Comeback Trail: Tennis’ Top Players Exercising Spirited Rejuvenation
After extended periods of time off, several of tennis’ top players have made comebacks with extremely admirable results.
By Jane Voigt
Updated: May 3, 2017 • 7:24 PM ET
Roger Federer pulled of a miraculous victory at the Australian Open earlier this year.
What do Roger Federer, Tommy John and Peyton Manning have in common, other than extraordinary careers? Each one has mounted a comeback in their chosen sport, performing as well or better than they had prior to an injury.
Federer’s rejuvenation follows those of Rafael Nadal, Venus Williams, Andre Agassi and, most recently, Maria Sharapova. Sure, Sharapova hadn’t been injured when she returned to tennis last week in Stuttgart, Germany. Instead, she had served a 15-month doping suspension, but the reasons behind an athlete’s absence doesn’t matter. What matters is their outstanding performance after their returns.
How did these fine athletes, having been away from the courts for extended periods of time, reappear to defeat the ones who had steadily played in tournaments? Is rest and rehabilitation a cure? A miracle cure? A mystery?
The answers are less abstract than pragmatic, although elements of the inexplicable exist. In a nutshell, the shared assets and actions they took to ensure a return are listed here. The results, which weren’t planned, came later.
Top-of-the-line medical help
Close family ties
A team approach
Love of their game
Last year, Roger Federer slipped on Centre Court Wimbledon during a semifinal match against Canadian Milos Raonic. He was points away from taking the match and competing in his 11th Wimbledon final. But the slip messed with his mind and his game. He lost the match and a chance to score his 18th Grand Slam. Days later he announced he was out for the remainder of the year to further recover from knee surgery earlier in 2016.
His decision was met with speculation, given the fact he would soon be 35 years old, an ancient age for a tennis star, even one as gifted as Federer. But when Federer returned to competition in Australia earlier this year, he defied the odds in a big way. Not only did he win his 18th major on the comeback trail, he defeated arch-rival Rafael Nadal in spectacular fashion. On the brink of disaster, Federer reversed a familiar failure pattern with Nadal and came from 3-1 down in the fifth and final set to win the Australian Open title.
“I don’t know how I did it,” Federer admitted later.
During the thrill of victory, Federer couldn’t articulate what he’d done to get that 18th major, a record-breaker on Jan. 29. He did, however, follow a plan. And, his character was the foundation of that plan.
Federer is one of the most even-tempered athletes we’ve witnessed. His equanimity mysteriously blesses him with a life and career few athletes experience. During the awards’ presentation, he said, “I would’ve been happy had Nadal won.”
His high-spirited joy could have been interpreted as regular, politically-correct Federer speak. But it wasn’t. Instead, Federer was being authentic. His love of the game and acceptance of his reality during rehab were solid reasons he could have been happy with second place. He took time off to extend his career to, perhaps, the next Olympic games — 2020.
A loss would’ve stacked their overall head-to-head record more heavily toward Nadal. And even with Federer’s win, the stat stands at 23-14 in favor of the Spaniard. Of keener importance is their record in major finals, where Nadal still maintains the edge at 9-3. Additionally, Federer leads on hard courts (10-9) and grass (2-1), while “King of Clay” Nadal holds a suffocating lead at 13-2.
Therefore, the fifth set of Federer’s 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 win was a defining moment. It will always be associated with his comeback. Down 1-3 in the last set, the curtain looked primed to fall on his remarkable run in Melbourne. But, Federer relied on the plan he developed with his team.
"I told myself to play free," Federer said via BBC Sport. "That's what we discussed with [coaches] Ivan [Ljubicic] and Severin [Luthi] before the matches. You play the ball, you don't play the opponent.
"Be free in your head, be free in your shots, go for it. The brave will be rewarded here. I didn't want to go down just making shots, seeing forehands rain down on me from Rafa. I think it was the right decision at the right time."
Federer’s team is close-knit. Trust is paramount.
Coach Ivan Ljubicic is a former top 10 player in the world and was Federer’s friend before the coaching position was offered. Severin Luthi, coach and captain of the Swiss Davis Cup team, has been alongside Federer the majority of his career. It was Luthi who held Federer while he cried after winning the Davis Cup for Switzerland in 2013. Pierre Paganini, the fitness coach, has been charged with Federer’s physical integrity and long-term health, two tasks that simultaneously sound utterly philosophical and impossible.
Central to Federer’s long-term career stability is family. With his wife, Mirka, they have two sets of twins — girls and boys. And when they met at the 2002 Sydney Olympics, he knew she was the one — a blushing romance of sorts. She continues to manage some of his career and loyally sits in his players’ box. She is mortar in his wall of excelled athleticism. She gives him comfort when profound failure strikes.
