TORONTO, Canada - Nearly a decade before talented teen Bianca Andreescu made a memorable debut in front of her home crowd, another youngster with Canadian roots took the Rogers Cup by storm.
Born in Austria to a father with Canadian citizenship, Tamira Paszek was at the forefront of a new wave in 2008, kicking off the season with a dramatic 12-10 final set against Jelena Jankovic at the Australian Open. She made her major breakthrough later that year in Montréal when she stunned then-WTA World No.1 Ana Ivanovic at the age of 17.
“That memory will last forever,” she told WTA Insider, “especially since it was against Ana, someone I’d looked up to in the first few years of my career. It was a big match, a night session and the stadium was full; the crowds are so great in Canada. We had a tough three-setter, and all I remember is the amazing atmosphere.”
The former World No.26 and two-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist shared those memories by phone, unable to play the Rogers Cup for a second straight year. Sidelined last fall after undergoing surgeries to treat tonsillectomy and persistent sinus issues, a recurrence of symptoms led to a diagnosis of trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic disorder attacking nerves in the face.
“It was sharp pain, like someone was stabbing me with a knife in the face. There are three triggers: one is above the eye, one is towards the cheek and nose, and the third is towards the chin; I have the first two. It’s like a constant tooth pain, but more aggressive and sharper. Depending on wind and weather, stress levels, everything affected it.
“It was weird because I’ve never had such a pain before. I didn’t know if it was a tooth, or something related to my surgery, because it was in a similar region to where that was done. It was only after some tests that revealed everything was fine from the surgery; then we took other steps and took more tests.”
For all the injuries the perpetually snake-bitten Paszek has faced - back issues in 2009 followed by a torn adductor muscle four years later - this latest setback may be the biggest test yet, forcing her to miss the remainder of 2017.
“It’s been tough to keep the motivation high,” she said last week. “Every time I was close to breaking back into the Top 100, something else would happen. I was sick with sinusitis four times last year, and every time took a month away from tennis, four to five weeks to cure at least 80%.
“I was feeling strong after the surgeries, returning back to practice and feeling motivated. I played Fed Cup, which was one of my goals. After that, I was devastated to find that the pain had come back. It took quite some time to figure out what it was, because doctors would prescribe medicine and pain killers to dull the symptoms, but things were only getting worse.”
Unlike a regular injury, the chronic pain has required Paszek to refrain from most athletic activity, something she never allowed herself to do in past recoveries.
“I was always pushing, pushing, pushing. You could compare it to a dog searching for water, running from one pot where some rain collected, to another one. But I was never giving my body the time to fully heal, and that’s something I’ve learned. I’m really listening to myself now.
"I’ve had great teams, but the most important thing is how I feel; the body speaks, and often you don’t want to see the signs because tennis is our job and our passion. We love being out there, traveling, seeing the fans, so it’s hard to step back and see things in a realistic way.”
Doctors recommended more time spent in the sun, an ironic prescription for a player who spent the better part of two decades chasing summer.
“It’s pretty tough because in most cases it can be chronic, and you can’t treat the symptoms so much as the pain. So, you can take pain medication, and relax. You have to avoid anything that would stress you out. That was the trickiest thing to figure out once we determined a diagnosis; it’s more about leaning back and waiting. You can do some physiotherapy, but that doesn’t eliminate the source the problem.
“I went to Sardinia in May, when the weather was so bad in Austria and the pain was still the same. It really helped a lot, all the warm weather and sun in my face. I was sitting there my face towards the sky, and my friend was sitting next to me saying, ‘That looks weird!’ I was like, ‘No, you don’t understand; the sun feels good!’ You should have seen me before the trip; I was so white and lost all my tan. Now, finally, I got it back, and got rid of my sock tan line; for the first time in my career, I have brown feet!”
Aiming to return in time for next season’s Australian summer hardcourts, Paszek keeps up with the tour from afar, drawing inspiration from fellow players who’ve overcome adversity to play the best tennis of their careers.
“We’ve seen what Venus came back from, and also Vicky Duval and Alisa Kleybanova; they both fought back from cancer. These kinds of things give me strength, along with the support from players that I’ve spoken with, like Sania Mirza. I miss the tour and the big family. That gives me more motivation to come back, get healthy, and see all of you again.”
In the absence of the coaching team she released before it was clear how long her lay off would be, the 26-year-old relies on a strong support system comprised of her parents and brother Joel, with whom she traveled during one of her rehab trips.
“It’s weird for them; they’re all like, ‘Maybe it’s time for you to travel again!’” she joked. “They’re not used to having me home for so long. But even my dogs got more attached to me. I was the only one at home spending time with them, and so when I went on vacation, they saw me packing, and you could tell they were like, ‘Something’s not right!’
“I’ve gotten to spend more time with my best friend, and do some catching up, which I hadn’t been able to do in the last couple of years. I think it’s an important time for me as a person, not only to physically heal, but also to enjoy life to the fullest - even through pain.”
That pain has slowly began to subside, and Paszek has taken tentative steps back into the sporting world, dipping into the pool for a swim - “face up, not under water!” - and holding a racquet for the first time since stepping away from tour, replicating that unforgettable swing.
“I got inspired by Bethanie,” she said of WTA doubles No.1 Bethanie Mattek-Sands’ progress from knee surgery after Wimbledon, “so I hit a little against the wall, thinking, ‘Oh, this is exhausting!’ I’ve lost all of my physical conditioning, but I felt really happy doing it.
"I saw my mom and brother’s racquets; I took it in my hands and was like, ‘Do you want to play some forehands or backhands?’ While I was on all that medication, it would have been too dangerous. I would have a heart rate of I don’t know how high just walking stairs.
“There’ve been some changes, adaptions, but overall, I see this as a time where I’m collecting new inspiration, new motivation, and preparing for a second career. A lot of times, I’ve had new starts, but as of now, I’ve never been away from this sport that I love so much for so long.
“For me, I definitely collected some good inspiration to have a fresh start soon.”