A triumphant return for Patricia Tig in Bucharest

Barely three months ago, new mother Patricia Maria Tig was in the middle of a 10-week marathon at the lower levels of the ITF circuit.

On Saturday, the Romanian was emotional in triumph as she defeated No. 6 seed Laura Siegemund of Germany to reach the final of the WTA Tour event in Bucharest.

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(In her eighth match in eight day Sunday, Tig couldn’t keep up with a powerful and poised Elena Rybakina, who won her first tour title with a 6-2, 6-0 victory).

Tig, who turns 25 in a week’s time, didn’t even have a WTA Tour ranking this week. She received a wild card into the qualifying of the tournament in which she made her WTA Tour debut, four years ago. 

Her career-best ranking of No. 83 came in April, 2017. Since then, well, a LOT has happened.

The best of it was her daughter Sofia, born last November.

The worst of it was a string of injuries that threatened to derail her career. Elbow issues. A fracture of the tibial media plateau in her knee. Breathing issues, which required nasal surgery. And, particularly, ongoing issues with her back that are linked to the structure of her spinal cord and that, at their worst, have left her unable to tie her shoelaces.

In November, 2017, Tig became ill on court in Guangzhou, China, and she fell off the tennis map. 

In April 2019, she resurfaced at an entry-level, $15,000 ITF tournament in Cancun, Mexico.

Caught between ITF changes and maternity leave

Tig played her first Grand Slam event since the 2017 US Open last month, when she entered the Wimbledon qualifying at Roehampton with her protected ranking of No. 157.

She lost in the first round, a real heartbreaker against Paula Badosa of Spain.

After that, she graciously agreed to sit down with Tennis.Life and tell the story of her comeback.

“I was planning to come back the whole time, I didn’t think of stopping or something like this,” Tig said. “I can’t think of a better thing to do than to play tennis. So that’s why.”

Sofia – not Tig – determined the timing of her return. But the timing couldn’t have been worse.

The comeback fell into the abyss created by the lack of coordination between the various factions in tennis. And you can add a little sprinkle of ITF incompetence because it also coincided with the mess that was the new “ITF World Tennis Tour” in the first months of 2019.

The family – Tig, Sofia, a nanny, and her 42-year-old coach/boyfriend Răzvan Sabău (yes, he’s also Sofia’s father) – headed to Cancun, Mexico for nine tournaments over 10 weeks.

It was almost a boot camp – which is a great idea in theory if you’ve been out awhile. The WTA rules only allow players returning from having a baby 12 tournaments with their protected ranking. And if you haven’t played in a year and a half – never mind given birth – you don’t want to waste those if you’re not ready to compete at that level.

It’s better than the eight-tournament quota it had been, Tig said. But it’s still not enough. 

“The problem if I tell them this, they are not going to do anything about it,” she said.

Rock and a hard place

Tig didn’t want to start back at the $15,000 level. She wanted to start at the $25,000 level. And with the changes in the structure for 2019 – ask anyone who regularly played $25Ks in 2018, but couldn’t even dream of making the cut early this year – she would have been out of luck even trying to get into the qualifying without a ranking. 

She could have used her WTA protected ranking of No. 157 to play them. But then those $25Ks would have counted towards her 12 total events, she said. And you don’t want to fritter away those opportunities at the lower level.

Tig said they called the ITF, asking if she could get something like an ITF protected ranking so that she could play the $25ks without dipping into her allotment. But there’s no such thing.

There are several spots around the world that hold ITF tournaments every week, offering players the opportunity to settle in one location for a long period. For a Romanian, the “Futures factories” in Turkey or Egypt would have been much closer.

“We were searching for a place where there were good conditions. And we thought that’s it’s best for Sofia to be in a warm place, because she’s so young,” Tig said. “We had very good conditions there which, in Antalya or Sharm el Sheikh, we couldn’t get.”

10 weeks in Cancun

The lack of entries some weeks in those Cancun events meant Tig could get into the qualifying – and sometimes even straight into the main draws.

But it didn’t start well.

She breezed through two qualifying matches in her first tournament, the week of April 9. But then she had to retire in her first-round match in the main draw. She qualified again the next week, but lost a three-setter in the first round to a 25-year-old Mexican player ranked outside the top 800.

She reached the quarterfinals in her third event, but had to withdraw before the match. In tournament No. 4, she retired down 0-4 in her first-round match. 

“It was very difficult. I didn’t expect it to be like this. I was practicing at home but I forgot how it is playing matches. It was difficult, but it was a very beautiful time,” Tig said.

“The challenge was physical because I wasn’t ready yet when we got there. And mental because I had to keep my mind only on tennis when I was playing – and not on Sofia, or what is she doing, or how is she feeling. So yes, it was very difficult, but we managed it. We had a very hard 10 weeks; it was so, so hot there.”

By the fifth tournament (Week 6), there weren’t enough players for a qualifying draw. So Tig got straight in, and reached the final. But she had to retire in the third set of her first round at tournament No. 6.

