Sometimes, the good guys win – not that Pablo Andujar’s opponent in the Marrakech final Sunday, Kyle Edmund, isn’t a good guy himself.
But the victory by the 32-year-old Spaniard – his third career title in Marrakech – completes a long slog of a comeback after three elbow surgeries.
Andujar defeated Edmund 6-2, 6-2 to complete a double over the last two weeks.
He won a Challenger in Alicante, Spain last Sunday, traveled to Morocco and kept the momentum going in impressive style.
He came “home”, and will leave with the trophy.
“I don’t have words for your support. Each time I come here, I’m like at home, you make me feel like I’m at home. A thousand times thank you to everyone,” Andujar said in French, during a trophy presentation in which he spoke three languages.
It took Andujar about 10 months after his third elbow surgery in 13 months to finally post a victory on the ATP Tour.
Right to Marrakech, where the former No. 32 lost just one set on his way to the title. With his opponents having helped pave the way by eliminating top seed Albert Ramos-Viñolas and No. 7 Alexandr Dolgopolov (himself coming back from injury), it was a smooth path.
Andujar’s ranking when he arrived in Rio in February was … No. 1821. With his efforts the last two weeks, he’ll land just outside the top 150 on Monday. And, if he keeps it up, no longer will need to use his protected ranking of No. 105 to enter tournaments in short order.
At No. 355 this week, Andujar is the ATP Tour title winner with the lowest ranking in 20 years, since a teenaged Lleyton Hewitt won Adelaide when he was ranked No. 550.
And his efforts may well earn him wild cards at a couple of big ATP Tour events coming up in his homeland, in Barcelona and Madrid.
Andujar’s parents were on hand to see him take the title Sunday. But he had a special thanks for two more back at home.
“I dedicate this triumph to my son, to my wife, my parents, my physio and my coach. It truly has been two very tough years for me,” he said. “I hope to come back next year – if I’m still around.”
The news of his victory led to a number of congratulatory Tweets.
Felicidades @AndujarPablo por el torneo en marrakech. Merecido triunfo al trabajo y constancia después de años de lesión. Mereces y mucho esa sensación después de tanto sufrimiento. BRAVO! pic.twitter.com/pJIQDg8YU3
There’s no word about whether this is an official comeback, or merely a one-off.
But Canadian Sharon Fichman returned to the court Wednesday, in doubles at the $60,000 ITF event at Indian Harbour Beach.
She played doubles with American Jamie Loeb, against Sesil Karatantcheva and Mara Schmidt. And they won, 7-6 (4), 6-3 to advance to the quarterfinals.
Fichman is still only 27. She’s three weeks older than Milos Raonic, and two weeks older than countrywoman Rebecca Marino.
Marino, as we all know, returned to the court in February after a five-year retirement.
(We’ve reached out for an interview with Fichman. No response so far – she and Loeb were defeated by No. 4 seed Taylor Townsend and Ingrid Neel Friday, 6-4, 6-4)
Two years away
Her last match came in May, 2016, when she lost in the second round of qualifying at an ITF event in Trnava, Slovakia. Her singles ranking had fallen to No. 362 by then, as she dealt with a series of injuries.
Fichman’s last doubles match came two years ago last week, when she and the now-retired (and newly a mom) Jarmila Wolfe won the doubles at the $25,000 ITF tournament in Jackson, Mississippi.
Since then, she has completed some Tennis Canada coaching courses and worked with some of the Canadian juniors. As well, she has done some television commentary, and will be on the call for next week’s Fed Cup tie between Canada and Ukraine.
Fichman never officially announced her retirement. Nor did she retire for the purposes of the ITF’s anti-doping program, which would require reinstatement and a three-month period in the program before she would be allowed to return.
So there’s nothing stopping her from coming back.
Fichman reached career highs in singles (No. 77) and doubles (No. 48) in 2014, as she got super-fit and redlined her original, all-court game.
She qualified and made the second round at both Acapulco and Indian Wells, and was straight into the main draw at the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. That year, she won a $100,000 ITF in Cagnes-sur-Mer, France in which she beat Yulia Putintseva, Johanna Konta, Tamira Paszek, Kiki Bertens and then Timea Bacsinszky in the final.
That’s an impressive week for anyone.
But then, the injuries started to get her.
The match was available here. Fichman and Loeb survived to fight another day.
