Mentally tough Paszek understands the virtue of patience

How unusual a player is Tamira Paszek? Let us enumerate the ways.

At 17 years, 4 months old, the Austrian No. 46 is still the youngest player in the top 100, known for exceptionally mature patience, tenacity and a whiplash backhand.

"In Austria many people called me a wonder child, and I said, 'No, I am definitely not because I was not born like that,'" she says, sitting with perfect posture and a warm, relaxed air befitting a much older athlete during an interview at the Sony Ericsson Open last month. "I had to make my way up. I keep on working and try to stay focused on my game and not what people are talking about."

Her father travels with her but is not her coach. In fact, he espouses a serene, noninterventionist philosophy not always prevalent in tennis circles. He has told her to imagine she's an actor, "acting herself," when she's playing, but also a student who has done her homework.

"She is the one on the court," Ariff Mohamed says by way of explanation. "I just tell everybody I am the backbone. When she needs something, I am here.

"She's a nice girl. She's down-to-earth and she respects everybody. Mentally she's very strong, she's very calm. When she played the Orange Bowl under-12s, she gave her first interview in English, with the Miami Herald. We asked her if she wanted help. She said 'No, I'll handle it.' She's always been like that."

Paszek's two-season relationship with coach Larri Passos ended cordially late last year -- another relative rarity. Passos decided he needed to travel less after the birth of his second child, and also is shepherding his famous protege, Brazilian icon Gustavo Kuerten, on an abbreviated farewell tour this spring. Paszek now works with coach Roland Santos and hitting partner Richard Brooks.

Mohamed said he still considers Passos "family," and Paszek clearly still views him as a mentor. Passos and Paszek embraced and chatted easily when they spotted each other in a stadium corridor at the Sony Ericsson Open.

"We had a little half-hour talk and it was amazing," said Paszek, who conceded that it has been somewhat hard to move on. "We get along so well. I'm comfortable with him. It was definitely the right decision for the moment, he has a second kid, Guga is playing his last season. But I'm very happy with my new coaches.

"Larri gave me the constancy in the game, Larri improved my forehand and backhand. He kind of made me a complete player in these two years, gave me a lot of confidence with all the experience he had with Guga."

Paszek began the season strongly with three wins in Auckland, New Zealand, and endured a taut, three-set marathon first-round loss to Jelena Jankovic at the Australian Open, but has played just five matches since mid-January.

She attributes the lull to a coincidental string of minor injuries and illness, most recently a gastrointestinal ailment that forced her to retire from her second match in Indian Wells, but said she felt 100 percent in Key Biscayne, where she fell to Anna Chakvetadze in the second round.

"I'm young, my body's not yet grown up, so I have to take a lot of rest and recover," she says.

Paszek, who's still limited to 17 regular-season WTA tournaments this year because of her age, just returned from a couple of weeks of training on clay in Spain with Santos. She plans to play in Berlin and Rome in the weeks leading up to Roland Garros, but next up is this weekend's Fed Cup competition against Switzerland in her hometown of Dornbirn -- a ski town near the Swiss and German borders.

It's been a year since the then-unheralded teen made a statement in the same place and the same competition against Australia, sweeping her matches against Samantha Stosur and Alicia Molik in straight sets.

"I was sitting courtside when she dismantled our players," veteran Aussie doubles player and commentator Rennae Stubbs said. "We had heard that her second serve was weak, that her forehand was shaky. We didn't see any of that.

"The way someone reacts to Fed Cup is very telling to me, because it's such an out-of-body experience. I saw someone who is not afraid of anything -- not afraid of the perceptions and expectations of what she could do, not afraid of the pressure. She enjoyed the moment."

Fourth-round showings at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year helped Paszek barge into the top 50 (she reached a career-high No. 35 last summer) and stay there. She was 33-18 in 2007, and 10 of her 18 losses were to top-20 players. Paszek says she knows she can't just rely on her fearsome backhand if she wants to progress.

"That was always my style, playing pressure from the back, and I have an aggressive game," she said. "But I'm definitely working on going to the net more, closing points at the net, working on my serve, on my return, but in general just being aggressive, step in the court and try to play my game."

Paszek doesn't shrink from the challenge of playing the best, said Stubbs, who also recalled Paszek's impressive attitude in a 7-5, 6-1 loss to Justine Henin in the first round of last year's French Open.

"She was there to win," Stubbs said. She also praised Paszek's off-court demeanor: "She's well liked in the locker room, as real as you get, and she has a quiet confidence about her."

Paszek learned the game from her mother, Francoise, who stays home with Tamira's younger brother and manages her daughter's travel arrangements and financial affairs. The family portrait is an ethnic mosaic Tamira delights in describing.

"My dad's background is Indian; he was born in Tanzania, grew up in Kenya, emigrated to Canada," said Paszek, who speaks three languages and is tackling Spanish. "My mom was born in Chile, came to Austria, her mother was Austrian, her father half-Polish, half-French. They met when my mom was on holiday in Kenya and my Dad was working in a hotel."

Moving between cultures as a youngster "has definitely helped me in life," she added. "I'm a very open person."

So is her father, who was easily recognizable in the players' lounge in Key Biscayne last month, sporting chartreuse-and-aluminum prescription eyewear of his own design. He grew up on a family-run chicken farm in Kenya and is trained as a baker.

"I always told her and our motto was always 'Time will tell, step by step, there's no need to rush,' and still we are not rushing," Mohamed said. "I still do the scheduling for the tournaments. We sit down together, my wife and her, and we ask her what she wants. There's no need to overplay and move things too fast."

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.