Sabine Lisicki spent last season reinforcing a tennis truism to opponents on the WTA Tour: what you don't know can hurt you.
The Berlin baseliner signaled her status as a player with strong potential and made her Grand Slam debut one to remember when she won three matches in qualifying to advance to the Australian Open main draw. The then 194th-ranked Lisicki unleashed her laser-like strokes to batter 16th-seeded Dinara Safina into submission, 7-6(4), 4-6, 6-2, in the opening round and eventually reached the third round before bowing to Caroline Wozniacki.
Two weeks later, an unheralded Lisicki was at it again.
Playing her first career Fed Cup match, Lisicki found herself facing one of the most dominant Fed Cup players in recent history in the form of Lindsay Davenport in La Jolla, California last February. At that point, Davenport lost Fed Cup matches about as often as San Diego loses sight of the sun in the summertime. Davenport entered the match with a 31-2 career Fed Cup record, including 24 consecutive victories. Davenport's last Fed Cup loss was a 6-2, 6-1 setback to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario on red clay in the 1994 final.
Asked what she knew about her opening opponent, Davenport replied: "About the same as I know about the second-round opponent, which isn't a lot," before adding. "I know that Lisicki did very well in Australia. She qualified and made it to the third round. I think she beat Safina and had some good wins. I did not get the opportunity to watch her play there, though, however."
She got more than a glimpse of Lisicki's potent power when the German teenager stormed through the first set then fought back from a 3-5 second-set deficit to shock the former World No. 1, 6-1, 7-5, and stake Germany to a 1-0 lead over the USA in the opening-round Fed Cup tie at the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club.
Lisicki, who goes after her first serve and concedes she must improve her second serve, overcame 11 double faults by converting on four of eight break-point chances.
"I’m having a hard time remembering the last time a match went so one-sided against me," Davenport said.
When she's on her game, Lisicki is capable of turning a singles match into a one-sided affair. In the first five weeks of the 2008 season, Lisicki burst out of relative anonymity to launch a breakthrough season in which she beat sixth-ranked Anna Chakvetadze en route to the Miami round of 16 and advanced to her first career WTA Tour final, knocking off top-seeded Shuai Peng, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4 before losing to Sorana Cirstea, 2-6, 6-4, 7-6(4).
A tall, powerful player, the 19-year-old Lisicki moves well and cracks the ball off both forehand and backhand side. Her willingness to take risk and change direction on her shots — as well as her commitment to improving her game — have helper her rise from a 2007-season ending rank of No. 237 to her current rank of No. 56.
"Lisicki is a big, strong hard hitting player who reminds me of a boxer throwing punches from every single direction!" says coach Nick Bollettieri, who has worked with her at the IMG Academy Bollettieri tennis program. "The problem is some of the punches land in the right spot and some don’t. She has the tendency to hit way too many unforced errors, and also can get tight on the second serve at times, but she's got great power, she works very hard and has a big-match mentality you can't always teach."
Tennis Week caught up with Lisicki for this interview.
Tennis Week: Sabine you made a significant jump in the rankings from No. 237 at the end of 2007 to No. 54 at the end of 2008. What are the biggest reasons for your rise?
Sabine Lisicki: I was working a lot and I was working really hard during the past two to three years. So I really worked to improve and get better day by day and now it's starting to go well and I'm starting to see the results of that work. I got to the point where I won some Challengers at the end of 2007 and things started to go well and I was able to carry that over into 2008.
Tennis Week: You won three rounds of qualifying to reach the Australian Open main draw last January. Then, in your first career Grand Slam you knocked off Dinara Safina and reached the third round where you gave Wozniacki a tough match before losing. How did your performance in Australia help your confidence for the rest of the season?
Sabine Lisicki: The whole tournament there was really exciting for me. It was my very first Grand Slam ever I played. Playing Safina it was a tough match and a long one. I ended up winning and that was very good for my confidence and my game. That helped me get nominated for the Fed Cup and I beat Lindsay Davenport in Fed Cup and that was probably my biggest win to that point. So it all started with Australia.
Tennis Week: You beat three players who have been in the top 10 — Safina, Davenport and Chakvetadze — last season. Do you approach playing a higher-ranked player differently or does your intensity level increase against the top players?
Sabine Lisicki: No, not really. For me, I take every match very seriously. I go on the court and I want to win as soon as I step on the court no matter who I am playing against I want to win.
Tennis Week: I know your dad has worked with you and he was an active player. How did you get interested in tennis in the first place? What role did your family play in your interest in tennis?
Sabine Lisicki: After school I always went to the tennis club where my mom and dad used to work. I just picked up the racquet one day and wanted to play and my dad started teaching me when I was about seven and a half. I was learning a couple of hours a week and I really enjoyed it.
Tennis Week: Were you immediately pretty good or was it something that you had to work at?
Sabine Lisicki: Yes, I think I picked it up pretty quickly. I played in the official German championships when I was 10 and I got third place for my group, which was exciting for me. Then I started to practice even more and I started to go to European tournaments. It made me more eager to play and made me believe I could get better. My dad has studied tennis for years and he has a doctorate in sports science so he's helped me a lot.
Tennis Week: Germany has quite a tennis tradition. Who were your favorite players while you were growing up?
Sabine Lisicki: I really liked watching Jennifer Capriati and Martina Hingis. Those were the two players I really liked and spent time watching.
Tennis Week: What's your favorite surface and how would you describe your game?
Sabine Lisicki: I really like to play on hard court because I practice a lot on hard court, I play on it and I feel comfortable on hard court. As for my game, I can say I'm an aggressive player. I tried to play aggressive tennis and take my chances when they are there. I believe I have a very good serve and the whole game is pretty much aggressive and just playing as hard as I can and giving my best effort every time out.
Tennis Week: What's your goal for this season?
Sabine Lisicki: To get into the top 30 as soon as possible.
Tennis Week: What was your favorite Christmas present of all time?.
Sabine Lisicki: That's a good question. I would say the first bike I ever got. That was the best Christmas present I ever got — my first bike.
Tennis Week: What did you learn from playing your first final in Tashkent last year?
Sabine Lisicki: It was a new situation to be in the WTA final. I got through a really hard match — two and half hours long — in the quarters and then beat the top seed in a pretty tough semifinal and then I lost 7-6 in the third set. So it was a great experience to get to my first final and a tough way to end, but I did the best I could and played hard. It taught me that I still have to learn and learn how to finish matches, but just the experience of playing in a final is a good one because you learn and hopefully can grow from it. And I think the next time I get to a final this experience of playing the last one will help me.
Tennis Week: You speak perfect English, how and where did you learn?
Sabine Lisicki: (laughs). Thanks. I actually grew up speaking German and Polish. I learned my English practicing in the States and I've been practicing it for four or five years so it's helped me being around a lot of other players who speak it.