US Open filled with players making comebacks from retirement, pregnancy or injury
NEW YORK (AP) — Comebacks are nothing new in tennis. There’s quite a history of that sort of thing, including by stars such as Martina Navratilova, John McEnroe, Martina Hingis, Bjorn Borg, Kim Clijsters and Andy Murray.
Perhaps that’s why so many fans of Serena Williams hold out hope she’ll return after playing her last match a year ago at the U.S. Open.
Williams recently gave birth to her second child, so she will not be at Flushing Meadows, but this year’s tournament features several players who left the tour for a significant amount of time and now are back. Day 1 included victories by Ajla Tomljanovic — who beat Williams in the 23-time Grand Slam champion’s farewell contest last September but has been sidelined by injury since November — and 2021 Australian Open finalist Jennifer Brady (injury) in the afternoon. Then 2016 Wimbledon runner-up Milos Raonic (injured) and 2018 Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki (retirement) appeared at Louis Armstrong Stadium on Monday night.
“I feel like people just don’t know what to do with their lives,” 2020 U.S. Open semifinalist Brady said with a hearty laugh during an interview with The Associated Press. “Maybe they see prize money going up and think they can get back to where they were.”
The 28-year-old from Pennsylvania flung her racket aside and raised her arms at the conclusion of her 6-3, 7-6 (4) victory over Kimberly Birrell at Court 5 on Monday. Brady played her first WTA tour match since 2021 this month after being sidelined because of a fracture in her right knee and torn tissue in her left foot.
“Because of where I left off — semifinals of a Grand Slam; final of a Grand Slam — there’s expectations and goals," she said. “But I don’t want to really put pressure on myself to get back there right away."
Wozniacki, twice a runner-up at the U.S. Open, returned with a 6-3, 6-2 victory over Tatiana Prozorova.
Tomljanovic moved on by eliminating Panna Udvardy 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 and now gets a tougher test in the second round: 2022 Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina.
“It was a high emotionally but I’m very realistic. ... I know this was a moment that, yeah it was great, but I’m very realistic with where my body and my knee is at," Tomljanovic said. “I’m still happy that I managed to get through a match like today, to get the win and feel the emotions that you do, those 10 seconds, 20 seconds after. It’s what we play for.”
Raonic had to face No. 7 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, and the two-time Grand Slam runner-up beat him 6-2, 6-3, 6-4.
Tuesday will welcome others who were absent for a while, including Barbora Strycova (retirement) and three-time major semifinalist Elina Svitolina (pregnancy).
“It’s very alluring and attractive to think, ‘What would it be like to play again?’” said two-time Slam runner-up Kevin Anderson, a 37-year-old from South Africa who recently ended his retirement after nearly 1 1/2 years away but did not make it out of qualifying in New York. “Some people find real meaning in something they’re passionate about soon after they leave tennis. I haven’t found that yet.”
Much as the circumstances that prompt some folks to stop and those that lead some to resume can vary, so, too, can the on-court results in Part Two of a career.
The 2014 runner-up at Flushing Meadows, Kei Nishikori had hip surgery in January 2022, then returned to the ATP Tour this July, but has been out all of August with a knee injury and withdrew from the U.S. Open on Sunday.
“Some people probably stop and feel that they’ve had enough — whether that’s through performance or that’s through their body hurting and aching — and then maybe after an extended period of time away from the sport, they start to miss it again,” said Murray, a three-time major champion who was feted during a retirement ceremony at the 2019 Australian Open but eventually played again thanks to an artificial hip.
“It's a pretty brutal sport in the sense of how long the season is and everything. If you’ve been doing that for like 11, 12 years straight, maybe mentally some players just feel like they need a break ... and then refresh and maybe give it another shot,” Murray said. “Some of the women have had children and then made the call to come back.”
Wozniacki quit in 2020 to start a family with her husband, former NBA player David Lee. Now 33, with two young children, Wozniacki jumped into competition this month. Svitolina, 28, was gone for about a year while she and her husband, tennis player Gael Monfils, had their first child; just three months after returning, she reached Wimbledon's semifinals. Strycova, 37, retired in 2021, had a baby, got back on tour this April and won the women’s doubles trophy at Wimbledon.
“I don’t know if I’m going to be having a child and coming back. I’ll just say that. It’s a lot of work. I don’t know how they do it,” said Jessica Pegula, a 29-year-old American ranked No. 3. “To see that being a possibility now for women is great. ... I’m sure it’s such a cool experience for them to come back and have their children watch them play.”
Not everyone's open to the idea of bidding adieu and then saying, “I'm back!”
John Isner, a 38-year-old who will retire after the U.S. Open, was asked whether there's any chance he might follow this comeback trend.
“I'm done,” Isner replied. “It won’t happen with me.”
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