Timea Bacsinszky: Lion In A Cage By Dominic Bliss

Timea Bacsinszky: Lion In A Cage By Dominic Bliss
Timea Bacsinszky was a lowly intern in a Swiss hotel, working on the front desk, in the restaurant and in the kitchen. This was back in spring 2013. For the previous nine years she'd been a professional tennis player but had been plagued by injury and a lack of confidence, and had rarely managed to make a mark on the WTA World Tour. After consulting a psychologist she abandoned the sport altogether and decided on a complete switch in careers. That's when she enrolled on a hotel management course.
 
“I had to do an internship,” she remembers. “Front desk to service, then food and beverage. It's not that I wasn't liking cleaning dishes or stuff. I was loving it.”
 
Out of the blue she received an email from the organisers of the French Open in Paris, offering her a spot in the qualifying competition. It turns out torrential rain across Europe had delayed so many other tournaments in the run-up to France’s Grand Slam that there were still some last-minute places for low-ranked players like her - she was ranked down in the 200s at the time.
 
Timea had one of those revelatory moments that would change her life forever. “I was really shocked. I hadn't played for six months. I said, ‘Okay, let's go!' I called my [hotel] director and said, 'I'm going to be playing tomorrow so I won't be able to open the bar today. Please get someone else.”
 
On an impulse, she jumped in her car and drove all the way from the Alps to Paris (“with my rackets barely strung”). She arrived at Roland Garros, the very last player to sign up for the qualifying draw. “So many people looked at me, like, ‘Are you a tennis player?’ I was, like, "Oh! I don't know!'"
 
It turns out she very much was. She may have been knocked out in qualifying, not surprising since she’d played only a clutch of matches in the previous six months, but the experience injected her with a new-found confidence. “It's amazing how life on one point can just change,” she says looking back.
 
What followed was Timea's second bite of the cherry. She started working with a new coach Dimitri Zavialoff, Stan Wawrinka's former guide, and discovered a new passion for her sport. 
 
Her renaissance was both remarkable and rapid. The following season she filled up her schedule, playing a total of 19 tournaments and one Fed Cup tie. At the French Open she played through qualifying again and reached the second round of the main draw. At Wimbledon she did the very same thing. By the time the US Open came round, her ranking was high enough that she no longer needed to battle with qualifying; in the main draw she reached second round. 
 
By the time 2015 came round she was on fire, winner in two WTA World Tour events, and runner-up in another two, semi-finals at the French Open and quarter-finals at Wimbledon. At the end of the year she was ranked no.10 in the world.
 
She said at the time: “What is pretty amazing, is that when you're a human being, you can all the time push your limits more and more if you believe that you have none. I believe that I maybe have some, but I don't know where they are.”
 
Those limits have been pushed even further this year and since signing her new contract with ASICS in January, has captured a WTA title in Morocco, reached the quarter-finals at the French Open and the third round at Wimbledon. In May she reached a career-high ranking of World No.9.
 
Improvements in her personal life have given her room to shine on the court, too. As a junior player she says she was psychologically bullied by her father, Igor, who used to coach her. She estranged herself from him and has the support of a very solid team. As well as Coach Dimitri, there is her boyfriend Andreas, her mother Suzanne, who works as a dentist, and her siblings Sophie, Melinda and Daniel. The latter, a professional musician, plays violin and keyboards in a Swiss alternative rock band called The Evpatoria Report.
 
Right now, what with Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka, Belinda Bencic and Timea, it’s something of a golden age for Swiss tennis. Timea herself has a theory for her nation's dominance in the sport – the fact that Switzerland's central position within Europe opens it up to so many different playing styles. To the west of Switzerland is France with its “aesthetically nice, cultured tennis”, she explains. To the south is Spain and Italy, where “fighting for every point” is a trademark style. Timea says the Latin players chase down every ball, forcing their opponents to work hard. “Win the match even if it's ugly,” she adds. To the north are the Swedish, with their “amazing coaches”. Then there are the Eastern European countries, “baseline hitting everything, going for the lines, trying to take the ball early, putting on a lot of pressure”.
 
“In Switzerland we have all these influences,” Timea added. “It's in the Swiss mentality: we are open for everything.”
 
This 27-year-old, based in the French-speaking Swiss town of Lausanne, compares her own style of play to the efficiency and punctuality of Swiss trains. “In Lausanne we have a metro, a tram and a regular train which are always on time,” she says. 
 
“Which [train] am I? I think probably a part of all of the Swiss trains. I'm like a chameleon. I probably can fit to every type of court. I think I can adapt myself to every kind of player and every circumstance.”
 
It’s obvious how much her new coach has helped in the recent success. This summer, for the grass court season, Dimitri pressed on her the need to keep control of her aggression during matches until it was the right moment to strike.
 
“Before I went on court, even at my warm-up, he was telling me: ‘Okay, be like a lion in the cage. Leave the cage closed until you go on court. When you’re out there, you decide when you open it. It can be later on if you [want]. Then open the gates; let the lion in the arena.”
 
Other players had better beware. This lion is very sharp of tooth and claw.

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