NEUWIED, Germany - One month ago at the inaugural Open 6ème Sens - Métropole de Lyon, the unseeded Anna-Lena Friedsam tore through the bottom half of the draw, ousting a succession of higher-ranked players with power and panache.
In the first round, a picture captured the German essaying a tweener en route to a win over Anastasiya Komardina; two defeats of former Top 10 players, Kristina Mladenovic and Daria Kasatkina, followed, and in the final - her first in over four years - Friedsam stretched Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin all the way in a compelling three-set affair before falling 6-2, 4-6, 6-4. No wonder, then, that the 26-year-old - who reached a career high of World No.45 in August 2016 before being sidelined to undergo shoulder surgery not once but twice over the next three years - now says with satisfaction: "I'm back in the game."
Speaking from her home in Neuwied, Germany, Friedsam recalls: "From the first match on I felt pretty good. But against Mladenovic in the second round, I was very pumped up to play well - I knew that I had to play my best and to show that I want to win as well, because she's a star in France and everybody knows her and will support her, so I tried to go a little bit more out than usual. After that match I felt I was in the tournament, and from that point on I played my best tennis."
Friedsam's Lyon run was also a sudden turnaround in her form - just a fortnight prior, she had lost in the second round of an ITF W25 event in Glasgow to the 17-year-old former junior World No.1 Clara Tauson - and evidence of a quick payoff in her decision to change her coaching setup. Having worked with Sasha Mueller for almost five years, Friedsam had no desire to end the partnership: "I've known Sasha for such a long time and he's helped me with a lot of situations with my injuries and so on - I think he's more than a coach now," she says. But Mueller is no longer able to commit to year-round travel - "I did a lot of tournaments alone last year," Friedsam reveals, and admits she did not thrive in those situations. Enter, after a long period of searching, fellow German Robert Orlik, who is now by Friedsam's side when on the road - while maintaining a three-way collaboration with Mueller back at home.
"I knew I had to improve when I travel - and it's good to have a new man on the team," says Friedsam. "It also gives me a new perspective, and maybe a new way forward for my game. Of course they are two characters, and they see tennis differently - but I have to choose for myself which way I want to go, and we can discover it together. I think it's better than only one opinion."
The dual coach setup is a relative novelty on tour, though Timea Bacsinszky espoused it at the end of 2018, and predicted that it would grow in popularity, while World No.3 Karolina Pliskova is currently coached by both Olga Savchuk and Dani Vallverdu. Friedsam is cautious - "This is after one month only," she reminds me - but the results have been undeniable. "I would say that Sasha is more working on the physical basis and also the mental game - he knows what character I am and how to bring me into good shape for competition. I would say right now that Robert is more tactical and more technique-based, and I think these two perspectives help me a lot."
Mueller was also an invaluable source of support for Friedsam as she went through the hardest years of her career. Five years ago, the former junior World No.18's star was rising fast: at the age of 21, she reached her maiden final in Linz in October 2015, and then three months later made it to the second week of a major for the first time at the Australian Open, where she held a 5-2 third-set lead over Agnieszka Radwanska before succumbing to the No.4 seed. But as the year went on, a persistent right shoulder pain only got worse.
"After Wimbledon I decided to stop to check what was going on," recalls Friedsam. "They made a wrong diagnosis, so I tried to play the US Open but then said no, it's not possible to play like this. I worked a lot with rehab and everything 'til Christmas 2016, but still it was the wrong diagnosis. We decided to have surgery - and only then they saw the tendon was broken. So they fixed it and then it was just a long time to get back. I came back in [September] 2017 but only for four months, and then I had pain again. Then they did a second surgery. It was really frustrating, and a very long time."
Strangely, the second setback proved easier to deal with. "It was hard a lot of the time, but I tried to look day by day and to make the best out of every day," says Friedsam. "This was the only thing that worked. But after the first surgery I wanted to get back as soon as possible, I was so impatient to come back - but after the second one I knew how long it takes and I was more relaxed. I gave the shoulder time - and my mind, as well."
While sidelined, Friedsam - who enjoys visiting cafés and restaurants while on tour "to get to know the city and the people who live there" - took the opportunity to dive into her passion for cooking. A particular favorite ended up being a speciality from the cuisine she most frequently defaults to on the road, the Thai massaman curry: "I love all the fresh spices and ingredients and I like to cook it when I'm at home," Friedsam explains. A fan of sports documentaries as well, one of her recent must-watches handily brings together these two loves: Eat. Race. Win., chef Hannah Grant's behind-the-scenes look at the Australian cycling team Orica-Scott's 2017 Tour de France journey.
Like everyone else, Friedsam currently has more time to spend on cooking and documentaries than she had planned for this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but she is remaining sanguine: "The first thing is to play again!" she laughs when asked about her tennis goals. It helps that she has just about achieved her 2020 aims already: "My goal at the beginning of the season was to reach the Grand Slam main draws and I'm proud that I've maybe almost reached it now," Friedsam says, after her Lyon run lifted her ranking to World No.106 - its highest since January 2017.
And even the current uncertainty hasn't shifted her long-term sights: "I want to get back to that point where I was in 2016. Step by step, I know I can play that tennis but it needs time and consistency. This is my main goal."