In a small room outside the Centre Court at the Mumbai Open, at a media gathering, Sabine Lisicki broke down. In all the years as a professional, she has the reputation of being that one person who will always smile. But an hour after the 29-year-old lost her first round match at the 125K Series event she silently wept.
It was a devastating image of a player, who only five years ago had reached the final of the Wimbledon Championships. But it told the tale of a player, who has struggled with fitness and form, and done whatever she could only to fall yet again.
In Mumbai, against World No.68 Nao Hibino of Japan, Lisicki played those hard-hitting ground strokes that had helped her rise to as far as 12th in the world. There was that big serve too, but only in phases – she was guilty of committing eight double faults in a match that eventually ended 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 in Hibino’s favour.
“You could all see it,” she’d say through the tears, “the shots are all there, but I don’t know what goes wrong. Something just needs to click, but that hasn’t happened. I wanted to play more matches here. But I just got the one.”
The German’s current world ranking is a low 225 and she needed a wild card to get entry into the main draw of the Mumbai Open. The tour for her has been all about struggle in the last few years. She is no stranger to injury by any means. In fact, in 2010, she had suffered an ankle injury. Three years later, she beat Grand Slam champions Francesca Schiavone, Samantha Stosur and Serena Williams en route to the final at Wimbledon.
Those days seem distant now, especially since the 2016 season, when the injuries started to pile up and her rank started to drop. This year itself she’s managed to play in 16 events. But fitness issues and her low rank meant she has little hope of breaking into big tournaments.
“It’s been a struggle just to get to play tournaments because my rank is too low,” she says. “Coming here is probably my fifth trip to Asia this year because I have to keep travelling all over and cannot get a fixed schedule. That travel itself takes a toll. I’m working my butt off everyday and the results aren’t coming.”
From being one of the big names in a tournament, Lisicki has been forced to start in the qualifying stages. At the same time, she hasn’t shied away from taking a step down from the WTA Tour, to the Futures circuit.
“I don’t have a problem doing that, because I’m getting game time. The problem is the other players bring their A-game because they want to beat me,” she says, as that familiar smile slowly starts to appear. “One or twice some have wanted to take photos with me, but a lot of them have been very kind to say it’s good to see me back on the tour.”
On the night in Mumbai, Lisicki walked on court beaming. She’d celebrate the points she’d win with a smile, on a few occasions even offer one when things wouldn’t go her way. The tears came only once she left court.
Her parents – which make up her entire entourage now – sat near the practice courts discussing the possible “course forward,” for Lisicki options these days often run thin. Yet amidst the tears and the pain of a pre-mature defeat to an opponent who was the deserved winner on the night, she did indeed smile. “Hopefully, I’ll be back here next year,” she says with a grin, as she left the room to face an uncertain future.