Kei Nishikori skipped the Australian summer circuit because he wasn’t quite ready, after dealing with a wrist issue during the offseason.
He missed the first Grand Slam of the season, the Australian Open.
The 28-year-old from Japan is taking baby steps in his comeback – at least by the standards of a player formerly in the top five with 11 ATP Tour titles and more than $17 million in prize money. And a return to the Challenger circuit is the first step.
Last week at the event in Newport Beach, Calif., Nishikori fell in three sets to American Denis Novikov. Novikov is a 24-year-old ranked No. 214.
But this week at the Dallas Challenger, the No. 1 seed defeated another young American, Mackenzie McDonald, 6-1, 6-4 in the final.
As it happened, Nishikori faced Novikov again in the first round. But this time, he defeated him 6-3, 6-3.
Nishikori didn’t roll over any of his far lower-ranked opponents on the way to the final. But he got the job done. Better yet, he got some matches in his system before handling McDonald with relative ease Saturday night.
Here he is after his semifinal win over Jason Jung.
Successful return to his roots
Nishikori hadn’t played a Challenger event since the fall of 2010, when he was just 20 but already on the comeback trail from injury. He missed 11 months after elbow surgery in 2009, after being named the ATP’s “Star of Tomorrow” in 2008.
Nishikori’s last ATP Tour event was the Rogers Cup in Montreal last summer, where he lost in a third-set tiebreak to Gaël Monfils in the first round.
The 28-year-old will return to the ATP level in a week’s time, at the New York Open on Long Island.
The New York Open is the relocated Memphis Open, where Nishikori won four straight titles between 2013 and 2016
She was ranked No. 12 in the world five years ago, and made the Wimbledon final in 2013.
But Germany’s Sabine Lisicki has fallen off the map in recent years because of injuries.
Her ranking is down at No. 246. And her appearance at the Taiwan Open this week was her first of the 2018 season.
So a semifinal finish was far beyond expectations. And the return of that beaming smile and that hard-hitting game would be another add to the top level of women’s tennis, if she can use that momentum and make a run.
Lisicki was down and almost out in her first-round match against qualifier Yuxuan Zhang of China. She came back from a 1-5 deficit in the third set to beat her in the tiebreak. In the quarterfinals, she posted a 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 win over Monica Niculescu.
2017 almost a writeoff
The German’s run ended in the semifinals with a loss to Kateryna Kozlova of Ukraine. But her ranking will rise to No. 174 just with this result.
She also appears to have a new coach in Frenchman Guillaume Peyre – at least for the week. Peyre has a long history of working with pro players, including Richard Gasquet, Marcos Baghdatis, Camila Giorgi, Peng Shuai and Tatsuma Ito, and of late has been a national coach in China.
Lisicki is playing on a protected ranking of No. 92. She played just six events in 2017, starting her season at the grass-court event in Mallorca after dealing with a shoulder injury. She injured her knee at an ITF at the end of the season and had surgery.
After that first-round comeback, Lisicki said she had saved three match points in her last tournament, an ITF in Limoges, France last fall, before going on to make the semifinals.
“I’m very happy to be back. It’s a great feeling. I didn’t play my best, I know it, but i was fighting. That’s all I could do. I was fighting 120 per cent.”
Lisicki received a wild card into the qualifying in Doha. She said that she had looked into playing some “challenger” events that week, but there really was nothing available (and she’s right; the biggest are at the $25,000 level – it’s one of the issues the women have, in terms of finding places to play at some times of the season).
After that, she said she’s headed to Acapulco, then qualifying in Miami and Indian Wells.
The plus side of the comeback is that she has absolutely no ranking points to defend until June.
The Frenchwoman retired just a month after that Wimbledon title. She was 28, and while she had been a top player for many years, it’s unlikely too many people had her tagged to win a major – especially Wimbledon.
But she did so impressively.
Anticlimactic retirement announcement
Accepting the Venus Rosewater Dish would have been the perfect swan song, if that were going to be it.
But Bartoli showed up in Toronto a few weeks later for the Rogers Cup, where she retired in her second match, against Magdelana Rybarikova.
She pressed on to Cincinnati. Bartoli lost her first match, in three sets, to Simona Halep. It was a match that wasn’t even on the main stadium court.
Cincinnati isn’t a place where the world’s tennis media gathers, the way it would for a major.
There were a few journalists there, but on a night early in a tournament, around 10:30 p.m., it was about as anticlimactic as the retirement of a freshly minted Wimbledon champion can be.
