BANGKOK, Thailand - For a decade, Tamarine Tanasugarn was one of Wimbledon's most reliable fixtures: no matter her ranking, draw, or form, year after year the Thai trailblazer would make her way to a berth in the second week.
The first player from her country to reach the Top 100, and between turning pro in 1994 and her official retirement from singles in 2016, Tanasugarn put together a stellar career that included a peak ranking of World No.19 in 2002, four WTA titles and scalps such as Amélie Mauresmo, Dinara Safina and Jelena Jankovic. It was on grass that she shone brightest, though: having been the junior runner-up in 1995 (defeating Anna Kournikova in the semifinals before losing to Aleksandra Olsza), Tanasugarn carried that success smoothly over to the senior event, reaching the fourth round six times in seven years between 1998 and 2004 before, after struggling with injuries for several years, a late-career resurgence saw her achieve her long-desired goal of a quarterfinal breakthrough in 2008. Remarkably, she was seeded on only two of those occasions.
"I'd never played on grass before junior Wimbledon," recalls Tanasugarn on a phone call from her home in Bangkok. "But I'd grown up on very fast hard courts in Thailand - not Plexicushion or DecoTurf like we have now, but a cheaper cement mix where the ball came at you super fast and low."
These conditions shaped a game that proved tailor-made for the manicured lawns of SW19: "My strokes are quite flat and my game was all about attacking through placement," says Tanasugarn. "And also, I'm not a tall girl at all, only 160cm - and at Wimbledon the ball always bounced even lower, you had to really bend your knees."
In her early years on Tour, Tanasugarn was "surprised and happy" at her Wimbledon success, and quickly developed a pleasant routine for her time at The Championships. Renting a house 15 minutes away where she could decamp to relax in the event of rain or a late match, she would use a day off to stock up on Asian ingredients from Chinatown in Central London so she could cook her favorite Thai dishes - tom yum soup, Thai basil chicken and a "really spicy" panang curry. Sociable and popular, the delightfully chatty Tanasugarn also settled in easily on tour - though, displaying an in-character common touch, the trappings of success would not be for her.
"The years I was seeded, I was in the upper locker rooms," she reminisces. "I was like, OK, this is a good experience to be in the exclusive spaces - they had a jacuzzi, you know! And it was nice to be calm, with not so many players." Tanasugarn sighs. "But - I don't know, my feeling was that the other locker room was my home. I felt warm to be in the lower locker room. You can see more friends, it's more relaxed. And I showered in the same shower room all the time. If someone else was in there, I'd wait. I'd go and do stretching instead. I had weird routines!"
Nonetheless, her frustration increasingly mounted at SW19 as the fourth round proved a seemingly impassable barrier. "By the third and fourth times, I was just thinking how much I really, really wanted to be in the quarterfinals," she reflects. "I was putting too high expectations on myself - even though I'd played really good players in the last 16, Martina Hingis, Monica Seles, Serena Williams."
By 2008, Tanasugarn's opportunity to achieve that goal seemed to have passed her by. In 2005, attempting to play with a heel spur caused her to fall out of the Top 100 for the first time in eight years; a resurgence in 2006 was set back by a wrist injury and another ranking slide in 2007. Indeed, in 2006, Tanasugarn was on the verge of quitting the sport: "I was 29 and I had to play qualifying for Wimbledon," she remembers. "I talked to my coach [Andreea Ehritt-Vanc]; I said, if I don't get to the third round I'm going to stop, I'm going to retire. Maybe it was because there was no pressure, no expectation, I made it - and that gave me a second life in my career."
Indeed it did - and in this second life, Tanasugarn says, she finally learned the answer to her struggles with pressure. "When you're young, you play thinking, I want to achieve this and this and this - I think that's good, but it's sometimes not balanced," she explains. "After I turned 30, that's when I most enjoyed tennis. I played with more joy. I played wiser; I stopped thinking I had to play with full power all the time. I played with more tactics."
These days, it's not unusual for late bloomers to post career-best results in their thirties - but back in the '00s, the majority of players would have retired by then, often hastened by injuries such as Tanasugarn's. But the veteran would prove to be a trailblazer in this regard as well: a high proportion of her career highlights came after she turned 30, including both of her Top 3 wins, victory in the oldest WTA final of the Open Era in terms of combined ages (at the age of 33, defeating 40-year-old Kimiko Date to win Osaka 2010) and back-to-back 's-Hertogenbosch titles in 2008 and 2009.
