Within two years, her appetite for the sport had returned. She returned to the tour and continued to study. She would not crack the top 200 again or reach the WTA Tour level, but she found herself enjoying tennis more than ever as part of a balanced life.
Then came the violent episode in 2011. At a small tournament in Versmold, Germany, Tamaela was watching her friend Danielle Harmsen compete in a qualifying match against Karen Barbat. With Harmsen up a break at 4-2 in the first set, Barbat’s father, Mihai, became enraged.
He screamed racial insults at Tamaela, whose father was born in the Netherlands to immigrants from the Maluku Islands in Indonesia, and struck her in her temple. She collapsed to the ground and was unconscious for several minutes.
“He started talking to me and I didn’t even know what was happening,” Tamaela said.
When she regained consciousness, she went to a police station to file a report, but later, according to news media reports, she began to vomit continuously and was taken in an ambulance to a nearby hospital. She was diagnosed with a concussion and kept overnight, Tamaela said.
Mihai Barbat was banned from the tournament, and his daughter was disqualified from both singles and doubles. In Danish news media reports, Barbat and his daughter claimed that he acted in self-defense after being provoked by Tamaela, which she denies. The Barbats had returned to their home in Denmark before the German police could contact them. Mihai Barbat was not arrested.
He had a history of erratic behavior on tour, including an arrest one year earlier for attempted drunken driving in a parking lot outside a tournament in Copenhagen. The International Tennis Federation ultimately banned him from its events for two years.
“This is the truth in tennis: There are parents that are just nuts,” Tamaela said. “I feel sorry for their kids.”
Karen Barbat apologized to Tamaela the next year.
“She came to me, she apologized, but I haven’t seen him,” Tamaela said. “I don’t think I would even recognize him if I see him. It was quick.”
Eager to shake off the episode, Tamaela entered a tournament in Rotterdam one month after the attack. It would be her last.
“I recovered and I wanted to play a little bit, but then I got unwell on court,” she said. “I started playing a little bit too early. I was feeling bad on court, so I thought, O.K., I’m just going to finish. I had been thinking of finishing before.”
Tamaela’s concussion symptoms faded after three or four months, though she said, “ever since then I still have sometimes a tough time remembering things.” Her decision to stop playing stuck.
She began full-time work as a physiotherapist and savored the stability and security of a normal job and work schedule.
Tennis came calling again in the form of a friend from tour: Krunic, a talented, diminutive Serbian. Though nearly a decade apart in age, the pair shared a close bond. Krunic had been the first person outside Tamaela’s family to contact her when she was hospitalized.
At first Krunic asked for only a few weeks at a time when her normal coaches were unable to travel with her. But in the summer of 2016, Krunic asked Tamaela if she would join her on the tour as her primary, traveling coach.
Tamaela was reluctant.
“I said, ‘Alex, come on, I have my life here, my family, a full-time job with a contract,’” she recalled. “It’s quite a big step for me to take, and I always like security. I love to be home with my family. I had to give it some thought.”
Tamaela said her boss told her: “‘Elise, if you want to do it you’ve got to do it. And if you don’t like it, come back.’ So I had my security there, and I was just going to try, and I’d go back if I didn’t like it. But I’m still here.”
The pair have made great strides. Krunic finished 2016 ranked 147th, and has climbed over 100 spots to her current spot at 45th, a career high.
Krunic, who lost in the first round of the Australian Open last week, opened her season with a run to the quarterfinals at the Brisbane International. She beat the top-seeded Garbiñe Muguruza, who retired in the third set because of cramping in the stiflingly humid summer weather.
That Krunic earned an impressive upset on the strength of her conditioning is not incidental. Tamaela pulls double duty as a coach with tennis experience and a credentialed physiotherapist, giving her a dual insight few others have.
“I worked a lot with professional athletes, and I know a lot of injuries are just overuse,” Tamaela said. “Almost every injury is overuse, unless it’s a trauma like in soccer. But in tennis, it’s most of the time overuse. So that’s what we’re trying to find, this balance.”
Tamaela is also uncommon as a female coach, a rare cohort even on the women’s professional tour. According to the WTA’s most recent index of coaches, there are only eight players in the top 100 who list a woman as a coach or co-coach.
Krunic had previously worked with another female coach, Biljana Veselinovic.
“Maybe the tour is still not really familiar with female coaches, but I tried it for myself, I loved it and I’m pretty sure if some other girls tried it they would love it too,” Krunic said.
Working with Tamaela gave her newfound trust and connection with a coach, Krunic said.
“It’s about the energy, and I’m a pretty tough person to deal with because I have an opinion for everything,” she said. “Of course sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m wrong, but sometimes with guys it can get heated because not a lot of guys will allow some girl to say whatever she thinks. But with Elise, we’re really good friends and she knows me really well. She knows when to ignore me, when to listen to me, or when I’m searching for something.”
The two know each other well enough that Tamaela can correctly guess what Krunic will order at restaurants . Krunic, too, knows to stop talking when Tamaela picks up her current book. Tamaela reads voraciously, finding it the best way to seek calm on the rocky ride of the tour on which she remains a somewhat reluctant passenger.
“This is not something I ever wanted to do in my life — and after Alex, no more,” Tamaela said. “I think she’s going to be the only person I ever coach, and after her I’ll go back to my normal life at home.”