After Timea Bacsinszky won her third round match at French Open against 20-year-old American Madison Keys, she received a text from a former co-worker. Bacsinszky used to work hotel shifts with him in Lausanne. He wrote: Do you remember that two years ago you were walking off the job and going to play at Roland Garros?
Bacsinszky did remember that. She also remembers everything else about her incredible journey to the Roland Garros semifinals, where she faces Serena Williams on Thursday. As a Swiss tennis prodigy, she had won the coveted Les Petit As title twice at 12 and 13. But she didn't want any of it. She wasn't playing tennis because she liked it. She was playing because that was her best shot at a normal family life. The fear of getting in trouble after losing a match, she says, is what made her good on the court. If she lost, her father would get upset at her; her parents would fight. Her mother would tell her that if she stopped arguing with her father, she'd get a new pair of jeans.
Bacsinszky, now 25, described it earlier this year as the "syndrome of pushy parents." Something that hundreds of often anonymous youngsters, especially girls, go through in tennis. "As a young girl, you can never go against the power of a dad. You have no money or nothing," she recalled. But Bacsinszky decided to put an end to it when she was 15. She told her mom that if she didn't divorce her father, both of them would never see her again. Her mom agreed.
Bacsinszky continued to play tennis but also worked odd jobs at school to simply survive. She hired a coach who took her to World No. 37 in 2010. She also hired a psychologist who could help her make sense of it all. She asked herself why she still played the game that had brought her so much anguish. In the past, she played because everyone around her wanted to play. This time she realized that she loved the attention she was getting; she'd always craved for love that she couldn't have at home.
But another unfortunate incident in 2011 took all the adulation away. A non-tennis injury on her left foot sent her spiraling out of the rankings. She needed three operations and couldn't get back on the tour for 10 months. She was staring down at 500 and above in rankings. "I understand that they (people) were only liking me because I was making results. And I realized that a lot when I got injured. Then all of a sudden, it's like no one's here," she told The New York Times last year.
When she got better, she had nothing left in her tank to fight on the court again. And she was only 23. She moved all her tennis equipment to her mother's house so she didn't have to see it around her. She only didn't have the heart to announce that she was quitting. She started working at bars, restaurants, and hotel kitchens. She decided to enroll in a hotel management program in the fall of 2013.
But it was the red clay of Roland Garros where she defeated No. 4th seed Petra Kvitova in the fourth round on Mondayl that gave her a second lease of life. Two years ago, she got an email from the French Open saying she had made the cut-off for the qualifying tournament of the Slam. Bacsinszky was thrilled. She took a few days off from the hotel where she was interning and drove from Lausanne to Paris alone. "At that point I knew—it doesn't matter whether I win or lose—I want to play tennis again. For the first time in my life I had the opportunity to decide for myself what I wanted to do. That was an incredible day for me," she said last year.
She got her mother Suzanne, a dentist in Lausanne, to finance the beginning of her comeback. But very soon she didn't need that anymore. She won 15 straight matches at the start of this year, topped her previous best ranking to get to world No. 25 and is in the semi-finals of a Slam for the first time in her life. Against Williams—who lost the first set in three of her matches at Roland Garros this year—Bacsinszky has nothing to lose. And even if she does lose the match, she has an all-new attitude to help her get past it: "It's just a tennis match. Life is much bigger than that."