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All Hail the Comeback Queens

When once-retired champions put their reputations on the line, the results can be inspiring.

Published September 28, 2009 12:46

All Hail the Comeback Queens
Justine Henin lifts the Australian Open trophy

As Kim Clijsters celebrated a second US Open title with her husband and young Jada daughter a couple of weeks ago, it was hard to imagine a more magical comeback scenario. Two years out of the game, having become a wife and mother but lost her father, the 26-year-old Belgian star had not only swept aside all challengers in just her third tournament back, she had shone brighter than ever.

And yet this past weekend former world No.4 Kimiko Date Krumm achieved something arguably even more amazing: after 12 years in retirement, and a day shy of her 39th birthday, the Japanese veteran won the Hansol Korea Open in Seoul. While not exactly a feat of Grand Slam proportions, Date Krumm's compact, flat-hitting style proved remarkably effective against a string of Top 30 talents. Each victory flew in the face of conventional wisdom that yesterday's players couldn't cope with today's onslaught, and she now holds the record for the longest gap between Tour singles titles (13 years and one month), having last one at San Diego in 1996. Billie Jean King was slightly older when she won at Birmingham in 1983, but she had never been away.

Comebacks are nothing new. Maybe they're an occupational hazard when careers are launched at tender ages and the grind is so relentless. That they are often a bi-product of premature retirement due to burnout or injury remains an uncomfortable backdrop to a bonanza for fans, who embrace the dedication displayed by their idols in the face of adversity.

"The fire within burns again," said Justine Henin on Belgian television last week, having announced her plan to rededicate herself to the sport she ruled but walked away from 16 months ago. "I want to return in January," she added, swallowing her pride and conceding that Clijsters' exploits might have spurred her on to seek an eighth Grand Slam title... subconsciously at least.

In the case of Date Krumm the desire took rather longer to reignite. When she left the rankings at the end of 1996, at 26, she was ranked No.8 in the world, had lost to Steffi Graf in her third Grand Slam semifinal and had just competed at the season-ending championships. But she had had enough. 

Fast forward to the end of 2007, when Date Krumm began to practise for an exhibition with Graf and Martina Navratilova in March 2008. She enjoyed being back on court, and gradually her attitude changed - with a bit of encouragement.

"My husband said to me, 'Why don't you continue to play tennis? You're already fit. You have nothing to lose. You already had a career. And even if you lost first round every time, nobody cares. You don't care. So just enjoy playing tennis,'" said Date Krumm last week. "He'd never seen me before when I played, and he wanted to see me when I'm playing a serious match. So he pushed me very hard. Until that time, I never thought about coming back."

Making a Date With Destiny

Date Krumm reckons she can keep going for a good couple of years - she would still like to have children - but getting this far hasn't been easy. Although she had found success on the ITF Circuit over the past 18 months, she hadn't won a Tour singles match until she arrived in Seoul.

Henin's path should be more straightforward, but the stakes will be higher, and she'll have to find her way in the full glare of the spotlight. But at 27 she is fortunate she has little to prove - except that she can win Wimbledon.

By contrast, some comebacks are tinged with real pathos, especially when a player is striving to realize unfulfilled potential.

Consider Jennifer Capriati, who hadn't won a Grand Slam singles title nor attained the No.1 ranking before her first time out from the Tour. Capriati wasn't even 14 when she burst onto the professional tennis scene, and although she quickly reached the Top 10 her progress was hampered by injuries and variable results. The low point came in 1994 when she spent 15 months out of the game addressing drug problems and attending rehab.

But all that only served to make what followed even more special.

Returning to the Tour in 1996 - at the grand old age of 20 - Capriati began an impressive haul to the top. The American's peak year was 2001, when she won the Australian Open and Roland Garros and reached the semis at Wimbledon and the US Open to capture the No.1 ranking. She defended her Melbourne title in 2002 but by 2004 various injuries were taking a toll. Although she never officially retired, Capriati has not played competitively since shoulder surgery in January 2005.

Others have made worthwhile comebacks, without flying quite as high as they once did. Monica Seles was in her prime when she was stabbed by a crazed fan at Hamburg in 1993, and although she returned after 27 months away to win her comeback event at Toronto and reach the final of the US Open in 1995, win a ninth Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in 1996 and reach the US Open final later the same year, there was only one more major final to come - a runner-up finish to Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario at Roland Garros in 1998. 

Although less dramatic, both departures Martina Hingis has made from the Tour have had an element of tragedy. The youngest Grand Slam champion of the 20th century when she captured the Australian Open in 1997, Hingis also became the youngest No.1 when she was just 16 and a half. But an ankle injury required surgery when she was just 22, prompting an indefinite break that lasted all of 2003 and 2004.

After playing one match in 2005 the Swiss Miss returned with a vengeance in 2006, winning two singles titles and fighting her way back to No.6 in the rankings. But after a promising start to 2007 injuries again began to stalk her, and while protesting her innocence she later announced she would retire for good rather than fight a two year ban for a positive cocaine test. Due to celebrate her 29th birthday on September 30, Hingis will be eligible to compete on Tour again in a few weeks, though she has said she will not be returning.

"I have a great boyfriend, my family has everything they need, and to be honest I don't want to train and travel like that again," Hingis said recently when in London to appear on the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing TV show. "What Kim's doing is great but I'm a couple of years older... I had my chance in 2006."

Proving a Point

When Lindsay Davenport returned to top-flight tennis in 2007, having given birth to son Jagger just months earlier, she never really expected to scale previous heights. Unlike her fellow comeback queens, her career had seemingly run its natural course: she was 30 when she announced she was pregnant at the end of 2006, injuries having contributed to her first non-Top 20 season finish since 1992. 

But as well as satisfying her own love of the sport, her comeback - the first by such a major mother since Evonne Goolagong Cawley won Wimbledon in 1980 - would send an important message. It fired a salvo for working moms, in much the same way Navratilova had flown the flag for fortysomethings by remaining a force in doubles until she was pushing 50.

Casting aside fears she would damage her legacy - Davenport had been No.1 as recently as 2005 - the three-time Grand Slam singles champion finished 2007 ranked No.73 and rose to No.36 in 2008, having won four singles titles since her return. Days after confirming her intention to compete at the 2009 Australian Open the American had to change her mind, though, as she was pregnant with her second child.

Will she be back? Although daughter Lauren was born last June, Davenport, now 33, hasn't made a statement about her future. But it's unlikely news of Date Krumm's success has passed her by. She's got six years on the Japanese icon, after all.

Sonyericssonwtatour.com will soon launch new web biographies of the retired greats of our game, starting with former world No.1s from the computer-ranking era: Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Martina Hingis, Monica Seles, Tracy Austin, Jennifer Capriati, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and Evonne Goolagong Cawley. We would like to publish a selection of thoughts, memories or anecdotes on each player, whether from former peers on the Tour, people who work behind-the-scenes in tennis, or indeed fans. Please send submissions (no longer than this paragraph) to Adam Lincoln at alincoln@wtatour.com.

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