Four years ago, Patricia Maria Tig looked set to be the latest success story in a fast-growing boom for tennis in Romania — but after returning in 2019 following a nearly two-year hiatus, her second act has the potential to be better than her first.
Shortly after turning 21, Tig — the daughter of a volleyball player and coach who took up tennis at the age of 8 — first made a name for herself when she reached her first tour-level final at the 2015 Baku Cup in just her second-ever WTA main draw appearance.
The Romanian followed that up the next year by reaching the quarterfinals of the Mutua Madrid Open as a qualifier — where she defeated, among others, Maria Sakkari in qualifying, and Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys in the main draw. She cracked the Top 100 for the first time in early 2017, and reached a career-best ranking that April.
By September, however, Tig's season ended when she was taken off court in a wheelchair at the Guangzhou Open, and 52 weeks later, she was off the WTA rankings after not playing a match at all in 2018.
A litany of injuries plagued Tig during and after her breakthrough years, and she did her early winning in spite of physical issues.
Though they all played their part in keeping her on the sidelines, a longstanding back problem which she says she’s been managing for the past “seven or eight years" proved to be the worst.
"I’m trying to keep [her back problems] under control as much as I can, but my time off the court was something that I enjoyed very much," she recalled to wtatennis.com in an interview earlier this week.
“When I look back, I see that I've grown so much as a person and also as a tennis player. It was a special period of my life then, but unfortunately, I didn't know to really appreciate it. If I would be in the same position again, I would definitely treat those situations differently.”
In her time away from tennis, Tig’s life changed in more ways than one — including the birth of her and soon-to-be husband Razvan Sabau’s daughter, Sofia, in November of 2018, which turned their close-knit party of two into a party of three.
Sabau, a former junior Wimbledon champion and World No.1 in the boys’ ranks who reached a career-high ATP ranking of World No.74 in 2005, has been Tig’s longtime coach in addition to life partner, and has been with her for every step of her WTA journey thus far.
“We are the proudest parents and blessed with the most incredible kid — as any other parent would say — our Sofia,” Tig continued.
“We always talked about me coming back to tennis, and we worked really hard for it. As I always say, hard work always pays off.”
After 18 months away from competitive match play, Tig started her comeback this spring at the lowest levels of the ITF World Tennis Tour.
Without a ranking to her name, the Romanian returned to the courts in April, competing in nine W15 events in Cancun, Mexico over the course of 10 weeks.
“We decided that was the best thing for me to get back in shape, and I can say it was hard in the beginning,” she said. “We were practicing, then playing matches, and I was trying to get better and better every day — and that's what happened.”
Although she reached four finals and won two titles overall in Mexico, Tig and Sabau’s return on their investment only saw her make inroads in the ITF singles rankings.
Though she now had the freedom to enter bigger ITF tournaments, she arrived to her first WTA event in nearly two years — the BRD Bucharest Open in July — without a WTA ranking, after having used a protected ranking to enter the qualifying draw at Wimbledon.
But it was Bucharest that proved to be the turning point for her comeback — as a qualifying wildcard, Tig ultimately won seven matches to reach her second WTA final.
“I didn't have any goals for the rest of the year [after Mexico] — just to enjoy what I do every day, but with Razvan, it was different,” Tig continued.
"He always told me we were going to make it back to the Top 100 at the end of the year, but I did not believe him. He was always the one who stayed by my side when the things went wrong, or when I was injured, and always believed in me — which was a tough job, believe me! — but he was right. We almost made it back, and we are proud.
“Also, my parents were the ones staying by my side. [They were] not really caring if I'm going to play or not, but were only looking to see me happy."
Her emotional run on Romanian soil included victories over defending champion and then-World No.11 Anastasija Sevastova in the second round, as well as Kristyna Pliskova, and former Top 30 player Laura Siegemund.
Though fast-rising 20-year-old Elena Rybakina proved too strong in the final — Tig's eighth match of the tournament — she nonetheless reflected on what she achieved in glowing terms.
“I am really proud of what we did there and I did not expect it. I think that's when the best results show up,” Tig said.
“I was having a tough two weeks, because I had to play pre-qualification in order to get the wildcard for qualifications, and the rest you already know. It was really special.
“I was super happy because I could tell the all the people that I’m back. Nobody believed I would be able to play again after having our baby — so it was like, 'Hello, again!'
“Also, the atmosphere was unbelievable. All the people cheering for me [was an] amazing feeling. I want to tell them, 'Thank you! I can't wait to be back!'”
Soaring back into the Top 300 as a result of that Cinderella week at home, the rest of Tig’s season saw her compete in the qualifying draw at the US Open and reach the main draw of both Hiroshima and Seoul in the Asian swing.
Her clay court success also continued when she won her first WTA 125K Series title at the inaugural event in Karlsruhe, Germany in August. After beating three Top 100 players in Bucharest, she added another by coming from a set down to defeat Alison van Uytvanck in the Karlsruhe final.
"I kind of like all the surfaces. I don't have a favorite. I am waiting now for some more good results on the other surfaces,” Tig said.
“Karlsruhe has a special place in my heart, being the first WTA [125K] tournament that I won. It was such relaxing atmosphere — Sofia was with us, and we had a really great time there. I hope someday I will be back.”
Read more: Resurgent Tig rallies to win Karlsruhe 125K
On the cusp of returning to the Top 100 at age 25, the now-World No.114 has her sights set on continuing her comeback climb into 2020.
With help from Sabau and fitness trainer Lucian Nicolescu, Tig could be primed to surpass a career-best ranking of World No. 83 by continuing to put one foot in front of the other — much like little Sofia, who’s recently started walking.
“My life as a mom is the best life that I could ever ask for! It's something indescribable. Sofia just took her first steps, and I can see how time is flying — that's what scares me the most!” she revealed.
“It’s something I've been dreaming of for a very long time, and it finally happened. My life with Sofia and Razvan gives me peace and happiness.
"I can tell my mind, my mentality...has changed. Like I said, I feel I've grown a lot as a person during my time off court and I'm really proud of that. My shots improved because of my mind. Now, I feel very comfortable playing on any side, forehand or backhand, but of course, there are lots of things I have to improve in order to get better and better.
“I'm feeling a lot better on court. I enjoy it more. I'm more humble, and again, I'm really proud of that.
“2019 was the best year so far, which taught me a lot. I can only say that we're waiting for 2020 with the open arms — trying to do our best, always.”