INDIAN WELLS, CA, USA - "My whole life, I've needed a bit more time for everything," laughs Magda Linette wryly as she reflects on how she has been playing the best tennis of her career at the age of 28.
As recently as June, Linette was ranked World No.96, but a run of form that has seen her pick up her first two WTA titles (in The Bronx last August and Hua Hin in February), as well as a run to the Seoul final in September, lifted her to a career high of World No.33 two weeks ago. In Hua Hin, she also took over another accolade that has often gone to Poland in the past, taking the WTA's Shot of the Month - former World No.2 Agnieszka Radwanska's old territory - with a spectacularly angled forehand from the Hua Hin second round. "I don't know how that shot happened at all!" she laughs.
The most obvious springboard for her dramatic improvement was her decision to hire Briton Mark Gellard as her main coach in June 2018. "He had really great ideas for my tennis, and we have really similar characters - we are not ultra-positive people, we both take time to open up, but we think logically and we like a lot of numbers," explains Linette, who enjoys breaking down the SAP statistics on her opponents while preparing for matches.
"When somebody tells me things, I want factual data," she states. "Mark understands that it's not that I don't trust him, but when I see the numbers I just feel calmer and I can work better. And he can explain stuff more logically with the data. The numbers are not all useful, to be fair, and it's also a skill to interpret them. Sometimes you feel you don't have enough to always tell everything - some patterns aren't visible, it depends so much on who you're playing and how you're feeling - but it's getting really interesting now with SAP."
But the Poznan native, who first broke the Top 100 in April 2015 but took nearly five years to hit the Top 50, is equally keen to emphasize that the roots of her current surge go much further back: to developing her game in the shadow of the Radwanska sisters in Poland with little institutional support, to her decision to make Guangzhou her training base in 2014, and her personal and professional relationship with Izo Zunic, her previous long-standing coach and current boyfriend.
"The work I did with Izo was absolutely crucial," says Linette, who began working with Zunic in 2013, firmly. "He took me from almost World No.290 to World No.55, so that was a heck of a lot of work and a lot of sacrifices from him. At that level you don't have much money, so for almost a year I wasn't really able to pay him on a daily basis, so his sacrifices were really important for me and my career - without Izo I don't know if I could have made it, and without him I wouldn't have met Mark and had the opportunity of such a great coach."
Linette's partnership with Zunic would become more complicated in 2018, when they began a relationship off-court as well. "When we started, we said, if we want to be a couple there's no way we can continue the coaching," recalls Linette. "From the beginning we knew we needed to separate it." This would need some time to sort out, though, and Linette credits Zunic for finally cutting the cord decisively by stepping back - and putting Gellard forward as his own replacement. "Izo cared too much about our relationship off court to lose it because of tennis," she says. "His courage to step away to be my life partner, and to let Mark lead, was a huge part of this. I have peace now - I'm really happy off-court, I have a star like Izo who is always behind me in every situation, so I can really listen to Mark, take his advice and focus on tennis."
And when necessary, Zunic is still there to inject some positivity. Linette describes herself as "a realist, which sometimes is not great in the world of sports" - but helps her vibe with the like-minded Gellard - and when she says that Zunic "always looks at the best side, through rose-tinted glasses - everything and everybody is wonderful", it's with the pessimist's natural mild suspicion of the optimist. Nonetheless, she admits: "Sometimes I need him to show me stuff from the brighter side."
It helped that Linette and Gellard had already been acquainted for several years through Alan Ma's Star Academy in Guangzhou, where she has trained since 2014 - becoming a rare Western player choosing to make her base in China. Not that Linette saw it as a tough decision - rather, it was an opportunity that came her way when she had run out of options. "I had literally no place to go during the Chinese swing and I was really short on money," she says. "They were generous to help me with a pretty good deal. I went prepared for a couple of weeks, just between tournaments, then decided to go for the pre-season because I really liked it. I liked the girls - (Zheng) Saisai, Zarina (Diyas), at the time Peng Shuai - and it was really a no-brainer."
At first, she recalls, the geographic isolation was "mentally difficult" - but even this proved to have an upside. "I could really focus on my practice, my tennis - just go and do my job. At home you have distractions and things to do; in China I had everything set up and I didn't need to worry. And I found my way around better the longer I stayed - I knew people, how to get around, where to go, who to ask, how to spend my time. And we are based in a five-star hotel so the food is amazing!"
As a result, Linette is now an avid karaoke fan - "Oh my God, I love it; I have too many to choose a favorite song but I'm really awful at it, it's painful for people around to listen to me but I really love it" - and a player who has since consistently posted fine results in Asia, with three of her four WTA finals coming in Japan, South Korea and Thailand. "I'm used to the food, the temperatures because we practice in Guangzhou where it's quite humid and quite warm - it definitely helps me," she agrees. "I also practice with a lot of Asian players, and I think my game fits well here, because I'm more of a counterpuncher."
Linette also tried her hand at learning Chinese in her second year at the academy - "The grammar is quite easy but just to memorize all the vocabulary is super-difficult - and to pronounce it, you really need somebody to help you because you think you sound right but you really don't!" - but this had to give way to another pre-existing academic commitment that she had waited years to begin. Currently working towards a degree in business administration with minors in communications, marketing and sports management, which she pursues through the WTA's partnership with Indiana University East, Linette has one more year left until she graduates. "I wanted to start two or three years earlier, but I just couldn't afford it," she says. "And there weren't really any online programs in Poland when I graduated high school. Once I got to the Top 100 and I straightened out my financial stuff and I was able to pay my coaches, then I thought it was the time to start."
Linette - whose father Tomasz is a tennis coach and whose mother Beata looks after boarding school students - does not come from a rich family, and has never had much family money to back her up. "They've had some financial problems, so I'm really happy that they decided tennis was important for me, and that they put the little money they had towards my career," she says - something she's still "incredibly grateful" for.
Moreover, institutional support has rarely been forthcoming in Poland, either: even now, the highest-ranked Polish player in the world says she feels anonymous at home: "I don't really feel like the No.1 in my country," she muses. "I don't feel that people speak much about me because my results are still so far away from what Agnieszka was achieving at that time, and our country doesn't have too much help from the government for tennis - they save it for [sports] they can say have their own champions of Europe or the world."
This, as well as the fewer opportunities on an international level such as wildcards afforded to Polish players compared to those backed by more powerful federations, has a knock-on effect on why competitors such as Linette can be late developers. "You have a different starting point but you're measured by the same measures as everybody else," she says. "So maybe that's why it takes much more time - especially for some players who are physically not that strong and need much tougher fitness workouts and some really good specialists. Maybe [the lack of support] makes us tougher - but on the other hand it takes away our time compared to other players."
For these reasons, though, Linette's determination never wavered. "I've always been super-desperate," she says. Ploughing her own road has made Linette self-sufficient and driven - even now, she takes charge when it comes to organizing her career, from doing her own taxes to booking flights for herself and her team. Now, that's paying off as she maximizes her ability in every area of her life.