Comeback stories in sport, especially an individual one like tennis, are celebrated for the storybook element they bring. Be it Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic’s return from injuries or Serena Williams return to the circuit after giving birth to her daughter.
But not all comebacks look like Grand Slam finals or wildcard entries in big tournaments or indeed, a streak of wins over higher-ranked players. Away from the spotlight and underneath the veneer of top-flight tennis, injury comebacks can look like weeks on the Futures circuits, hours of travel and first-round losses to younger opponents.
Sabine Lisicki, a former world No 12 and Wimbledon runner-up, embodied this struggle as she broke down in tears after her tough 6-3, 3-6, 4-6 loss to Japan’s Nao Hibino in the first round of the L&T Mumbai Open. A wildcard entrant at the $125K WTA tournament, the woman who holds the record for the fastest serve, was let down by her injured shoulder as she failed to close out the match with one poor service game in the second set which turned the tide.
It was a tough match in Mumbai’s humidity and an even tougher loss for the German who is desperate for a winning run. Lisicki has played 16 tournaments this year but this is her third first-round loss in a row.
In a moment of raw emotion, the 29-year-old spoke to reporters about the hardship of returning from injury with tears streaming down her face. It was a peek at a more human side of the sport and the struggle it takes to will your body to fight when the spirit is still there.
“It’s hard to take positives now because I wanted to make a good run here, I enjoy this game so much. This year has been really tough and it’s hard to come back, it just is. When you work your butt off every single day and lose so close, it’s heart-breaking. You want it so badly. And I still believe that at some point it will turn around but it takes so much energy,” she said, her voice cracking.
“It’s not that I lost, it just means so much to me to win. It’s just so saddening to not be able to play more. It’s hard from outside to see that. When we are out we put so much work. We will see how many more tournaments I’ll play because I’m running a bit low on energy as well,” she added.
A roller-coaster ride
From the Centre Court of Wimbledon to the tennis courts at Cricket Club of India in Mumbai has been a rough journey. No stranger to injuries, she has come back numerous times from layoffs. In fact, she had won the WTA Comeback of the Year in 2011, after her deep runs at Wimbledon. In 2013, she beat Francesca Schiavone, Samantha Stosur and Serena Williams to reach the final at Wimbledon, where she went down to Marion Bartoli.
But despite her fearsome strokes and strong serve, she has been unable to replicate that form because of her inconsistent fitness.
After a knee surgery last November and another long layoff due to foot injury in March this year, 2018 has proved to be the most challenging year yet. In an attempt to get match practice and ranking points, she has played the Futures Circuit against players ranked much lower and travelled for hours across the world to spend as much time on the courts as she can.
“I am up for playing these tournaments, I don’t mind… Everyone needs to find a way, I think playing the Challenger circuit will help. But it’s hard to find a few Challengers in the same area which would mean I don’t have to travel for 12 hours,” she added.
But the 29-year-old is also aware that maybe the hunger to get back to the game was so bad, she pushed herself more than she should have.
“Sometimes you want to play so badly you tend to play too many tournaments. [And now] I am low [on] energy and realizing that is tough as well. I [may not have] played so many tournaments but actually rehab takes so much more out of you than playing. I wouldn’t get into tournaments so my travelling schedule was crazy. I was in Asia four or five times this here and all that flying takes its toll as well but I didn’t see that because I wanted to compete so much,” she explained.
But through the course of her chat with reporters, the German went from distraught to hopeful, a clear indication of just how much tennis means to her.
“This match was better than the one a week before in [an ITF event] France. My shoulder is still getting used to serving in a three set match because you cannot train for it no matter what you do in the gym. In match play, it is different,” she said.
“[I spoke to players who have undergone similar injuries and] I was surprised how many of them said it is tough. To hear that also helped me because they have also had some tough losses and they have come back.
It’s a matter of time… I need to win one or two close matches to get back. The last few matches I have lost were 5-7, 6-7, 5-7, 4-6 in the third set, everything over two hours. The shots are all there, the serve is there but it is puzzling it together,” she said.
As she regained her composure and showed her will to fight, she left with this note: “Hopefully, I’ll be back here and see you’ll next year.”
And that, in essence, is the roller-coaster ride that is professional sport.
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