The first of those Dutch titles would lead straight into Tanasugarn's long-awaited Wimbledon quarterfinal debut. Now, she remembers this 11-match winning streak less as a mental hurdle and more of a physical battle: having won 's-Hertogenbosch as a qualifier, the 30-year-old had only one day off to travel to London before playing her Wimbledon first round on Monday. Nor would there be any let-up in her draw: Tanasugarn needed to win marathons against No.13 seed Vera Zvonareva 7-6(10), 4-6, 6-3 in the second round and sometime doubles partner Marina Erakovic 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 in the third before delivering a majestic performance in a milestone fourth, stunning No.2 seed Jelena Jankovic 6-3, 6-2.
"I was really dead that year!" she laughs now. "Confident, yeah, but I was focusing so much on keeping my body going. That match against Vera was one of my toughest ever - she never gave up anything. I had to put 100%, 150% into that match - she was consistent, she struck the ball very well, her placement is tricky and she never missed easy. You had to put all your concentration and focus all the time.
"I had to admit I was not young any more, so recovery was really important and I spent a lot of time on it. Stretching, maybe for half an hour after every match. A warm bath, another half an hour. And another half hour or 40 minutes of stretching before I slept."
Looking back at her journey to overcome physical and mental obstacles, Tanasugarn notes that in her day, most players were largely on their own. "There weren't many players using psychologists," she says. "Maybe some of the top players who had more money. After Martina Navratilova and Lindsay Davenport, everyone had to get stronger and fitter - but in terms of mentality, most of us had to work it out for ourselves. Now, you see juniors with teams of psychologists, physical trainers, nutritionists - that's why players are getting stronger and tougher."
Tanasugarn credits long-term coach Ehritt-Vanc for many of her improvements in the last few years of her career - but also her father Virachai, who imbued her with the necessary self-belief to emerge from a country with no tennis tradition in her teenage years.
"When I was a junior, all my parents' friends said my dad was crazy," she remembers. "They said I needed to study, get a job, work at the bank or whatever - that's a good career. How can you earn in sports? In America and Europe, they knew that tennis could be a career, but not in Thailand at that time.
"I have to thank my dad - he wasn't a tennis player, he was a national basketball player, but he understood about athletics. He was never yelling or telling me negative things - he always said, just go out there and do your best.
"When I was 17 or 18, I was stuck around World No.200, World No.250 for almost two years. My dad had to sell his antique car, and that money helped us go to Europe to play tournaments for two months. It was actually before junior Wimbledon, and I kept losing first round - I said I wanted to quit. And he kept giving me support. He said, 'You've worked so hard for so many years since you were 10. And now today because you're not doing good, you think you've failed? Your negative thoughts are only about today.' That really helped me - it reminded me to keep fighting and keep enjoying it."
Virachai was also the inspiration behind the latest unexpected chapter of Tanasugarn's career: a doubles comeback. "Three years ago, we found out that my dad had cancer," she says. "And this year, the Olympic Games were going to be in Japan. My dad actually went to the 1964 Olympics in Japan on the Thai basketball team. We were trying to support him by saying, let's go to the Tokyo Olympics - and I really wanted to go for him as well. It was our goal together - for me, it was tennis, and for him, it was health.
"So I started to come back in mid-2019. Sadly, my dad passed away in January this year - but I still want to keep going with my goal for next year."
The last tournament Tanasugarn played before the hiatus in the game saw her reach the Hua Hin quarterfinals partnering Kateryna Bondarenko - but as well as restarting her own career, she's also at the forefront of creating the next generation of Thai players, having opened the Tamarine Tennis Academy in 2016.
There is much work to be done, she admits: following the success of herself and former ATP World No.9 Paradorn Srichaphan in the mid-'00s, the sport boomed at home. "All the tennis equipment was sold out and all the courts fully booked," she recalls. And, unlike in her teenage days, Thai parents were more open to the idea of sport as a viable career for their children. But the change in mindset was manifest more in other sports - sisters Ariya and Moriya Jutanugarn in golf and former badminton World No.1 Ratchanok Intanon - and only one Thai player has followed her into the Top 100 since, former World No.66 Luksika Kumkhum, currently on a long-term injury hiatus. While Tanasugarn flags up the potential of the country's top teenagers - 17-year-olds Mananchaya Sawangkaew (the junior World No.14), Punnin Kovapitukted and Anchisa Chanta in particular - her focus is on even younger players.
"I am more concentrating on under-10 tennis," she says. "Myself and my star coach are going to schools to find players. I think the problem is that we don't have a big population of tennis players - so I want to concentrate on the young kids, so that in the long term the tennis community in Thailand becomes bigger. A bigger grassroots community at a lower level will mean that we get more players at the top level, whether national or even professional."
With a wealth of experience in navigating a path full of twists and turns that no one had successfully taken before her, there are few better figures to take on the challenge of reigniting a country's entire tennis culture than Tanasugarn.