Tig had issues with an ankle. And her knee was acting up again. She said she expected it. But she wasn’t feeling good about it. “I was pretty upset,” she said.

By tournament No. 7, May turned to June, and Tif reached the final. She won tournaments No. 8 and No. 9 with the loss of only one set in 10 matches.

But sthey were heavily in the red, and no ranking to show for it.

“If we knew beforehand they were going to change the rules, we wouldn’t spend a lot of money to go there,” Tig said. “It was a good plan, a good idea. But now, it doesn’t matter.”

In the end, what did it all add up to?  

The trip cost about $25,000. Her total prize money earned was a shade under $9,000. And after taxes, Tig said, it was more like … $6,000.

So: significant costs, no return. And to add insult to injury, while Tig was down there, the ITF reversed itself on the “no ranking points” situation. But that change will only be reflected in August.

“So we went there for nothing. I got, like, 30 points, which means I’m going to be around 500 (in the WTA rankings). So that doesn’t get me anywhere,” she said.

Actually, Tig’s estimate was optimistic. According to the July 15 “shadow” rankings, which reflect where players will be ranked when those points are reinstated, the 37 points Tig earned would have put her at No. 647.

On the plus side, the 338 ITF points Tig accumulated put her at No. 42 in the ITF rankings. Which at least meant that she could use that ranking to get into bigger ITF tournaments.

But first, came Wimbledon.

Tog

From concrete to grass, with no practice

The problem with the grass-court season, if you’re not a top 100 player, is being able to actually practice on grass. Especially if you’ve not been able to play any warm-up events.

Tig and her family came straight from Cancun to Roehampton, arriving a week before the qualifying. She knew they would have trouble finding a grass court to practice on. But there was no point in going home in between. The Cancun trip had been expensive enough as it was.

Still, she looked impressive in her first-round match against Paula Badosa of Spain. It was a tough battle, and she fell just short in a 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 loss.

Tig might have wanted it too much, put too much pressure on herself to qualify for Wimbledon and be guaranteed a nice pay day.

“I wanted to win so badly, to qualify, so it’s a little bit disappointing,” she said. “If I’m not playing, we don’t have any money. I don’t know what we’re going to do. It’s going to be difficult. I had hoped for better here, I wanted it so badly.”

The next steps

After the Wimbledon effort, it was time to come home and settle in again. Her plan was to get into some $25,000 events with her ITF ranking. But she didn’t play them. And then, she headed to the Bucharest event – her first WTA Tour event in nearly two years.

Tig didn’t have to face a seeded player in the qualies, but she got through with the loss of only one set. She defeated lucky loser Anna Bondar. And then she upset top seed Anastasia Sevastova, ranked No. 11 in the world. She followed that up by beating Ysalina Bonaventure of Belgium – 6-0, 6-2.

On Friday, she upset No. 8 seed Kristyna Pliskova 6-3, 3-6, 6-3. And on Saturday, she upset Siegemund 6-3, 6-1.

On Sunday, assuming she has any energy left after eight matches in eight days, she’ll face the winner between Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan and qualifier Martina di Giuseppe of Italy.

She might catch a break there. The two had completed just one game of their semifinal before the rain came. They were only due back on court after 7:30 p.m. local time.

Tig
Rain hit Bucharest after semifinalists Rybakina and di Giuseppe had played just one game Saturday. (WTA.TV)

Improved circumstances going forward

Tig

Tig’s plan after Bucharest was to play two more WTA events with her protected ranking. After a rash of withdrawals, she jumped into the main draw at the clay-court event in Jurmala, Latvia next week.

There is a 125K tournament in Karlsruhe, Germany the week after that.

She has entered the US Open qualifying, but it’s a tough decision. Only two of the 12 allowed “protected ranking” tournaments can be Grand Slams. She had already spent one at Wimbledon. And so going to the US Open to try to qualify would mean she would have to get into the Australian Open in Jan. 2020 on her own ranking. And it’s an expensive trip to take a risk on.

Her result in Bucharest this week may make Australia a moot point.

She has already leaped from … infinity to No. 264 in the rankings with her result. If she can win the tournament, she would leap inside the top 200. She’s also earned $21,400 this week, which would rise to $43,000 with the title.

Even if she doesn’t, those ITF ranking points will be added back on in a few weeks. Those alone will improve her fate 25 spots of more.

As down as Tig was after losing to Badosa at Roehampton, how thrilled must she be after coming home, and putting together a run like this.

She’s a player to whom nothing was ever given. She had to make her own way, had to overcome what wasn’t the best technical base as she reworked her game with Sabau, a former top-75 player who was learning as a coach along with her. 

Tig also has had to overcome that nagging lack of self-belief that can come when you face off against players who have had every opportunity. Often, you think you’re probably not good enough.

But it turns out, if you don’t give up, you can be.

And with a journey like this, she’s a player everyone can root for.

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