As Dominika Cibulkova, Caroline Wozniacki, and Peng Shuai showed over the weekend, comebacks come in all manner of ways. And to appreciate what each woman did to win the weekend titles, you have to understand what they've come back from.
Cibulkova finally earns her spot in Singapore.
For Cibulkova, her run to her third title of the season at the Generali Ladies Linz capped of a resurgent year that saw her return to the Top 10 and qualify for her first BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global. After a strong Asian Swing, in which she made the final of the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open, Cibulkova knew she had to win the title in Linz to qualify for Singapore.
This was not the first time the 27-year-old had a chance to earn a berth for the WTA Finals. In 2014, reaching her first Grand Slam final at the Australian Open put her in the RTS mix just as the tour turned to the summer hardcourt season. She went on to win just three regular season matches after Wimbledon. As Cibulkova has said, she wanted to qualify so badly she could not enjoy her tennis or play well.
"In 2014 I was very close, and that's what made me very intense and want it too much," Cibulkova told WTA Insider after triumphing at the Aegon International in June. "I was over-motivated and it didn't happen." She vowed to learn her lesson after that disappointment, and with a help of a sports psychologist, Cibulkova realized she had to let go in order to excel.
Then came a heel surgery in the spring of 2015, which sidelined Cibulkova for five months. She went from being a Top 10 player in 2014 to No. 66 at the start of this season. The climb back has been a steady and methodical one, highlighted by three titles and three big finals as well, at the Mutua Madrid Open, Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open, and the Abierto Mexicano Telcel.
And it all came together perfectly in Linz, where she won the title, under pressure, without losing a set.
Wozniacki's abrupt U-Turn.
Everything you need to know about Wozniacki's year can be summed up in a single stat. Wozniacki was 13-14 before the US Open this year. Since then? She's 19-3, with those three losses coming to Angelique Kerber and Agnieszka Radwanska.
After making her surprise run to the US Open semifinals - her best result at a major since 2014 - the Dane has won two titles, at the Toray Pan Pacific Open and now the Prudential Hong Kong Tennis Open. After a season of fits and starts that saw her struggle to remain healthy and build momentum, Wozniacki is now back in the Top 20 with a solid shot to qualify for the Huajin Securities WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai.
In fact, with her entry in this week's tournament in Luxembourg and as one of the in-form players heading to Zhuhai, Wozniacki should put herself in great position to get back in the Top 10 early next year. That's an incredible turnaround for a player who was ranked No.74 less than two months ago.
Peng Shuai's overdue win on home soil.
But the best story of the weekend came at the Tianjin Open, where 30-year-old Peng Shuai, who had been the standard-bearer of Chinese tennis for years along with Li Na, finally won her maiden WTA title. It was just two years ago that the Tianjin native made her Slam breakthrough, advancing to her first major semifinal at the US Open in 2014. That run helped boost her back in the Top 20 - she reached a career-high No.14 in 2011 - but tennis has an uncanny knack for cruelty. In 2015, Peng underwent major back surgery after the French Open last year, a decision she took with hopes of prolonging her career, because despite her legacy as one of the best players China has ever produced, she wasn't done yet.
"The doctors told me I should think twice before taking this operation and surgery," Peng said. "They said no one can make sure that the operation could be successful, 100%. The doctors performed this operation on me and told me there was a 50 per cent possibility I could come back to the court. Before the surgery, the question was whether I could come back to the court or not. So maybe after this surgery my performance will not be very good. Before and after the surgery, the difference, the gap, was huge.
"After the surgery, I needed to do a lot of training and practicing. Something I could do in the past, maybe I could not do it today after the surgery. I need to take gradual steps to improve myself after the surgery. I think more important for me is to stay healthy and fit, otherwise I cannot continue my professional career."
Peng's ranking fell to as low as No.768 this season; the comeback has been slow and painful. During the off-season training block she had to lie in bed for three days after training because of the pain. She rushed her return in order to represent China at the Olympic tennis event in Rio but everything began to come together during the Asian Swing.
She beat Venus Williams at the China Open in front of a raucous home crowd and now, returning to her home in Tianjin, she swept both the singles and doubles title with Christina McHale. The win puts her ranking at No.108, and if she can move up a few more spots before year's end she could earn direct entry into the main draw at the Australian Open.
"For me, two years ago, I was at a peak level," Peng said at the China Open. "I could choose whether I would like to play or not. Actually, my friends and family did not agree with my surgery, because it's too risky. Now I'm near 30 years old. After the surgery, no one could guarantee I could come back to the court. What if I have more injuries if I come back to the court? I'd like to thank them for their support and care. I am a little bit stubborn to have the surgery. My friends and family supported me to undergo this surgery. It was quite a challenge for me.
"Actually, life is full of challenges and uncertainties. This challenge is quite unique for me. I've made efforts in the tennis world for more than two decades. I sacrificed a lot of youth, time and energy. I'd like to take time to see if I can go further or not. Of course, if I retire, maybe I will live a normal life like others. I may have a family, babies. It's another way of life. But I'm still happy that I made that choice.
"In retrospect, everything is on the right way. I don't know whether I can come back to my past glory or peak. I believe I have so many supporters, and my team. I would like to sacrifice more. My goal is clear: to play more matches, be it singles or doubles. The key is to come back to the court. I feel excited about it. No other thoughts.
"When my ranking was high, I felt huge pressure. I still need to take care of other stuff, although right now I'm at the bottom level, my friends and family are still there to support me. I can look at the results in this cool-headed way.
Peng is one of a significant group of Chinese players who hail from Tianjin. In addition to Peng, China's current Top 4 all call Tianjin home: Zhang Shuai, Zheng Saisai, Wang Qiang, and Duan Ying-Ying. The player cite Tianjin's flexible tennis system, which allows players to go at their own pace and ambition, as the reason for their superior recruitment and retention of top talent.
With Peng finally earning the WTA title that long eluded her, the Tianjin Open got the fairytale ending it deserved.
All photos courtesy of Getty Images.