Last week saw Tatjana Maria named the WTA Comeback Player of 2022 after returning from her second maternity leave. The 34-year-old German cut her year-end ranking from No.279 to No.68 after winning her second Hologic WTA Tour title in Bogota and reaching her first Grand Slam semifinal at Wimbledon.
Who could be potentially in line for that award next year? A number of former tour players are in the early days of their own comebacks, and showing signs that they're on the cusp of a resurgence in 2023. Here are some names who have been absent for a while, and ended 2022 outside (or only just inside) the Top 100 -- but who could be ready to rejoin the conversation next year.
Marketa Vondrousova has had more than her fair share of injuries in her career. The Czech was sidelined for seven months in 2016 due to a left elbow injury, weeks after reaching her first Grand Slam final at Roland Garros 2019, left wrist surgery forced another six-month hiatus. That problem recurred this year. Vondrousova did not compete between April and October after needing another operation on her left wrist.
The 23-year-old, who married Stepan Simek during her time away, has come back strong again. She lost her first match back to Yuliya Hatouka in the Poitiers ITF W80, but then ended her season with eight wins in her next nine matches. These included defeats of Anhelina Kalinina and Eva Lys to win the Shrewsbury ITF W100 and a Billie Jean King Cup victory over Australian Open finalist Danielle Collins.
Vondrousova's trademark drop shot and heavy left-handed forehand were on song in those competitions, and enabled her to cling on to a year-end Top 100 spot. Sustaining her form and health into 2023 should see the former World No.14 make another run toward the top of the game.
Between the 2021 US Open and Wimbledon 2022, a series of injuries kept former Roland Garros semifinalist Nadia Podoroska out of the game. The Argentinian suffered a bone oedema in one leg that required her to wear a boot just to walk, then a knee injury in the other.
On her return, the 25-year-old delivered some promising results on the ITF World Tour over the summer. But a semifinal run in Chennai in September put her back on the map in style at tour level. Podoroska came through consecutive bruising three-setters against Tatjana Maria and Eugenie Bouchard -- both notable for their high quality as well as physical intensity -- before falling to eventual champion Linda Fruhvirtova in another long battle.
Now back in the Top 200, Podoroska -- who credits girlfriend and fellow pro player Guillermina Naya's support for helping her get through her recovery -- should be well-positioned to make another run at the Top 50 in 2023. She previously peaked at No.36 in 2021, just two months before her layoff began.
Eugenie Bouchard, a 2014 Wimbledon finalist, has been absent from tour for 15 months due to shoulder surgery -- in a playing capacity, anyway. A stint as a Tennis Channel commentator maintained her presence in the tennis ecosystem -- but it didn't mean her on-court ambitions had been put to rest.
"No matter if I do photo shoots or other cool things, I would always rather be sweating on a court," she told tennis.com in August.
Bouchard has not been ranked inside the Top 100 since 2019, and found her ranking frozen at No.328 during the Covid-19 shutdown. But at the time the Canadian's injury layoff began, she had actually reached two finals in her previous five tour main draws, at Istanbul 2020 and Guadalajara 2021.
This autumn, she shook off the rust to showcase some real competitive grit. A quarterfinal run in Chennai was cause for optimism; Bouchard went on to take two Top 20 players to three sets before the season ended, Belinda Bencic in Ostrava and Jelena Ostapenko in Guadalajara. Unranked in September, Bouchard finished 2022 at No.323.
As 2022 got under way, Clara Tauson's prospects were among the brightest on tour. The 19-year-old had enjoyed a phenomenal rookie season in 2021, winning two WTA titles and rocketing into the Top 50. She underlined that at the Australian Open, posting her first career Top 10 win over Anett Kontaveit and rising to a career-high of No.33.
But Tauson's season thereafter was significantly disrupted by a back injury that forced her to miss Roland Garros and retire in the first round of Wimbledon. In October, having notched just one tour-level win since Indian Wells and with her ranking outside the Top 100, Tauson dropped down to ITF and 125 level in a bid to find some form.
Over the past month, that's paid off. A modest ITF W25 title in Selva Gardena was followed by a run to the Limoges 125 final last week that featured wins over Marta Kostyuk and Lucia Bronzetti. Tauson's heavyweight groundstrokes -- and her excellent, underrated drop shot -- were on fine fettle. With her ranking back at No.96 this week, the signs are promising for a 2023 resurgence.
Unfortunately, Karolina Muchova's name has become synonymous with injury over the course of her career. An abdominal tear troubled her throughout 2021 and necessitated a six-month layoff that forced her to miss the start of 2022. The Czech had been back for just two months when she sustained an ankle injury at Roland Garros. If that wasn't enough, a wrist injury forced her to retire from the Concord 125 in August. Consequently, the 26-year-old ended the year with her ranking languishing at No.149.
Muchova's talent isn't in question. She possesses one of the broadest repertoires on tour, and showed some of her artistic best to reach the Tallinn quarterfinals and Ostrava second round, where she fell in a top-quality encounter with Caty McNally. The question, as ever, is whether her body can hold up to deliver that throughout a whole season.
Others to watch out for
Former World No.12 Yanina Wickmayer has technically been back for almost a year already. The Belgian gave birth to her first daughter, Luana, in April 2021, and was unranked on her return from maternity leave this February. Qualifying and reaching the second round of Wimbledon was an indication that the 33-year-old could still deliver at tour level, and this was underlined in September when she took Wang Qiang to three sets in Chennai and defeated Linda Fruhvirtova in Seoul. Wickmayer ended 2022 ranked No.328.
Health problems sidelined former World No.81 Nina Stojanovic for 10 months this year. Having not competed since the Australian Open, Stojanovic returned at ITF W25 level in Sharm el Sheikh in November. The Serb took the title in her second event back, triumphing in five consecutive three-setters, including defeats of fast-rising teenagers Yang Ya-Yi, Alina Korneeva and Tatiana Prozorova. She's now back at No.473.
Two former Top 3 players could also return from maternity leave in 2023. Three-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber last played at Wimbledon, where she reached the third round, and announced her pregnancy -- and intention to come back -- in August. Former WTA Finals winner Elina Svitolina last competed in Miami and gave birth to daughter Skaï in October. The Ukrainian has also been active in efforts to support her country throughout 2022 and recently described the year as "the happiest and most tragic" of her life.
Comebacks are also due from former Roland Garros finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who played just three tournaments this year and ended her season after Rome due to a recurring knee injury; former World No.34 Zheng Saisai, who has not competed since November 2021; and Margarita Betova (née Gasparyan), who last played at Roland Garros 2021 and who gave birth to her first son in December that year. Pavlyuchenkova and Zheng have both entered next month's Australian Open via special ranking.