Melbourne, Australia, 15 June 2023 | Matt Trollope

Professional tennis will soon see the return of one of its most popular players, with Daria Saville set to make a comeback during the grass-court season.

The former top-20 player has not competed since September, when she ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in Tokyo – an injury requiring immediate surgery and intensive rehab.

Saville flew to Nottingham to join coach (Jay Gooding) and husband (ATP pro Luke Saville), and is targeting a return in the qualifying draw of the WTA tournament in Birmingham.

“We try and train harder than playing a match, but every time I’ve come back, doesn’t matter how easy or hard it was, you feel like you’ve been hit by a bus. It feels terrible the next day,” she said on this week’s episode of The AO Show.

“But that doesn’t scare me – I just know that I’m gonna feel like crap.”

The ACL injury was a particularly cruel outcome for the Australian, who sustained the same injury nearly 10 years earlier. She had also missed large chunks of competition from 2019 to 2021 due to Achilles and foot injuries.

She had been soaring before her latest setback. Ranked outside the top 600 as she began competing unrestricted in 2022, she returned to the top 50 – an improvement so significant it saw her nominated for WTA Comeback Player of the Year honours.

Season highlights included top-10 wins over Jessica Pegula and Ons Jabeur, a quarterfinal run at the Miami Open, and the final in Granby.

But just two matches after playing that Granby final, in Tokyo, she was struck down in the second game of her first-round match against Naomi Osaka.

“I was pretty miserable straight after the accident. (But) my miserable is not very miserable,” Saville laughed.

“I had the surgery a week after I’d torn my ACL, and from then on, it was like, ‘OK, rehab, let’s go’. I had so much help from Tennis Australia … Nicole Pratt was able to help me on court. So I’m very grateful for that.

“The last few weeks I’ve been hitting with some juniors here (in Melbourne), playing a few sets. It’s hard to know where my level is at.

“I think I have a rough idea, but I think I’m just excited to go away and test myself against WTA players.”

> LISTEN NOW: Daria Saville on The AO Show podcast

There were plenty of positives for Saville while she was off the court.

Rehab went smoothly, and she enjoyed the distraction of a stint working at the Tennis Victoria office, plus spending eight months uninterrupted with her photogenic dog, Tofu.

She also became a tennis super-fan.

“I normally would just say I like watching my friends. Obviously Storm (Hunter), Ellen (Perez). But then (Daria) Kasatkina, I always watch her. I enjoy watching Aryna (Sabalenka), she’s fun to watch,” Saville said.

“I happened to watch a lot of Elina (Svitolina) at the French Open. Because Stormy played her, and then I watched Sabalenka against Svitolina. I’ve watched a lot of tennis.

“I’ve watched the men as well, I like watching them too. And because of Luke I’m also watching the ATP Challenger tour.

“And then I go on Twitter, and I’m like, ‘what’s the gossip there?’ So I’m like a real fan. It took me so long to realise that Twitter became a bit like TikTok, with ‘for you’ and ‘following’. And I see so much gossip on the ‘for you’ page, I’m like, ‘oh my God’.”

However, as mentally strong as she was throughout the recovery process, there were downsides.

Particularly during the summer in January.

“I think (I most missed) my friends. Even though I did see a few of them during the Australian Open, that was tough, not playing,” she said.

“Just being around it … knowing that I could have, I should have, I would have, been in main draw. And my home Slam.

“I (also) really wanted to do an amazing pre-season, and I haven’t done that for a while, because of all of my injuries.”

Saville admits she does not love boarding flights, and will miss Tofu. However, the 29-year-old is looking forward to being back on tour, going from city to city, enjoying dinners with friends, and travelling more regularly with Luke.

Last year she was trending towards her career-high ranking of world No.20, set back in 2017.

She’ll get another shot when she returns.

“I’m using a lot of tools to track my loads, and it’s really important to know, ‘Okay, how many serves have I been hitting’? Because you don’t want to go on tour and you haven’t hit the amount of serves that you hit in a match,” she explained.

“Because I’ve had so many injuries, I’m good at knowing if I’m ready or not. I will never come back feeling like I’m a bit underdone.

“The first probably few months there’s no expectations. I didn’t have big expectations last time, either. I think it just happens; you just give yourself the best chance, you try and accumulate small wins day by day. It’s not always about results, because if you get caught up in just winning or losing – and we lose pretty much every week – it becomes a very sad world for us.

“I don’t expect myself to be playing amazing tennis straight away. It will be a huge win just to be able to play in Birmingham. It doesn’t matter the rest.

“Win or lose … just to step out on the court, it’s already a win.”

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