After his Australian Open win, Federer went on to defeat Nadal in their next two meetings: the finals of Indian Wells and Miami. We’ll see what happens when the two slip onto European red clay, Nadal’s surface of choice.
Maria Sharapova once described herself playing on red clay as a cow on ice. Turns out, though, she’s excelled on the slippery stuff, having won two French Open titles, of five total majors. She almost won a fourth and record-breaking title at last week’s Porsche Grand Prix in Stuttgart on indoor red clay, as well. That’s quite the fairytale performance from a woman rocked by a doping suspension.
Although she didn’t deliberately choose to leave tennis, as Federer may have, it doesn’t mean her comeback plans varied from his. Hard work was mandatory. Plus she had a public relations battle on her hands, which left her accomplishments tainted. As Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated said, the circumstances surrounding Sharapova’s return “have left a blemish on the sport of tennis.”
Whatever the outside forced implied, Sharapova concentrated on recovering the ground she lost. She relied on her close-knit team and family connections, while being pragmatic in her approach. And however difficult, she probably accepted her situation after realizing her own responsibility in the court’s verdict.
Sharapova, though, has more of her identity tied to tennis than Federer does. He thinks of himself as a father first. But even though Sharapova wears lots of hats — business woman, fashion icon — she’s a tennis player first and foremost. She missed the competition, not the road that led to the competition.
“It’s not something you focus on, because you spend so many months training and preparing and getting ready that you have to be present and you have to be in your mind when you’re walking on court, and that’s exactly how I felt,” Sharapova said in her post-match press conference after the first round in Stuttgart when asked if she was afraid of how the crowd would receive her. “My job as a competitor and as a tennis player is to go out to the court and to perform, no matter if I’m having a tough day or an easy day…You have to show (ticket holders) what you’re capable of doing.”
Sharapova’s continued comeback success would have been easier had she defeated Kristina Mladenovic in the semifinal of Stuttgart. Sharapova was up a set and a break, when Mladenovic reversed the outcome.
I just didn't keep putting that pressure on her, and I think when you are able to give that to a player that’s played very well this year, it can become dangerous,” Sharapova admitted via the WTA.
Coming up short in a match like that points to a rusty brain. Match play cannot be duplicated off court, and because of that loss, her ranking stood at No. 262. That’s not high enough for the qualifying field at the French Open, the cut-off date for which was Monday.
Her only hope of playing in Paris comes on May 16. The French Federation of Tennis will announce on Facebook whether she will be granted a wildcard into qualification or, possibly, the main draw. If she doesn’t get either, and the wildcard is the likely choice, she can’t play. That will leave Sharapova with even more down time, more practice time and more time to ponder what ifs.
Since Sharapova’s identity is so tied to her performance, her self-esteem could suffer. She’ll never let on, though. Her perfunctory attitude with the media and her cool interactions with crowds and fans will keep her walled off, privately and consistently improving behind courts’ closed doors. Her comeback story is not over.
Andre Agassi knows how Sharapova feels. Agassi, who was ranked No. 1 in the world for the first time in 1995, fell from grace a few years later. His ranking plummeted to No. 141. His personal life was in shambles, much of which was artfully recollected in his book, Open: An Autobiography. But Agassi mounted a monumental comeback, which elevated him to No. 1 in 1999 after winning the French and U.S. Opens. The next four years have been called the best of his career, during which time he won three Australian Open titles.
Agassi, who was aptly called ‘The Punisher,’ had whipped himself into shape with the help of long-time friend Gil Reyes. His fitness regime for Agassi was a burner, but Agassi persisted. His consistency in taking on Reyes’ regime proved that a return from ‘retirement' was possible, if you put in the hard work.
Venus Williams gracefully accepted the bad news of a Sjogren’s Syndrome diagnosis in 2011, after she was forced to retire in her second-round match at the U. S. Open. She completely changed her life to recover to a point where she could come back to tennis. Williams relied on all her strengths and her faith. Currently, she’s ranked No. 13 in the world, and she’ll be 37 years old next month. She’s a stellar example of consistently working hard and staying the course — no matter what.
Manning would agree. After multiple neck surgeries, a spinal fusion and more than a year on the bench, he was traded to the Denver Broncos. It took another year before he broke offensive records in his comeback, and he went on to lead his team to a Super Bowl title in 2016.
Tommy John scored more than half of his career wins, after what was called ‘revolutionary surgery’ on torn ligaments in his pitching arm.
Federer is expected to play at this year’s the French Open, which begins May 28. The terra-battue (red clay) of Paris is the most grueling two weeks on tour. Will the legend extend his legendary comeback? Can Nadal, who has also suffered lengthy setbacks, win an unprecedented 10th French Open title? Will Sharapova make an entrance?
We’ll have to wait for those answers. Anticipation, though, is one of the marvels of sport.