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Sabine: Sunny Side Up

After injury and illness, Sabine Lisicki is back in a WTA semifinal for the first time since the end of 2009. No wonder she's smiling.

Published June 10, 2011 01:03

Sabine: Sunny Side Up
Sabine Lisicki

BIRMINGHAM, England - The sight of a tearful Sabine Lisicki being carried off court on a stretcher was one of the more dramatic images to emerge from the recent French Open. Having held a match point at 5-2 in the final set of her second round match against world No.3 Vera Zvonareva, qualifier Lisicki was hit by dizziness and cramps, and ultimately lost the match.

But the big-serving 21-year-old German is back to her bubbly self at the AEGON Classic this week, and no wonder. In the space of less than three months she has vaulted more than 120 spots up the rankings, making a psychologically important return to the Top 100 last Monday. And having beaten 2009 champion Magdalena Rybarikova in Friday's quarterfinals at the Edgbaston Priory Club, she's now through to her first WTA semi since Luxembourg in 2009.

"You know, it was really sad," said Lisicki of her Parisian travails. "But on the other hand it was also a very good tournament for me - and a very good match against Vera. Unfortunately I had the problems, but they are problems that are going to go away because we know the reason for it. So that's the most important thing for me. I knew I played well… it was just unlucky."

The source of the problems to which she refers is a recently-diagnosed intolerance to gluten, a fundamental component of wheat-based products such as bread and pasta - staples of any diet, and especially important sources of energy for an elite athlete. Any food product containing gluten is now strictly off the menu.

"My body needs to adjust to the big change," she said. "I've been told it will take a year - apparently it takes women longer than men. It definitely makes things harder… in Paris I couldn't understand why I felt so unwell, and then I realized there was flour in the sauces I was eating."

In any case, after a few days' rest at home, Lisicki was ready to launch her assault on grass - a surface that has provided some of the best moments of her career so far.

Two years ago, shortly after winning her first title on clay at Charleston, she reached the last eight at Wimbledon and rose to No.22 in the world. But her trajectory stalled when she injured her left ankle at Indian Wells last year. Sidelined for five months she struggled upon her return, and heading into this year's Sony Ericsson Open she had fallen outside the Top 200.

"It's definitely special to be back on the grass," Lisicki said. "It's been two years, because I was injured this time last year. But the last couple of months have been good for me. I've been winning a lot of matches. I mean, I can still improve everything… become more consistent. But I'm taking it day by day."

Whatever she's doing, it's working. As well as Rybarikova, so far this week Lisicki has beaten Kimiko Date-Krumm, Kirsten Flipkens and Tamira Paszek; on Saturday she faces China's Peng Shuai for a place in what would be her first final in 20 months.

Despite the gulf in rankings, Peng had better watch out. Relegated to the ITF Circuit after the Australian swing, Lisicki has since clocked wins over leading WTA lights such as Nadia Petrova (at Miami), Marion Bartoli (at Charleston), Dominika Cibulkova and Li Na (at Stuttgart). Indeed, she was one of four German players to reach the quarters at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix; though beaten by eventual champion Julia Goerges, she scored a morale-boosting doubles title with Sam Stosur.

Right before that, Lisicki also played her part in Germany's 5-0 whitewash of the United States in April's Fed Cup World Group play-offs, beating Christina McHale in straight sets. No matter that it was a dead rubber; the win gave her momentum heading into her home tour event. 

"The entire year for us has been amazing," said Lisicki of the German renaissance. "I think we are a very good, talented young group of players, and we've been playing very well lately. I'm still coming back, and I need to earn the points to get higher in the rankings. But I definitely feel like I belong back up where I was. I think in terms of my game I'm almost there.

"It's not just that I've gone up the rankings so quickly, it's that I have progressed really well. I've been working hard, but most importantly I've been enjoying it on the court. I feel good!"

At a low ebb, Lisicki received a vote of confidence when she was chosen as one of six Sony Ericsson Xperia Hot Shots. Along with Dominika Cibulkova, Sorana Cirstea, Alizé Cornet, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Heather Watson, she is starring in an online video series that shows fans behind the scenes of the pro tennis world.

"I've done a couple of things that are not up yet," Lisicki smiled. "I think my fans are going to enjoy them. It gives them a different insight into our life… I think it's interesting, and I'm trying to give my Facebook fans a lot of different stuff too. What I do during the day, who I meet. It's definitely fun."

Become a fan of Sabine at www.facebook.com/sabinelisicki.

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