March 20, 2012

The Big Return

There's something ironic when you compare the draws from Miami and Indian Wells. Whereas a stomach bug afflicted the brackets seemingly from the get-go in the California desert, taking down some competitors before they even struck their first balls, the Sony Ericsson Open has been host to stories of resurrection, seeing players who've been out of the game for months return, hoping to recapture the magic that once brought them to the top of the sport.

Fernando Gonzalez has made a few attempts at launching a comeback since returning to Tour last April post hip surgery, some more successful than others. He beat Alexandr Dolgopolov last year at Wimbledon and made the quarters in Buenos Aires. But the former world #5 has mostly struggled against the top players and has yet to break back into the top two hundred. He comes to Miami, his fourth event of the season, as a wildcard and first meets fellow veteran Nicolas Mahut, so he'll have to be willing to fight 'til the death if this is going to be his true return.

Kim Clijsters, post-retirement, post-motherhood and post-some of her biggest successes on Tour, has seen some action already this year -- she made the semis in Brisbane before retiring to Daniela Hantuchova and beat Caroline Wozniacki (again) in the Melbourne quarters. But she didn't play at all in February and pulled out of Indian Wells with a persistent ankle injury. Now ranked #37 in the world, the 2010 champ in Key Biscayne isn't seeded this time around, and faces a resurgent Jarmila Gajdosova in her opener. It shouldn't be too big a struggle, but could be a true test of how ready she really is to compete at this level again.

Like both these athletes James Blake has battled more than a couple ailments during his career -- from not-uncommon injuries to Zoster and a near career-ending neck injruy. He'd just been regaining momentum after missing most of the 2010 season with a chronic knee injury, ending last year back in the top sixty. But he pulled out of the Australian Open to get continued treatment and had a dismal return in Memphis, winning just two games off Ryan Sweeting in the first round. He'll look to make a more successful showing this week in Miami, where he'll meet also-on-the-mend Nikolay Davydenko, who notched his best performance this year as a semifinalist in Rotterdam. Blake has a perfect 7-0 record against the Russian, though, and if history stays on his side he might just be able to improve that record.

Longer gone from the game has been Venus Williams, absent from the singles Tour since last year's U.S. Open, where she announced her battle with Sjorgren's Syndrome. She did notch a doubles victory for the U.S. in their Fed Cup first round, though, but the dead rubber holds much less pressure than a Premier event which she won three years in a row at the start of her career, and even reached the final in just 2010. Despite her advancing age and her injuries and illness, she's still a formidable force for any opponent, of course. And against uber-veteran Kimiko Date-Krumm in her Miami opener, it will clearly be a battle between two of the most persistent and long-lasting players out there. I can't imagine she won't put up a fight that proves she's not to be counted out.

Unlike all these players -- each of whom has been a pro for over a decade and launched multiple comebacks throughout their careers -- Alisa Kleybanova was dealt one of the most devastating blows early in hers. After a breakthrough 2010 which brought her titles in Kuala Lumpur and Seoul, and took her to the final in Bali, she reached a career-high ranking at #20 in the world last February. With wins over Flavia Pennetta, Francesca Schiavone and Vera Zvonareva, she was poised to make a big run into the elite. But diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in the middle of the season, she missed half the year while she sought chemotherapy and, certainly less important, saw her ranking drop to #248. The twenty-two year old Russian makes her return this afternoon, facing Sweden's Johanna Larsson in the first round. It almost doesn't even matter what her chances are or whether she even wins a game -- but the fact she's playing proves she might just be the biggest fighter out there.

It's a fact of life in this sport that athletes -- even the top ones -- will have to fight their way back from the brink, maybe multiple times in their careers. And as some try to get in one last shot, and others hope to resume the success they had not so long ago, it's a testament to all their strength and courage that they step on the court one more time.

And everyone, I'm sure, will be rooting that it's not the last time they do.

1 comment:

Kavitha said...

My mistake...there will be no more comebacks for Fernando Gonzalez. I completely forgot he is retiring after this tournament. Let's make it a good one!