INDIAN WELLS, Calif.—“How does he do that?” Timea Bacsinszky used to wonder years ago, as she watched her countryman Roger Federer win match after match after match while hardly seeming to break a sweat.
Bacsinszky still doesn’t know how the Maestro does his conducting, exactly. But she likes to think that, after this spring, she understands “like 10 percent” of what he felt on court when he was in his prime. The 25-year-old Lausanne native could be right. Coming into her match with Serena Williams here on Wednesday evening, Bacsinszky had won two tournaments and 15 straight matches of her own. Put those together with her runner-up appearance in Shenzhen in January, her tour-best 21-3 record, and her climb to a career-high No. 26, and Bacsinszky has to be the early favorite for the WTA’s most-improved player award. While she lost to Serena in straights (7-5, 6-3), she was in both sets until the end. Not bad for a player who, before this year, hadn’t reached the third round at a major since 2008.
As good as Bacsinszky was on court, though, what she brought to the interview room over the last week was even more compelling, as well as a little harrowing. The Swiss reporters who are here to see Federer talked to her after each of her first three matches, and it’s easy to see why. Bacsinszky can’t hide her feelings on the court, and she doesn’t hide her thoughts off it. Backing down doesn’t seem to be her style in general. On Monday, she talked about how much, in a previous match of theirs, she had enjoyed drop-shotting Serena twice in a row on Serena’s second serve. Bacsinszky got an even bigger kick when Serena came back at her in her patented fashion: with an ace and a icy stare.
“I remember I kind of laughed,” Bacsinszky said. “But I loved this. I loved this reality of trying to get control of the other [player].”
Serena seemed to get a kick out of Bacsinszky as well. “She told me I have to teach her the drop shots,” the Swiss said with a smile. “I said, ‘Well, you have to teach me the rest, then.’”
This tale was entertaining in itself, but it also served as some much-needed comic relief after what had been a deeply personal press conference. Bacsinszky was prodded to talk, not for the first time, about her relationship with her father and tennis coach, Igor, whom Timea says was abusive. It got so bad that she demanded that her mother, Suzanne, divorce him, or she would set out on her own. Her mother eventually agreed.
“I have been a kid of like a syndrome of pushy parents,” Bacsinszky said this week. “It’s happening a lot, especially in tennis, because—especially in women’s tennis, because for sure, as a woman, as a young girl, you can never go against the power of the dad. You have no money or nothing.”
“Actually,” she continued, “you have no chance to get out of it. Or you tank your tennis career and you lose matches. But, well, I always loved the competition, and, on the tennis court I knew that no one had—how do you say?—the power of me. Because I was my own boss, actually. Like when I was playing a match, even if my dad told me, ‘OK, play [crosscourt],’ I would say, ‘Well, I’m going to do down the line.”
This was an unusual form of motivation, to say the least, but it seems to have been effective.
“I had to manage to win the match,” Bacsinszky said, “because otherwise it would not be OK. So I was quite sneaky, actually, because I was loving—I mean loving—that at this moment no one could control me. But at the same time I had to move my butt to win the match because otherwise I would be in trouble...I had to win matches because otherwise my parents would fight.”
The tennis court as refuge. Timea Bacsinszky isn’t the first player to feel this way about this most individual and interior of sports. Pancho Gonzalez, who also had a tumultuous relationship with his father, loved the sense that his half of the court was his turf, his territory, which others entered at their own risk. For Serena, the court was a place where she and her family could leave the rest of the world behind; her relationships with her parents and sisters began there. Playing tennis as a girl, Monica Seles could reduce the world to a yellow ball; she wanted little more in life than to see it come back so she could pound it again. Tennis is the sport for those of us who want to do it all ourselves, who enjoy the feeling of athletic success even more when we can keep it inside our own heads.
Unlike most of us, Bacsinszky saw few choices beyond the court. When she was on it, no one, as she put it, had “the power on me.” Yet sometimes she threatened her father that she would quit, and she admits that during “a certain part of my career, I was partying way too much because it was just too heavy for me to have it inside.” Finally, she says, “I decided not to have contact with my dad anymore. Probably forever.”
Bacsinszky's love for the game returned, and her current coach, Dimitri Zavialoff, is the man who guided Bacsinszky's fellow Swiss, Stan Wawrinka, from the juniors to the Top 20. She credits Zavialoff with teaching her, above all, to be patient.
“He learned me well,” she says, “to work and not be waiting for results right away, just to be patient and keep working.”
Speaking of Wawrinka, Bacsinszky was inspired by Switzerland's Davis Cup win last year; she tweeted a photo of herself with the Cup when it arrived in her country for the first time. Still, when Bacsinszky was asked this week, “Why are you so damn good now?” she didn’t have a ready answer.
“I took a magic potion,” she said with a laugh. “Not, that’s not true. Why? Why? I think I have been working a lot on myself for a couple of years now."
Tennis helped give Bacsinszky the power to be herself. Now she's giving some of that power back to her tennis.