LAUSANNE, Switzerland - As Timea Bacsinszky drives home from another day of off-season practice, the Swiss star is voluble and positive after one of the most trying years of her career.
Chatting to wtatennis.com by phone, the 29-year-old opens up about the difficulties surrounding the mysterious hand pain that forced her off tour for six months after Wimbledon 2017 before undergoing surgery in September that year. Little was simple: Bacsinszky says she played with pain for too long, having first felt the issue at the end of the 2016 season, and then came back too soon in January this year. In between, there were conflicting diagnoses as she sought advice from various specialists - and the very real fear that she might never play the sport again.
Consequently, Bacsinszky endured a 14-month drought without winning a match at any level, losing the first nine matches of her comeback. The former World No.9 hit rock bottom in September when, ranked No.660, she dropped down to play an ITF $60,000 event at home in Montreux - and lost in the first round to 19-year-old compatriot Ylena In-Albon, 6-1, 6-2. But Bacsinszky's nadir was also her turning point: the following week she went all the way to the final of the ITF $80,000 event in Biarritz, and a month later her beguiling variety was in full flow on the main tour again as she ensnared Aryna Sabalenka in her web en route to the Tianjin semifinals.
Compiling a 15-5 record in her final six tournaments of the season, Bacsinszky has rocketed back into the Top 200 - and with her health sorted out at last, she's poised to come back with a bang in 2019.
AM: You've returned from surgeries and even retirement before in your career. How did this comeback compare?
TB: This was so much trickier and mentally so much more difficult. Between the previous operations I still could play and practice; I was younger, and you're more optimistic about your future. This last one was on 26 September and it's true that I thought I might never be able to use my right hand again.
What exactly was wrong with your hand?
I had a cyst in the middle of the articulation of my middle finger. It was an 8mm cyst and it was hard on the inside, not liquid any more, and as it grew bigger it was pushing and tearing apart my ligaments and tendons - I had one completely torn ligament, two completely torn tendons and one completely torn muscle. I was playing the semifinals of the French Open with that last year. It was at the end of 2016 that I started to feel it, before Zhuhai, and I asked a couple of doctors and they said I didn't have much to worry about and I could keep on playing. I tried to ignore the pain but by the end I was on so many painkillers that my stomach was completely hammered.
At Wimbledon and the French Open I really felt like experience-wise, level-wise and leg-wise I was in the best shape of my life so far. In the first set against Radwanska [in the third round of Wimbledon] I would say I was almost untouchable. But I was taking so many painkillers that I wasn't feeling my whole body, and [when my quadriceps started to hurt] I couldn't really feel how serious it was. When I did the MRI two days later, I had a 3.5cm tear in my quadriceps.
How easy was it to diagnose the cyst?
For the first three months I went across Europe to make appointments with hand specialists. They were all telling me different diagnoses. My first said, oh, you're probably at the end of your career, you have a bone against another bone and there's no way we can heal the articulation.
And it was summer, so all the hand specialists were on holiday and I had to wait - it was two months before I knew what I had. The surgeon I chose was in Milan, and it was the best thing for me to be able to work with him.
How do you know which diagnosis to trust in, if different specialists are telling you different things?
It's a feeling from your stomach - that you know this is the one I want to give my hand to. I went to Milan twice before he called me - on a Friday evening at 9.30pm from an unknown number - and told me there were two options, to put my hand in a case for six months or to get the surgery. He waited so long to tell me because he couldn't believe I played six months and a Grand Slam semifinal with it. I was like, everybody told me it was nothing so I kept believing the pain was just in my head and it would be fixed by itself!
It was something pretty uncommon, a special operation, and very sensitive as well so you have to have trust with the surgeon.
You came back in January in St. Petersburg and won the doubles title with Vera Zvonareva, but you only played three tournaments and a Fed Cup rubber before another two-month layoff. Do you feel you came back too soon?
I know I started too early to practice and to come back on tour. This was a pretty big mistake that I did with my team. But it's always easy to comment on that 10 months later.
I only had three months from my surgery to when I was playing again - the way I got injured is absolutely not the same as Petra Kvitova, but it was the same kind of microsurgery in your hand. She took six or seven months and I probably needed at least two more months before getting back on track.
I said, it's going to get better and I trusted my team, but the problem was I was compensating so much while I was playing because I'm such a competitor - and I was very close, especially in Miami against [Ekaterina] Makarova. But then I had some tendinitis in my wrist and it was getting worse and worse. When I started to practice for the clay, I ended up having a tear in my calf as well - that was a tough point. That's why we had some changes in my team and my coach [Dimitri Zavialoff] - we maybe didn't have the energy to go through that, even though the five years with him were absolutely great.
Who is your new coach?
The coach that I have right now, Erfan Djahangiri, was my first coach. I worked with him between 14 years old and 22. It was kind of abrupt, I wasn't expecting to switch coaches this year, but he really has been here for me since day one.
We always stayed friends even when I was working with Dimitri - we talked not about tennis but about life and everything. And he has been very good with wine as well, I've been getting to understand more about wine now that I have a huge cellar at home! We only stopped because he wasn't able to travel with me when he had kids, and that was not OK for me - it was just different life perspectives. His girlfriend wanted to have a family, which is understandable. That's the tricky part of being a tennis coach - you have to dedicate your life to tennis, and family is in second place. Some dedicate their lives to tennis at first, but at some point [it changes] - unless they want to stay alone, or if the wife/girlfriend is fine not having kids and not seeing the husband/boyfriend only half the year, which is very rare!
