Friday 10 to 1: tennis comebacks
In keeping with the Easter theme of resurrection, this Friday we pay tribute to the players who have produced the greatest comebacks the sport has seen.
Although he’s always suffered from dodgy knees, never before has Rafa’s career been threatened in the manner that it was in 2012, when persistent knee tendinitis forced him off tour for almost eight months after he was sensationally upset in the second round at Wimbledon. Yet since he returned in February 2013, it was as if the Spaniard never left – he played in three events as part of the Latin American claycourt swing, going 12-1 and winning in Sao Paulo and Acapulco. Moving to the hardcourts of Indian Wells, he continued his form, building a 14-match winning streak after winning the prestigious title in the Californian desert (beating three top 10 foes along the way).
Going into 2007, Sam Stosur’s career was very much on the up, with the Aussie already a French and US Open doubles champion with Lisa Raymond and having cracked the top 30 in singles. But by Wimbledon that year, she noticed something was wrong – as she documents on her official website, she suffered a variety of severe health problems that finally ended in the diagnosis of viral meningitis and Lyme disease. She played just two events in the near 10 months between Wimbledon 2007 and late April 2008, when she returned to the ITF tour ranked outside the top 150. But by the end of that year, she’d hauled herself back up to world No.52, paving the way for the singles success that followed – in 2009, she reached the semifinals at Roland Garros, and went one better in 2010 with a trip to the final. In 2011, she capped her stunning return with victory at the US Open.
Has there ever been a more injury prone player than Tommy Haas? Over his storied career – he turned pro in 1996 – the German has suffered hip, back, shoulder, elbow, ankle, wrist and abdominal ailments, many of which have been recurring. He missed the entire 2003 season due to rotator cuff surgery, and shoulder surgery was again necessary in 2007, which led to a truncated 2008. In February 2010, it was the right hip, with surgery (followed by elbow surgery a month later) wiping out another season. He dropped off the rankings in early 2011, and reappeared in June that year ranked No.896. But Haas, admirably, persevered. And in 2012, he enjoyed a stunning return to the top 20 at 34 years of age, a season highlighted by a defeat of Roger Federer in the Halle final. And now, just a week out from his 35th birthday, the German has upset Novak Djokovic on his way to the semifinals in Miami. His ranking stands to rise even further, much to the delight of he, his wife, and his young daughter, one of the main reasons he has committed to continue playing on tour.
The Russian’s shoulder problems first surfaced in 2007, with her dodgy right shoulder forcing her withdrawal from five events. But it was in 2008 when that joint really began causing her trouble. A rotator cuff tear was finally diagnosed – which she had been unknowingly competing with – and forced her withdrawal from the tour for nine months as she committed to rehabilitation. When she returned in April 2009, the then-three-time major winner was hardly the same player – although she admirably clawed her way back up to world No.14 by year’s end, her game was plagued with doubt, manifesting in errors and many double faults. Yet Sharapova showed impressive grit, enduring another underwhelming season in 2010 before beginning to turn a corner in 2011. She began performing well at the big events again – semis in Indian Wells and Roland Garros, finals at Miami and Wimbledon. By the time she reached the final at Australian Open 2012, she was almost back to her best. She confirmed that on clay, tearing through all opposition to win titles in Stuttgart, Rome and finally, Roland Garros, where she completed a stunning career Grand Slam and returned to world No.1.
Many thought Goran Ivanisevic had missed his chance at Wimbledon glory – despite his scintillating serve and dangerous net play, he’d gone down in three finals (1992, 1994 and 1998), and by mid 2001, had fallen outside the top 100 as left shoulder problems increasingly took their toll. Arriving at the All England Club that year, the Croat required a wildcard to enter the main draw, and painkillers to contest his matches. Yet there was a sense of destiny about Ivanisevic’s Wimbledon campaign that year as he sliced his way through the draw, defeating Roddick, Rusedski, Safin and Henman to arrive in the final. There, in one of the most atmospheric matches ever seen, he upended Aussie favourite Pat Rafter in five thrilling sets to become one of the most popular, and unlikely, Wimbledon champions in history.
