A family affair
Austria's Sybille Bammer Is Feeling A Lot More Comfortable On The Tour These Days. And So Is Her Six-Year-Old Daughter
Bruce Arthur, National Post
Published: Friday, August 17, 2007
TORONTO -For most, life in women's tennis is exhaustion and dislocation, text messaging and isolation, hotel rooms and practice courts as far as the eye can see. The task is to stay focused, stay sane, and succeed.
In one unusual case, this is accomplished by finding hotels with swimming pools, and carrying Uno playing cards with you, whenever possible.
"She likes Uno," affirms Christophe Gschwendtner.
Welcome to the life of Sybille Bammer, Christophe and Tina, the "she" in that sentence. Sybille is, a little unexpectedly, the 20th-ranked tennis player in the world. Christophe is her longtime boyfriend. And Tina is their six-year-old daughter, who travels with her parents. Which in women's tennis is about as common as trailing a white Siberian tiger behind you, everywhere you go.
"I am very happy that I have a family already, and I can still play on the Tour," says Sybille, 27, an Austrian blonde with a set jawline and almond-coloured eyes. "Before I had Tina, my highest ranking was 210. After I had Tina, I wanted to quit.
"[Christophe] told me to try one more time. And I said, 'OK, we all work together, help each other. It will not be easy, but we try one more time.' And it worked good."
Good? Incredible, maybe. Women's tennis is a teenager's game, and family usually means an overprotective parent, or a Svengali-like husband. In this case, it means a real family.
At No. 20, Sybille is the only mother in the top 100, and became the first mother to win an event on the Sony-Ericsson WTA Tour since 1989 with a victory at Pattaya City in Thailand earlier this year. She also shocked Serena Williams at an Australian Open tuneup. At an age when players tend to retire and start families, Sybille is just beginning to play.
"She's doing so well," says Christophe. "She's doing good."
Sybille and Christophe met in a disco near her hometown of Linz, Austria. They fell in love, though the pregnancy was a surprise. Then came Tina, and the biggest decision of their lives. Christophe, a mechanical engineer, arranged a sabbatical from work to become the primary caregiver and the effective manager, arranging travel, sponsors, racquets, shoes, clothes. That, of course, was the simple part.
"The hardest part for me was to watch a kid all day," he says. "It was unbelievable. I could work for my company 20 hours a day, and it's not so hard."
"I think that of one million men, not many would give up their job and look after their child when I am practising, or I am in the tournament," says Sybille, who may marry Christophe after this season, if they can find the time. "I think without him, I would not go so far."
Sybille admits now that a comeback scared her, but six months after giving birth she began to work hard for the first time. She won the first tournament she entered, a flyspeck US$10,000 ITF event in Grenoble. Once Tina was a year old, the family began to travel together.
"It was hard before," says Christophe. "She never wanted to fasten her seat belt on the plane, and she always was crying."
Sybille reached the far margins of tennis, finishing between No. 176 and 151 for three years, but she was stalled. Then she got new coaches, a new forehand, a new style. And the funny part was while she was shaky on big points before pregnancy, the enforced separation between being a player and a mother had calmed her, had unwound her 24-hour tennis brain.
With the changes in place, she snuck into the top 100 in 2005. She has yet to stop.
Times have changed in other ways, too.
While she refused a request for an interview by hiding behind Tour official Isabelle Hodge, Tina has her mother's tan, her mother's hair, and wears various shades of pink. And she seems entirely at home on the Tour, whether watching her mother play or staying entertained with pool or card games in the players' lounge.
"She plays Uno," says co-coach Hannes Puehringer, "and sometimes she asks, 'What's the score? Mommy winning or not?' "
"She is a happy child," says Sybille, smiling. "Unfortunately, she speaks very loud--for her it's normal, but it's louder than normal. But she always likes to do something -- tennis, mini-golf, table soccer, ping-pong, pool."
So while Sybille sweats, Christophe occupies her time -- Disneyland in Anaheim, Sea World in San Diego, a pool in every hotel, Uno. At Grand Slams, there is kindergarten for kids, and a relative vacation for Christophe, though Tina said of the kindergarten here, "I'm too old for that."
Tina has become particularly close with Hodge, a native of Whitby, During one match, when Hodge appeared on court, she received a radio message from a colleague to turn right, and wave. As she turned, she saw two tiny arms flailing back and forth over an enormous smile, as if Tina was shipwrecked, and Hodge a potential rescue plane.
"Now she works for the WTA," jokes Puehringer, as Tina clutches a Tour walkie-talkie.
She may be dissuaded, however. After sitting in on a news conference earlier this year, Tina turned to Hodge and said, "Well, that wasn't funny." And at the French Open, her Uno cards were picked up by the wind and scattered across the clay, leaving the ballboys to pick the cards up.
Still, for Sybille and Chistophe, it beats toting around a one-year-old.
"Now it's very easy," says Christophe. "I know what she wants, and what we can do. Now I like this, and I'm used to doing this, and I want Sybille to do better and better."
Here in Toronto, Sybille dusted Emilie Loit of France and Canadian Aleksandra Wozniak before losing 6-2, 6-3 to No. 2 seed Jelena Jankovic on Centre Court last night. Still, she walked out after the post-match media interviews with her daughter, smiling and joking.
"Sometimes it's a hard life because I have no time to rest," says Sybille, with a laugh. "Sometimes it's too much. But for me it's better. For me it's good. I like it how it is."