“I made my dream a reality, and it will stay forever with me, but now my body just can’t cope with everything. I have pain everywhere after 45 minutes or an hour of play,” she said then.
Post-tennis life a struggle
Her life since retirement has been – well, it’s been dramatic.
Bartoli involved herself in various fashion ventures, which have made a splash and then sort of faded into the background.
She proved quite an astute analyst on television, in both English and French.
She did play some legends events. And it was those moments that revealed her major struggles with weight.
There were extremes; from skin and bones to just the opposite.
At Wimbledon a year ago, Bartoli went on a morning chat show and revealed that the reason behind her startlingly bony frame was some sort of bug she picked up in India.
The weight loss had been quick, and shocking, and painful.
“I’m praying to God every single day to go back to a normal life. I’m trying. Every time I’m eating a little bit. I am scared of the reaction to my body,” she said.
“Every time I do something I’m scared to see the reaction to my body, it’s a constant fear and now I’m reduced to eating organic salad leaves with cucumber without the skin because my body can’t even process the skin, that’s the only thing I can put in my body.”
And yet, just a week before that, she had insisted it was a completely normal post-career development.
“It has happened naturally. My natural frame is quite tiny, that is the way my mum and dad are,” she told the Sun. “I have just gone back to my natural shape. All that shows you is the amount of effort I had to put in to become the tennis player I was.”
A year later, she had regained quite a bit of the weight through the summer season. By the US Open last September, she had trimmed some of it off.
Nuts and bolts of un-retiring
There’s no doubt Bartoli isn’t nearly in good enough physical shape to come back to the rigors of professional tennis – the same rigors that had her constantly in pain, and out of the game, at the relatively young age of 28.
Why is she doing it? No doubt that will be revealed in the months before her official return – and when she does return.
Bartoli did put herself on the officially retired list, which has consequences in terms of the ITF’s anti-doping program.
If a player who officially retired wants to return to action, they must sign the papers to that effect, to be officially reinstated.
They also must put themselves back into the anti-doping program, which obviously means they have to provide their whereabouts and run the risk of being randomly tested out of competition at any time.
The current rules require six months back in the anti-doping program before a player can be reinstated, and thus be able to compete in professional tennis events.
Bartoli’s official retirement date was Dec. 13, 2013. At that time, the period required before reinstatement was just three months. So Bartoli can be grandfathered in on that, and return within that period – if she’s ready.
She says she signed on to be reinstated more than a month ago, on Nov. 12. So she can be back as early as mid-February.
Her goal apparently is to be back for the Miami Open in March. That’s almost exactly three months from now, and therefore would be the first tournament for which she’d be eligible if she applies for reinstatement immediately.
You wonder who slept better Tuesday night: Risa Ozaki or Victoria Azarenka.
Was it Ozaki? The 23-year-old ranked No. 74 who would return to the court at the Mallorca Open Wednesday afternoon, and try to serve out the match against a former No. 1?
Or was it Azarenka? The new mother escaped a first-round loss Tuesday night because of bad light. But she still was in big trouble in her first match in more than a year.
We know who probably slept better Wednesday night, after Azarenka pulled off the 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (7) comeback win.
“I’m still trying to find my range but mentally, I was there for every point. That and the experience helped me through, even at 40-0 down, I was trying to find my way out of it,” Azarenka told the media in Mallorca. ” wouldn’t say I had the best preparation coming to this tournament, but mentally, it’s better to go through this kind of a match.”
Azarenka was down two breaks against Ozaki in the third set and got one back – then coughed it up. All along, she muttered about the impending darkness; the umpire was having none of it.
More than that, the Belarussian was willing the match to be interrupted so she could come back the next day and try to finish the job. Meanwhile, her less-experienced opponent would have all night to think about what might have been.
Finally, after Azarenka held for 4-5 in the third set, they stopped play.
The Comeback, Part Two
In a third-set tiebreak chock-full of points against serve, Azarenka finally converted on her third match point to make her first comeback match a successful one. Barely.
She plays No. 7 seed Ana Konjuh in the second round Thursday.
It took another 25 minutes of nervous tennis on both sides. And as she did Tuesday, Azarenka was firing unforced errors long from both the forehand and backhand wings.
Ozaki was broken when she served for it the first time right as they resumed. Azarenka handed the break back – at love – with four unforced errors on her own serve.