Capriati’s story seemed to be one of teenage prodigy whose star burned too brightly, too early. The American, in an unfortunately public case of burnout and rebellion, took an extended break from the tour after falling in the first round of the 1993 US Open. She played just one event in 1994 and none in 1995, a two-year period which she was more famous for her shoplifting and marijuana possession than for her tennis. Yet Capriati re-committed herself to the game, returning to tennis at Essen in 1996 and finishing that year inside the top 25. The following years were up-and-down, before she began showing consistency in her results throughout 1999 and 2000, hovering around the top 20 and beginning to be a dangerous force in big events once again. But it all came together in spectacular fashion in 2001, where Capriati completed one of the sport’s fairytale comebacks by winning the Australian Open – beating fourth-ranked Seles, second-ranked Davenport and top-ranked Hingis in her final three matches – and the French Open, before rising to world No.1.
Agassi’s talent was never questioned, and you’d have to argue that in the first phase of his career, winning 1992 Wimbledon, 1994 US Open and 1995 Australian Open constitutes a pretty good haul. But the general consensus was that Agassi was too gifted to have won only three majors, and when he slipped to world No.141 in 1997 at age 27 – a combination of injury, a failing marriage, recreational drug use and waning interest in the game – many felt his career was over, and talent wasted. What came next was therefore all the more unexpected. Agassi hit the Challenger circuit in late 1997, reaching a final and winning a title. Entering 1998 with confidence somewhat restored, he rose from outside the top 100 to world No.4, the biggest jump from outside to inside the top 10 in ATP history. In 1999, he completed his career slam in stunning fashion with a five-set triumph in the French Open final over Andrei Medvedev, and with victory at the US Open later that year, returned to No.1. Having risen from the depths to the summit, Agassi when then go on to flourish into his 30s, winning three more Australian Open titles from 2000-2003 and cementing his place among the greats of the sport.
Monica Seles’ cause for leaving the sport in 1993 was as horrific as they come, with the Serb-turned-American stabbed in the back by a crazed fan at Hamburg in 1993. The event was so traumatic that Seles did not return to tennis for 27 months, but when she did, she immediately won the title in Toronto, and reached the US Open final before falling to Graf, her only two tournaments of 1995. In 1996, she completed her comeback with victory at the Australian Open, among the most heart-warming and deserved victories in the history of the sport. Although Seles never returned to No.1 – apart from being co-ranked No.1 with Graf upon her return in 1995 – Seles did peak at No.2 in 1996 and 1997.
2. Kim Clijsters
Kim Clijsters has made a bit of a habit of comebacks. In 2004 at Indian Wells, she injured her left wrist during her third round match, an ailment that necessitated surgery to repair torn tendons and remove a cyst and which limited her to just four events in the next 12 months. When she returned to Indian Wells in 2005, she was ranked No.133. But that didn’t stop her, incredibly, winning the title, or winning in Miami later that month, seeing her become just the second woman in history to pull off the Indian Wells-Miami double. That season reaped nine titles for Clijsters, including her first major at the 2005 US Open, and when she rose to world No.1 after Australian Open 2006, she became the first player ever to rise to No.1 from outside the top 100 in the space of 12 months. Yet tennis soon became a chore for the Belgian, who announced her retirement from tennis in May 2007 with the intention of starting a family. When she began to miss the competition, she announced her return in 2009. And what a resounding return it was. In just her third event back, Clijsters won the US Open, becoming the first ever wildcard to win a Grand Slam title, and the first mother since Evonne Goolangong at Wimbledon in 1980.
No player in tennis has been down and out more than Serena Williams. Or shown the ability to rise from the ashes to the top, time and time again. You even see it within her matches – how many times has Serena recovered from the loss of the first set, or a second or third set deficit, or even multiple match points, to come back and win? Her first major career setback came in 2003, when she required left knee surgery. Returning in Miami 2004 after eight months out of the game, she won the title and also reached the Wimbledon final later that season. After injuries and depression marred her 2005 and 2006 seasons, she arrived in Melbourne in 2007 ranked No.81, but put on an awesome display to capture the Australian Open title, her destruction of Maria Sharapova in the final especially brutal. Yet the most serious setback for Serena came after winning Wimbledon in 2010, when she cut her foot on glass at a restaurant. With her limb immobile for the next several months, it’s possible that’s what caused her to suffer a pulmonary embolism and haematoma, which forced her hospitalisation in March 2011. When Williams returned to tennis at Eastbourne in 2011 after almost a year out of the game, she was a shadow of her former self. But gaining in confidence throughout the US hardcourt season, she reached the US Open final and finished the year at No.12. It set the stage for a magnificent 2012, in which she won six titles – including the Wimbledon, US Open, Olympic and WTA Championship titles – and rose to world No.3. And in early 2013 in Doha, Williams capped a stunning return to the summit (at 31 years of age) with her defeat of Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals, a result that reinstated her as the world No.1. It’s where she remains to this day.