Wednesday’s schedule — much like the stands became for the most anticipated match of the day — in Darmstadt was packed. All eyes, however, were on the marquee match: former World No. 7 Patty Schnyder’s first showing at a professional tournament after she retired from the game at the French Open in 2011 was on tap, and it certainly turned out to be a dramatic one.
The combatant, however, was as nonchalant as ever.
“There’s no particular reason [why],” Schnyder said, when she was asked about her return to professional tennis ahead of the tournament. “I just want to enjoy myself and play some stronger opponents. I crave the competition. It’s not like I ever really stopped due to my work as a coach in Hanover and playing in the German league for Braunschweig.
“I don’t feel too old,” she declared. “I’m fit and I want to be challenged!”
And a challenge she got.
Schnyder’s first match back was a tough, fiercely competed encounter against Ukrainian qualifier Sofiya Kovalets. Although a 7-5, 4-6, 7-5 loss wasn’t quite the result she might have hoped for, the 36-year-old enjoyed the experience of being out the on the courts and giving it her all, as she said after the match.
“I was kinda nervous in the the first set but, yeah, overall it was fun,” Schnyder said. “I enjoy the rallies on the clay courts. I think she just got into the match better but, then again, she probably played 30-odd matches this year already. It was a bit of a shame the way that I played in the first set — that really wasn’t great.”
The Swiss admitted she struggled to get out of a the gates a little; too much of the first set was played on Kovalets’ racket and Schnyder didn’t get on the front foot very often — but throughout the three-hour marathon, the crowd was firmly behind the wildcard.
“It’s been great — the whole time I’ve been here,” Schnyder said. “I’ve talked to a lot of people and it’s all been really relaxed and the atmosphere here is really nice. You can tell they’re not organizing this event for the first time.”
When asked whether the intimate German setting reminded her of the smaller tournaments at the beginning of her career or when she was a junior, the lefty laughed:
“Nah, not at all. I can’t even really remember that!”
As Wednesday’s match wore on, the Swiss’ variety and wealth of shots started to come into play as she made life difficult for her 21-year-old opponent. Schnyder began curling her forehand crosscourt to greater effect and made use of the deft drop shots, angles and top spin she was known for — even if the depth in her groundstrokes wasn’t there all the time. In the third set, the former Top 10 player said she started to feel exhausted even before she built a *4-1 lead.
“It could’ve been 5-1, I know, but I noticed at the beginning of the third set that my energy was starting to go down because you’re not really used to it anymore and then it’s difficult to do more,” Schnyder said. “I tried to do more and attack a little more — her serve was really so slow and I don’t really like that but it was too difficult at the end.”
Admitting she felt tired in the deciding set shouldn’t undermine the fact that Schnyder looks in great shape physically. The Swiss served for the match at 5-3 but her otherwise reliable drop shot let her down on two break points, giving a reinvigorated Kovalets a second life. In the end, the Ukrainian took the final set, 7-5.
The 11-time WTA title-winner said there’s room to improve for her — but not without losing track of the bigger picture.
“When you’re even fitter and once you see the ball even earlier you can give a little extra,” Schnyder said. “My training is within the context of my work as a coach so far. I didn’t do any extra preparation coming here; sure, I could train even more but I’m doing a lot in my life and I do a lot with her, too. That’s the way it is.”
“Her” — Schnyder’s seven-month old daughter Kim Ayla — sat alongside her mom as she talked to the media in Darmstadt. While there is a well-known crop of moms and dads on the WTA and ATP Tour these days, Schnyder has had limited experience when judging how it changes life on court.
“The whole situation is different, absolutely, but it’s difficult to analyze it or draw conclusions,” she said. “This is the first tournament I’ve played and I played the ties with [German inter-club] Braunschweig but it’s hard to tell up until now.”
Schnyder’s good results with Braunschweig played a big part in her decision to enter some tournaments — she says it’s possible that she’ll play the $75,000 ITF event in Prague in August, too.
“This summer on clay, I really kind of got a second wind with the matches I had in Braunschweig and I didn’t really have that much planned for this summer,” she said. “So I thought, ‘Why not have a look around?’ But I don’t plan beyond that. Maybe here, maybe there. I don’t know — wherever the road leads me.
“I’m not thinking about any world rankings or set myself any goals, really. I live in the here and now.”
Thee here and now is looking pretty good for Schnyder. Over the next few days. she’ll head to Switzerland, return to her home near Hanover and then, to quote the Swiss herself, “we’ll see.”
Maybe Schnyder will — or maybe she won’t — make the full return to the that WTA Tour some hope for, but she still loves the game, enjoys herself out on the court and looks to be in the best place of her career. If today is any indication, that probably won’t change for a very long time.
What do you make of Schnyder’s return and decision to play some ITF events? Sound off in the comments!