By Matt Cronin
With the game becoming increasingly more physical, it’s rare to find players who star on the pro tour at 14, but the 21-year-old Tamira Paszek is on of the those 'relics' having played her first WTA match in 2005.
"It’s been passing so quickly and I try to enjoy every moment," said the Austrian, who reached Wimbledon quarters and belted German Julia Goerges 6-2, 6-1 at the Rogers Cup in Montreal on Tuesday. "I've been through rough times, a lot of coaching changes and injuries during the past couple of years. I’ve found my game and my rhythm and I’m playing great, feeling healthy and enjoying every moment."
Before she contested her first WTA match in Linz on October of 2005, Paszek was called up to play Fed Cup against France and went up against two players who would spend time in the top 20 -- Nathalie Dechy and Virginie Razzano – and she played them tough in straight set losses.
Paszek qualified for and won an ITF Future in September of that year, and was given wild card into the WTA Tournament in Linz, where she upset Elena Vesnina before going down to a future No. 1, Ana Ivanovic.
She was called a true phenom, and she had the look of one: fast, with huge groundstrokes and plenty of ambition. Then coached by her father, Ariff Mohamed (who is Tanzanian-born, Kenya-raised and lived in Canada), she would win her first WTA title in Slovenia, and at 15 years, nine months and 18 days, becoming seventh-youngest singles titlist in WTA history.
She cracked the top 50 in 2007 reaching the fourth round of Wimbledon with an upset of former top-5 player Elena Dementieva, and also at the US Open, where she took out eventual Roland Garros winner Francesca Schiavone and former top-10 player Patty Schnyder.
But she fell off in 2008 and 2009, suffering injuries and losing her form. She began to get herself back together at the end 2010 by winning Quebec City, and in 2011, she re-entered the top 50, reaching the quarters of Wimbledon before going down to Victoria Azarenka.
On occasion, she showed top-10 ability, but in others it seemed like a few of her prominent peers such as current No. 1 Azarenka, former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki and 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova would lap her.
But the plucky Paszek still believes she can reach their level.
"Definitely," she said. " When I was ranked No. 35, Caroline was ranked outside of top 100. Everyone develops in different ways. I have done things that kept me off the right track, some coach changes and family issues, a lot of things that a young girl has to go through and I had to take some decisions, which were not easy. Maybe they were not right ones, but I don't regret anything because it made me the person I am today."
That ‘new’ person entered the tournament at 2012 Eastbourne with a 2-13 record on the year but completely turned her season around. Paszek came back from 6-4, 4-0 down in the semifinals to best Marion Bartoli and then saving five match points to beat Angelique Kerber and win the WTA Premier title.
Paszek credited her resurgence to her work with a new coach, former ATP player Andrei Pavel of Romania, whom she began to work with a few weeks before Roland Garros and who owns an academy in Arizona.
"I was injured a lot and wasn’t playing well and he was positive, believed in me and said, ‘Tamira you have to believe what's inside of you’ and it changed. We have a great connection; I'm enjoying it a lot and working hard. He's a great guy, calm and patient and he didn't expect miracles to come immediately. He’s a great mix of professional on court and when the job is done, we are laughing, talking about anything else but tennis."
Much of a player's success has to do with technical expertise and mental toughness, but fitness also plays a large role in the sport too. If a player is consistently getting hurt and can’t practice for more than week at a time without having to take another one off, it’s almost impossible to succeed at the top level of the game.
"I was depressed and down and I didn't know if I was doing the right things, things weren’t working out," said Paszek, currently ranked 43. "And Andre came in and said ‘you have the game and strokes. Work hard, believe in yourself and your chance is going to come. The switch is going to turn.’"
The Austrian admits that as much as a coach can help a player one on court, "it’s all about me." She’s the one who has to make decisions deep in the third sets about strategy and she feels she has matured to the point where she can play smart at critical moments.
Paszek had a rough hard court summer in 2011, suffering an abdominal injury, which forced her to retire in Carlsbad, withdraw from Cincinnati and then show up at the US Open in pain where she fell in the first round. She’s hoping that the same fate doesn’t befall her in the next five weeks.
"I had a lot of bad luck," said Paszek, who will play Azarenka in the second round of Montreal, the same woman who beat her in a tough two setter on Centre Court at Wimbledon just last month. "I had the rhythm and was playing well and then something kept me off court. Let’s touch wood that this is going to be my year [on hard courts] and I’m going to keep playing like this."