, and everything fell into place during Eastbourne and I started to play really well during the next couple of weeks!”
Returning to Wimbledon in winning shape, Paszek was prepared to put on another show for the public. She played one of the best matches of the year against former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, saving two more match points under the Centre Court roof to roll into yet another major quarterfinal.
Matches and moments like these fuel Paszek’s desire to come back better than ever in 2015; falling just short of the French Open main draw in her fourth tournament of the season, she joked how prior injury lay-offs helped her to easily adjust to this more recent time away.
“I was definitely more patient this time! I was busy with physiotherapy and all the rehab, so time passed very quickly anyhow. But I really enjoyed spending time with my family and loved ones since this is a rare opportunity.”
Winning an arduous doubles match on Tuesday with fellow comeback kid, Petra Cetkovska, the Austrian knows it will take time to regain the all-court precision that made her so fun to watch. But Paszek plans to apply the same perseverance that healed her body to those thunderous groundstrokes.
“Now that I am healthy I have full believe that I will make it back! It’s definitely a process that requires time, belief, hard work, and match rhythm.”
With a goal of returning to the Top 100 in her back pocket, this nature lover and fishing enthusiast has cast the line back into the game’s vast ocean, confident that another wave is not far behind.
Tamira Paszek’s Signature Playlist:
Follow Tamira on Twitter @tamira1990!