To stay at the top of any sport for 15 years or more requires many attributes. Dedication, fitness and talent are just three that spring to mind. When you think of those that have managed to sustain their levels of performance throughout a long and successful career, names such as Ryan Giggs and Venus Williams will more than likely crop up. Now try to think of a sports person who has had a successful career, retired and been out of the sport for four years and then come back, hungry for more and willing to start from the bottom. Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you, Patty Schnyder.
Swiss tennis is rightly dominated by Roger Federer, lets face it, the man is a machine and although signs of wear and tear may now be creeping in, no one can argue against what he has achieved. Federer has never been someone who has come across as fame hungry or interested in being a party boy, he is a family man with pure dedication to his sport and an incredible gift. On the women's side of the game, Martina Hingis and more recently Timea Bacsinszky and Belinda Bencic have been the players grabbing the Swiss headlines.
It is worth noting that Schnyder has a winning record against both Hingis (3-2) and Bacsinszky (1-0). She has always been an underrated talent who has never taken the world by storm or been the headline news yet her achievements cannot be overlooked. In 2004 she reached the semi final of the Australian Open singles and throughout her career reached the quarter finals of a Grand Slam singles event on six occasions. She enjoyed a highest ranking of seven in the singles and 15 in the doubles proving her talent at both variations of the game. She also managed to beat the likes of Steffi Graf, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova over her surprisingly impressive time on the courts. Not a bad list of achievements is it? It makes you wonder if Roger Federer had not been around just how celebrated she may have been in Switzerland.
Despite only standing at 5ft 6in, a similarity to Hingis, she still managed to claim 11 WTA singles titles and 5 WTA doubles titles. Power may not have been the key attribute of the left hander from Basel but she more than made up for it with a superb reading of the game and a fantastic touch. One Swiss tennis journalist described her as “a unique opponent and a lot of girls just didn't know how to handle that”. Of course with many sports stars however there is usually a downside and Schnyder, again like Hingis (who knew they were so similar?), was not without her controversy. Perhaps the downside in the career of Schnyder was a man called Rainer Hofmann.
Hofmann (pictured right with Schnyder) was a private detective who, strangely enough, was hired by the parents of Schnyder in a bid to separate her from her controversial coach at the time, Rainer Harnecker. That's a lot of Rainer's I know! The plan of her parents did work but pushed her into the arms of Hofmann who became her tennis coach and her husband in 2003 whilst he was on probation after being found guilty of embezzlement. The WTA titles began to dry up with her husband doubling up as her coach and it could certainly be speculated that she would have won far more than 11 had she stuck with a legitimate professional tennis coach.
In 2011 with the results deteriorating and Schnyder not getting any younger, she announced her retirement aged 32.
It was during this time off that life began to change somewhat for the former Swiss star. She divorced from Hofmann in 2013 and in 2014 brought a baby girl into the world with new German boyfriend, Jan Heino. It seemed at this point that Schnyder would sail into the sunset with her new family and a smile on her face never thinking about tennis again. Plot twist, she didn't.
Schnyder decided in 2015 to make a come back. Four years away from the sport and aged 36 years old, she would not be stopped. She stated that it was a gradual decision and that the desire and passion to compete had never really gone away. This part of the story says more about her character than anything else. It would have been so easy to walk away, enjoy being a parent and not have to worry about hitting a ball, sleeping in hotels and running for flights to far flung corners of the world. Schnyder had nothing left to prove, she was in a position where she knew it would be impossible to reach the level she had experienced over 10 years ago yet that did not hold her back. It wasn't like she was coming back to the big time either, she knew she was in for a hard slog where she would have to play girls half her age and twice as keen. The $10k and $25k ITF tournaments would be a world away from what she had been used to, yet here she was, ready to see just how much she still had left to give.
Unranked and with the baby not even a year old, the comeback began and it was a tough start. Two defeats in her first two tournaments could have dampened any hopes of a fairytale comeback. By her fourth tournament, something started to click. It was a $10k in Prague in late August 2015 and still unranked, Schnyder had to go through qualifying. Seven victories later, for the loss of only 19 games, Schnyder had won an ITF singles tournament just 3 months prior to her 37th birthday. Along with that result she also finished runner up at a $25k in Thailand losing to Kaia Kanepi in the final. She finished 2015 having earned 53 ranking points in five months and all of a sudden the comeback was looking more encouraging than some may have expected.
The Patty Schnyder story has continued into 2016 and will hopefully carry on for some time yet. This year has seen her briefly return to the WTA Tour at tournaments in Charleston and Gstaad but fail to register a win. On the ITF Tour another $10k title in Sweden was added to her title in Prague from 2015 and her recent form has also been encouraging. Predominantly playing in $25k and $50k ITF tournaments now, Schnyder has reached the quarter finals of the last four tournaments she has played in, seeing her ranking rise to 310 at the time of writing. She is currently the only player born in the 1970's ranked inside the WTA top 500 singles players.
So just how high can Schnyder go? Understandably, with a young family, she is not playing in tournaments every week but for anyone to climb anywhere near the top 300 after four years out of the game and fast approaching their 38th birthday, they deserve applauding. It would be crazy to think she will ever grace the top 100 again but there is something endearing about her story, something that makes myself, and no doubt others, will her on. The idea that a woman of 37 can compete in such a physically demanding sport beating girls aged 18 or 19 who are desperately fighting for each and every ranking point is what made me stand up and pay attention. I doubt it is about how high her ranking can go from her point of view, but more about the love of the sport and the passion to compete and maybe even surprise herself and others along the way.
A tale of talent, achievement, a controversial husband, retirement, divorce, child birth and comebacks, what more can you ask for? Perhaps her coaching choices prevented her from reaching the true peak of her sport or perhaps she was just never destined to be a Grand Slam champion.
Nevertheless, she was and is an underrated talent, an inspiration, and if her name appears on a drawsheet of a tennis tournament that I attend, then I for sure will be courtside to watch the next chapter of this great story unfold.
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