Ozaki had 40-0 on her serve, three match points, when she served for it again at 6-5. When she was behind, really behind the eight-ball, Azarenka exhibited more patience. And once she got it to a tiebreak, you had to like her chances.
A player who is broken twice when serving for the match, particularly an underdog like Ozaki, is probably not going to keep her cool enough to finish it off.
Tiebreak full of mini-breaks
The Japanese player was quickly up 2-0. Then 4-2, and 5-3 in the decider. But once Azarenka caught up, the reflexes kicked in. She hasn’t been gone so long that she’s forgotten what to do.
Despite all the unforced errors (41 in all, to go with 30 winners, and including two backhand errors on her first two match points), Azarenka trusted her groundstrokes when she most needed them. At 7-7, she crushed a forehand winner down the line. At 8-7, she crushed a backhand winner down the line.
There was no dab after the win (luckily, that ritual didn’t return with the Belarussian). She even applauded her opponent off the court afterwards.
If it wasn’t as impressive as the return of a certain other former No. 1 this spring, it should be said that while Maria Sharapova continued to train and practice during most of her 15-month doping suspension, Azarenka was … otherwise engaged.
As well, starting a comeback on the unpredictable grass courts is setting a big challenge for yourself. The timing, the dodgy bounces, the lack of long rallies to get rhythm – all were challenges Azarenka faced with relative aplomb.
Compared to her 12-year hiatus earlier in her career, that’s a mere blip in time.
The 46-year-old didn’t get much draw luck for her first match back, which should be scheduled for Wednesday.
Date drew No. 3 seed Zhu Lin, a 23-year-old from China currently ranked No. 136 who was a semifinalist in Gifu a year ago.
Zhu has some quality wins on her resumé. She defeated reigning Indian Wells champion Elena Vesnina in the first round of qualifying at the Australian Open a year ago. In 2015, she upset Italian veteran Francesca Schiavone twice in a row, at Indian Wells and Miami.
She qualified at the Australian Open this year, losing in the first round to Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia. But Zhu is thoroughly unknown outside of Asia. In fact, the last time the 23-year-old even played a tournament that wasn’t in Asia was last year’s US Open qualifying.
A 12-year hiatus
Date reached as high as No. 4 in the world back in the Steffi Graf-Monica Seles era. But by age 26, she wearied of the grind. Her limited English just added to her loneliness, so she packed her bags and quit the Tour cold in 1996.
With the exception of one doubles appearance in Tokyo in 2002, Date disappeared … until she resurfaced at this same Gifu event in 2008. She reached the singles final and won the doubles title with countrywoman Kurumi Nara.
By early 2009, she was back in the majors at the Australian Open. By September of that year, she defeated Daniela Hantuchova and Maria Kirilenko among others to win the WTA Tour event in Seoul, Korea.
When she teamed up with Yayuk Basuki of Indonesia for doubles at the 2010 Australian Open, both were 39. Their combined age of 78 had to be some kind of record.
Date was competitive against a lot of the best players on Tour with her unorthodox, clever game. She upset Maria Sharapova in the first round of the Tokyo tournament in 2010. Her second-round match against Venus Williams on famed centre court at Wimbledon in 2011 stands out to this day as one of the highest-quality women’s matches there – ever.
Williams prevailed 6-7 (6), 6-3, 8-6.
In 2013, she became the oldest woman in the Open era (at 42) to reach the third round at Wimbledon, where she lost to Serena Williams.
Birth certificates don’t lie
Despite being in volcanic physical shape – she put players half her age to shame – Date couldn’t deny her birth date. She would go through periods where her quads and knee wouldn’t cooperate. At times, she had trouble going back-to-back days; she might post a tough three-set win one day, but be unable to answer the bell for the next round.
After losing in the first round of qualifying to Amandine Hesse of France at the 2016 Australian Open (see photo gallery above), a match that went to 6-4 in the third set despite Date’s obvious physical issues, she underwent two knee surgeries. But she never thought of quitting.
She returns with a protected ranking at No. 193, which means she could have entered the qualifying at the French Open or Wimbledon if she chose to. So far, she has not. No doubt she wants to save those options for a few months down the road when, knee permitting, she will be more competitive. But she still has time to consider Wimbledon, and definitely think about the US Open this summer and the Australian Open next January.
Date returns with the hyphenated “-Krumm” gone from her last name. She and German race-car driver Michael Krumm divorced during her time away.