Will Erfan be traveling more with you now that his children are older?
His kids have grown up a bit now - his daughter is four and his son is seven - but I still knew he didn't want to travel that much. But I can manage to be a bit more alone now on tour than before. When I was 22, it was unimaginable only being with him for five tournaments per year. Now we're splitting tournaments with someone else, a young coach in Switzerland who was helping me last year, which is fine for me - I want to see how I'll react being without Erfan at tournaments.
He'll be with me for 50-60% of the tournaments but I really believe in the future, the format of working in tandem with another coach will be very interesting. If you're 24/7 with the same coach all the time for five, six, seven years it can be tough. It's a working relationship but you're with this person all the time, it's intense and not easy. Having half-half, different people can show different aspects.
Even after coming back in June and playing the US Open, you still weren't winning matches and your ranking fell out of the Top 700. How much pressure were you putting on yourself at that point?
It was a nightmare. I was saying, please, tennis gods, bless me with a match - give me an opponent who's not in shape! I played a 60K in Montreux in Switzerland against a young Swiss girl [Ylena In-Albon] - she was, of course, playing very well. But it was not a tough match where we were very even. I lost 6-1, 6-2 in Montreux, next to my home town, with a full crowd, and I think that was the worst day of my whole life. It was emotionally so difficult. I was feeling so empty on the inside - 14 months before I had been in the semifinal of a Grand Slam and now I cannot win a match in my home town against a young Swiss player and I'm getting hammered. What the hell am I doing on a tennis court? You ask yourself many questions, you look back at your whole career, you think, I cannot play any more, this was a bad dream, how did I even get this far? Those two days were really terrible - I had a lot of talks with my boyfriend, with my coach.
All of a sudden, something clicked in my mind. I was talking while crying, all the tears I had in my body, and all of a sudden I realised - oh, that's why I'm feeling so bad. Because I'm feeling pressure. I went to a psychologist and started to talk and I'm like, I just realised something I hadn't been able to realise for the last year. It was like I hadn't had any air for all those months because there was a sword of Damocles above my head. As soon as I realised what it was and talked about it, it just faded away.
And you bounced back the very next week when you reached the final at the Biarritz 80K. What were your feelings after finally getting that first win?
I played Katarina Zavatska in the first round in Biarritz. I lost the first set from 5-3 up, and I was so, so, so pissed - I was like, no, I cannot lose first round again, this is not going to end up like that. I won the second set and led 3-0 in the third - and then she complains it's too dark and we have to stop the match. I'm like, you've got to be kidding me - again so close to win my first match and this is happening? So of course with the tension and everything I could not sleep, only maybe four hours, and the next day I now have to play two matches. But I ended up winning both!
And a month later you carried the form over to the main tour in Tianjin - where you beat the in-form Aryna Sabalenka in a brilliant quarterfinal. Did you expect to win over a top opponent fresh off the Wuhan title?
I knew I could be a tricky player for her. Not to compare myself to [Stan] Wawrinka, but a top player coming back from an injury can be very tricky - [Grigor] Dimitrov experienced that twice this year in the first round of a Slam being beaten by Stan. It didn't mean that Stan would go to the semifinals or anything but he had the level for the upset.
With Sabalenka, I also knew I had the game to bother her. So even when she led at first I was pretty calm. I was like, I can run, I'm fit. At the start I didn't even see the ball, she was playing so confident, but then you make them doubt a little - with my game that's what I do - and I took the right moments and believed in my chances, and I gave everything in that battle. Of course we could see the next day that I wasn't ready to play two top players one after the other! I had good ideas against [Karolina] Pliskova but I was completely dead - my energy levels lasted 20 minutes and then it was over, bye-bye!
With all the time you've had off tour, have you taken the opportunity to pursue any non-tennis interests?
I went to Budapest for five days with my boyfriend [Andreas Blattner] - well, husband-to-be for a year already, but we're not very organised and the wedding isn't planned yet, but it's fine, I'm not going to hurry even though I love him very much.
Anyway, I took a cooking class there with typical Hungarian dishes. When I was younger I remember cooking with my nanny, but I didn't remember the recipes, and I wanted to experience cooking again.
We went to the big market and helped choose the products. We were able to cook together as a couple - that's something you can cherish for your whole life, as you give love through cooking. It was very touching for me because he loves Hungarian culture, he tries all the time to speak more and more Hungarian words.
That sounds delicious. What recipes did you learn?
I learned to cook goulash, cold sour cherry soup which we usually eat in summer, stuffed pancakes with meat, Gerbeaud layered cake - named after a very famous pastry house in Budapest. It's inspired me - usually for Christmas we eat fondue but this time I've told everybody to bring one Hungarian dish and we're going to do a Hungarian Christmas dinner. Probably for dessert I'll do the Gerbeaud layered cake, because it's traditionally done for Christmas.
What are your on-court goals for next year? You have nine months with no points to defend - do you feel poised to make an impact? And how long do you see yourself on tour for?
This September I had not won a match, but I was still secretly dreaming I would be top 200. I told that only to my coach and Andreas. It would be nice, it would help next year with the calendar - but if I didn't achieve it I would be completely fine. And then I ended up at 192! In two months and five tournaments I went from No.700 to Top 200. So for next year, I'll say that Top 100 would be great; being Top 50 would be even better; but just to be able to play the Grand Slams and not the qualies would be good.
I know I'm not going to play until I'm 40. Well, I don't know, but for sure I want to play another three more years if I can. Or four, or five…