“I have a father who put me in a cage,” Timea Bacsinszky opens up about her childhood interviewed by @flaberne

From the print edition of l’Équipe, March 19 2015 page 13. Interview by Frédéric Bernes

The Swiss Timea Bacsinszky hasn’t stopped winning in 2015. And yet she’s come from a long way back.

Last night Timea Bacsinszky challenged Serena Williams on Court 1 in the Indian Wells quarter-finals. Before the shock against the world number one, the 25-year-old Swiss, 26th in the world, was coasting on a series of 15 wins in a row. It’s been twenty-one wins and two losses [Halep in the final at Shenzhen and Muguruza in the third round of the Australian Open] since the beginning of the year for Bacsinczky. It’s impressive in itself, but is brought even more into relief by the knowledge that she had stopped playing tennis two years ago with a career in the hotel business in mind. At the time, it wasn’t so much tennis but her father she was escaping from. And then she got an email asking her to sign up for the Roland Garros 2013 qualifications. She told herself, why not?  And she was off again. For herself and no one else this time. She tells her story:

Exactly two years ago I was arranging the date to start my internship in a five-star hotel. For me it was over, I wasn’t going to play any more. I told my friend: “Ok, fine, I’m going to serve coffee in cafés.” And I would have loved it.

That’s when you find out that you aren’t aware of the resources a human being can have. I still can’t get over having put together those two weeks in Mexico [she’d just won Acapulco and Monterrey back-to-back] and to win even more matches here. It’s almost unreal.

Considering the athlete I was before – really, athlete in quotation marks, because I was in really sub-standard condition – I don’t even know how I managed to get up to 37th [in 2010]. I was ultra clever, I read the others’ games well but I never worked on my own. It was just a continuation of the world I’d been put in. It’s one thing to want celebrity, money, all the shiny stuff, but I wasn’t a happy person. I was hiding from reality. I had my little tennis success, I imagined kids wanted to do what I did, but they didn’t really know. I couldn’t go all out because I had a father, really just a sire – I know the words are rough, but it’s an objective view of the situation – who put me in a cage. A prison. I don’t want to complain, that people say: “Oh that poor girl!” By telling my story, I tell myself that it might help other people. Open eyes.

My mother is a dentist. So it wasn’t likely to be her who would show me how to hit a forehand. My dad is a tennis pro. I was three when he brought me onto a tennis court for the first time. He saw quickly that the project that was unsuccessful with his two other kids [by another mother] was possible with me. My mother didn’t say no. Did she sense what I was feeling? I don’t know … I’m not upset with her. She brought in the money so her family could live, she couldn’t see everything, know everything.

I didn’t have a cool childhood. I remember there were hotlines for children who were not being treated well and thinking about calling them ate me up. But I was afraid that he [her father Igor] would see on the bill that I’d dialled that number and I would have problems … I was never hit. I got a few slaps, he pulled my hair … But it was mostly psychological. I thought about running away. I’d searched the Internet to find out about how to run away successfully. I suffered from the “pushy parents” syndrome, which is pretty widespread in tennis. And we still don’t know everything. The WTA prefers to show all the nice stories. But if I look around me, if I look at the stats … To me, parents, they’re not made to coach. Any parent can teach a kid how to play tennis. It’s enough to read books. After, you have to step down.

My father never took care of me except on the tennis court. Taking care of your kid isn’t throwing a tennis ball at her. I didn’t have a father. I don’t see him any more, I don’t talk to him and that’s the way it will be to the end. I’m not lacking in anything. My childhood was stolen. My adolescence was stolen too. You couldn’t take Timea out of tennis. Me, I only had one wish: to get away. The worst thing is, I’d certainly have played better if he’d let me breathe. On the court I had a moment where I could escape his control. He told me, “play crosscourt there.” And I’d play down the line. Except there would come the moment where I had to win the match, otherwise he’d make me pay [she twice won The Little Aces, the official World Championship for under 14’s, as Martina Hingis did]. When you’re afraid of what might happen to you if you lose, you develop a special thing. But I think I loved competition when I was a kid. What kid doesn’t like to win? I’m convinced that when I was very small, I loved tennis. But he made me hate it.

He had this unhealthy desire to shine, to be known, that people would say he was the best coach. To do that it was no problem for him to scream at me. Money? He surely wanted to end his life in a palace. When I got my first sponsor, he quit work to become my coach. It was the worst moment of my life.

He took a nice little salary with his girl’s sponsor. He bought me one or two pairs of jeans because he needed to give a carrot to the donkey.   When I was fifteen, I forced my mother to divorce him. If she didn’t, I didn’t want to see either of them ever again. Happily, I had school. I was so happy to learn new things, new Swiss things I couldn’t learn at home because my father is Hungarian. I lied to my father to take part in intramural competitions. I’d hidden my running shoes under my history book. I’d become a professional liar. I had to get around him all the time just to live, or survive. I don’t know. I was lucky to have nannies at home. One of them gave me the love of cooking. I made soups for my mother in the evening with my nanny. I was happy then.

I’ve been working with a psychologist for the last two years. I’ve finally understood why I couldn’t do more before. Because if I shone, “he” shone too. With what I’ve endured, people who know me ask me how I managed to stay out of drugs and alcohol. At one time, I went out a lot in Lausanne. I must have been a sorry sight. During the day I was glued to the settee. In some ways it was good I got injured [a foot in 2012]. In 2013, I started an internship in a palace in Villars. In September I was supposed to enter hotel school. Maybe later, I’ll go back.

Translated by Mark Nixon

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7 thoughts on ““I have a father who put me in a cage,” Timea Bacsinszky opens up about her childhood interviewed by @flaberne”

  1. It is way hungarian people are, and being hungarian myself i understand. We want the best for our children, but leave short space to self develop for the child. Most likely Timea would not have the same success without a strict father. I am sure thought, that there must love her in the bottom of her heart towards the father, but she must feel personally terrible when seeing the rest of family living a normal life, while she is under a continues performance pressure. As we use the latin saying hungarian, put more load on a palm tree and it will grow faster. ( teher alatt no a palma ) hope she will be over on this.

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  2. One does not have to be Hungarian to be overly demanding of his/her children. Hopefully Timea will learn to understand that the high demands by her father were from his recognizing her potential, potential that she was not even aware of. He wanted to make his child be more successful in life than he was. She should forgive his shortcomings and be thankful for his dedication of himself for her success. To do that would show an ever higher success.

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    1. These comments about parenting are ill-informed. Overbearing parents don’t do anybody favors – not for the family and certainly not for the child who is finding their own way. Support and encouragement yes. Intimidation no.

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  3. Well we come to a conclusion,we have to hear what her father has to say about Timea and his relationship with her. Not sure if there’s just very strict rule or physical abuse involved

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  4. Many successful people have overbearing psychotic parents.
    Andre Agassi was sent to Tennis “camp” ie a gulag. He hated tennis for years as a result
    Jelena Dokic’s career was ruined by her Father
    However a lot of tennis players parents are an asset, like Andrew Murray’s Mother.
    Timea’s success today his hers not because of her Father but despite him.
    His attitude was not of a parent it was child abuse. You can have a tough strict coach but then have the support of responsible parents. What he did was wrong.

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