Comebacks are back: What does it take to return?

  • Reem Abulleil

Coming back from a lengthy break in sport is never easy, even if some players make it look so.

Roger Federer won the Australian Open in 2017 competing in his first official tournament following a six-month injury hiatus.

Serena Williams made the Wimbledon final in 2018 on her fourth event back from maternity leave.

Sloane Stephens was out for 11 months recovering from foot surgery and won the US Open in 2017 just two months after returning to action. Rafael Nadal has been sidelined with injuries many times during his career and has repeatedly enjoyed successful comebacks.

Tsvetana Pironkova stepped away from tennis for three years, had her first child, then made the US Open quarter-finals last September on her first tournament back.

There is a plethora of such stories in tennis, and there will be many more to come.

Injuries, the COVID pandemic, and other reasons have kept many players out of action this past year, and there are several comebacks unfolding in Melbourne this month.

Here are a few examples…

Nick Kyrgios

The Canberran hadn’t played a completed match since Australian Open 2020 prior to his return last week in Melbourne.

Kyrgios was not comfortable travelling during the pandemic and chose to stay at home in Australia the entire time. He made the quarter-finals of the Murray River Open last week and explained following his tight first-round victory how tricky it was to get back into the swing of things after such a long break.

“It was a strange one, to be out there again playing a competitive match. Just the scoring system seemed a bit weird. I was playing a lot of points out of the hand in my training block and just to get out there and kind of get back with the scoring system,” he told reporters.

Kyrgios defeated Frederico Ferreira Silva in the Australian Open first round on Monday, playing his first Grand Slam match in 13 months. The 25-year-old said he hadn’t felt this nervous for a tennis clash in a long time and had doubts about his confidence.

“It was just a bit awkward just being out there again with the whole heat-of-the-battle type thing in a Grand Slam,” he added.

“I knew there was going to be ups and downs, but I felt like a rookie again out there.

“I was almost, like, saying, ‘Dude, it's time to wake up. It's not just like a 250 [tournament]. I was like, ‘Dude, it's the Australian Open again. It's come that fast’. To be honest, I almost didn't feel like it was the Aus Open. It felt like a normal tournament.”

Up next for Kyrgios in the second round is one of the breakthrough players of 2020, French lefty Ugo Humbert.

Bianca Andreescu

Earlier on Monday, Canadian eighth seed Bianca Andreescu took a moment at her bench before her on-court interview to let the fact that she’d just played – and won – her first match in 15 months sink in.

The 2019 US Open champion was understandably emotional having dealt with a slew of injuries, including a knee problem she picked up during the WTA Finals in Shenzhen over a year ago. She was looking to get back on the match court last March before the pandemic halted the tour.

Andreescu said she was “super, super nervous” the night before her first match back but she felt good during her warm-up and managed to overcome a tough challenge from her opening-round opponent Mihaela Buzarnescu.

“It means a lot. I took 15 months off, I’ve been through quite a bit during those 15 months, it wasn’t easy. That moment over there was me just realising how all of that is worth it, I never gave up,” she said on court after the win.

Andreescu explained how she felt “overwhelmed” the night before the contest as she sorted through the emotions of being grateful to be back on court, while also feeling anxious about the match itself.

One player who knows that feeling all too well is Serena Williams, who shared her views on Andreescu’s return on media day at Melbourne Park.

“I think she has a bright future. She's really young, rather incredibly mature. I've always said I think her light burns brightly. She really has a great game to continue to win more Grand Slams,” said the 23-time major winner. 

“For me, I think the hardest thing to come back from was just getting used to being in the matches and being in that moment."

Andreescu will take on Hsieh Su-Wei in the second round on Wednesday.

"I've always said I think her light burns brightly."
Serena Williams on Bianca Andreescu

Ash Barty

The world No.1 couldn’t have dreamed of a better return to tennis following a 12-month absence.

Barty stayed in Australia throughout the pandemic and spent several months unable to reunite with her coach Craig Tyzzer due to the travel restrictions within the country.

Playing for the first time since the Qatar Open last February, Barty stormed to the Yarra Valley Classic title on Sunday, and went up a level in a 44-minute 6-0 6-0 dismissal of Danka Kovinic in her first-round match on Tuesday evening, conceding just 10 points. 

Barty knows what it’s like to take a lengthy break from tennis – she famously walked away for two years and pursued a career in cricket – and she knows what it takes to get back on track.

That previous experience has no doubt helped her shake off the rust in such impressive fashion last week in Melbourne.

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Ash Barty has come back strongly in 2021

Belinda Bencic

The Swiss world No.12 played just one match since last February prior to her arrival in Melbourne and was relieved to get back to winning ways in her Australian Open first round on Tuesday against American Lauren Davis.

Bencic has lots of experience dealing with forced breaks from tennis, having had wrist surgery that sidelined her in the past. This is her first slam appearance since Australian Open 2020 and she next faces Russian two-time major champion Svetlana Kuznetsova.

“It was definitely a relief. I think it was far from what I wanted, but it's something that I expected. I expected not to play great,” said Bencic of her opening-round victory.

“At times it was extremely frustrating because I know how I can play, but I cannot show it. Even in the practice I didn't quite get it as I wanted to.

“I still have a heart on court and I try to use it.”

t_BBencic_23012020_03
Belinda Bencic has come back from wrist surgery

Rebecca Marino

It’s a special kind of comeback from the 30-year-old Canadian, who on Monday played, and won, her first Grand Slam match since Australian Open 2013.

The former top-40 player, who left tennis from 2012 to 2018 citing depression, was out of competition since July 2019 before she returned for Australian Open qualifying in Dubai last month.

Her successful campaign in the Middle East landed her a spot in a first major main draw in eight years and she impressed in her 6-0, 7-6(9) victory over Kimberly Birrell on Monday.

She takes on Czech 19th seed Marketa Vondrousova next.