The wounded warriors return in Oz (updated)

It’s hard to know without a lot of forensic digging if it’s a record.

But a total of 11 players combined, in the men’s and women’s entry lists, have entered the 2020 Australian Open with injury-protected rankings.

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Another is just below the cutoff, and therefore likely to get in by the time the tournament begins in less than six weeks.

The other factor is that they can all wait until the very last minute to pull out, to try to get half of that first-round money.

So those on the alternates list will be very much in limbo.

The wounded warriors come in all shapes and sizes.

Some have been off the tour for a long time, and are returning from injury.

And some others are already back and working their way up the rankings. But they’re still not high enough to get in without using their protected rankings.

A couple of promising young Americans who have been out for a long time are on the comeback trail.

Mackenzie McDonald and Jared Donaldson, who were on the come-up before the injury bug struck, plan to make their return in Melbourne.

Here is the list of players, and what they’ve been up to in recent months.

Protected rankings rule on first Oz entry lists

Women’s protected rankings

CiCi Bellis (USA)
PR No. 43
Current ranking: No. 859

Bellis, still just 20, had been out since losing in the first round of the 2018 Miami Open to Victoria Azarenka – until she made her return in Houston last month.

That’s the reason she has any ranking at all. Bellis won a qualifying match, then won two matches in the main draw before losing to Kirsten Flipkens at the WTA 125K tournament.

It’s hard to judge whether she’s out of the woods yet, after a year and a half of dire prognoses and … four surgeries on her right forearm.

But she plans to go full-steam ahead. She’s even signed up for doubles with her good pall Marketa Vondrousova.

Vera Zvonareva
PR No. 78
Current ranking: No. 160

Zvonareva, now 35, returned from a long absence (and a baby) in 2017.

She played a full schedule in 2019. Until the French Open, where she lost in the first round to Aliona Bolsova.

She hasn’t been seen since, reportedly due to a wrist injury.  But she appears to have planned a full Australian summer as she returns.

ranking
Zvonareva in Melbourne in 2015. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Kateryna Bondarenko (UKR)
PR No. 85
No current ranking

Bondarenko, now 33, was out from the 2018 US Open until she returned at the Tashkent Open in September. 

During that time, she had a second daughter. Daughter Karin is now 6.

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Katie Boulter (GBR)
PR No. 85
Current ranking: No. 340 

Boulter, now 23, reached her career-best ranking of No. 82 in February.

But then, back woes hit. Boulter played Fed Cup in April, even though she was already hampered. 

ranking
Boulter has been out much of the last year with back woes. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

In May, she entered the French Open but took advantage of the “late withdrawal get half the prize money” clause. That didn’t go over well with some, even though it’s perfectly legitimate.

But it was months before she returned. 

Boulter played two $25,000-level ITF events in Thailand in November, her first matches back. She went 1-2. We’ll see if she’s ready for Australia.

Anna Karolina Schmiedlova (SVK)
PR No. 93
Current ranking: No. 132

ranking
Schmiedlova at the 2018 Australian Open. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Schmiedlova is an enigma at the best of times. Sometimes, she looks like a world-beater – a great athlete and a talented groundstroker.

Other times, she looks like she doesn’t want to be on court.

But you’d have to think this fairly extended absence because of a knee injury will give her a lot of motivation to play.

The 25-year-old reached her career best ranking of No. 26 four years ago.

She’s been out since losing a tough one in the first round of Wimbledon to Monica Puig – 7-5 in the third set. So she’s just getting in under the wire with the six-month absence.

Coco Vandeweghe (USA)
PR No. 100
Current ranking: No. 239

Vandeweghe is in a rather peculiar position in that she was able to earn a main-draw wild card into the Australian Open because she won the USTA playoff last month.

She likely would have gotten in with her protected ranking. And as she has only used up one of the two allowed Grand Slam exemptions, she could take a pass on the wild card and have it go to the second-place finisher.

That would be Katerina Stewart, a player ranked No. 278 who didn’t play at all from Sept. 2018 through to mid-May. And who earned just $22,000 in prize money this season.

Stewart could really use the boost. But the 28-year-old Vandeweghe also needs to worry about her own career. If she doesn’t use her protected ranking in Melbourne, she still has that one card to play at the French Open or even Wimbledon, if she doesn’t get her ranking back up in the top 100.

She is not on the main entry list with that ranking, so that deed seems to be done.

Here she is playing doubles at the 2018 Australian Open with … Laura Robson.

Men’s protected rankings

Juan Martin del Potro (ARG)
PR No. 22
Current ranking: No. 123

Will the big guy play?

Obviously that’s up in the air.

And as often as del Potro has had to come back from surgeries, he has teased in Australia before. In fact, he has played in Australia just once since 2014 – in 2018 (see below for pics).

The 31-year-old debated playing the Australian Open in January, after injuring his knee during a match at the Masters 1000 in Shanghai the previous October. 

In the end, he began his season at the Delray Beach event in February. He skipped both Indian Wells and Miami and returned to the tour in Madrid in May.

Things were going okay – not great, but okay – when he pulled out of Queen’s Club before his second-round match against eventual champion Feliciano Lopez. He had defeated Denis Shapovalov in the first round.

He had surgery on that right knee the following week.

Originally, he had envisaged a return on the fall indoor circuit, notably in Stockholm. But that didn’t happen. There didn’t seem to be much buzz about him making a late appearance into the Davis Cup finals.

So the question is: is he ready? Could he be a late replacement at the ATP Cup? Argentina is in Sydney, with Croatia and Austria in their group. But Team Argentina already has a full complement of five players; one of them would have to bail out of the event, and the guaranteed money that goes with it.

Or, he could get a wild card the week before in Adelaide or Auckland.

More likely might be a late entry into the Kooyong exhibition the week before Melbourne.

Alexandr Dolgopolov (UKR)*********
PR No. 66
No current ranking

Dolgopolov at the 2016 Australian Open, with the will-be-missed long hair. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

****** Despite the reports of leg surgery, Dolgopolov has withdrawn from both Doha and the Australian Open with the stated reason a wrist injury*******

Dolgopolov is 31 now, and a long time removed from a career-high ranking of No. 13 set nearly eight years ago – right before the 2012 Australian Open.

He hasn’t played for more than a year and a half – since losing to Novak Djokovic in the first round of the Rome tournament in 2018.

Dolgopolov had surgery on his right wrist in Aug. 2018. That’s a very long recovery period – to say the least.

He’ll come back looking quite different, with the long blonde-streaked pony tail gone. But of course, he still has a bombshell girlfriend by his side.

Dolgopolov’s first day on the tennis court was only last June, per his Instagram account. But he reported last week that he underwent another surgery, this time on his left leg. And that’s a pretty big bandage.

He had planned to play Doha before the Australian Open. But it appears he’ll be out at least another six weeks.

Vasek Pospisil (CAN)
PR No. 73
Current ranking: No. 150

The Canadian was playing top-20 tennis as he led his country to the Davis Cup final in Madrid last month.

Now, it will be a matter of making sure the body is ready for the grind of a full season.

Pospisil had back surgery in Jan. 2019. He returned in time for Wimbledon, where he had the unfortunate luck of running into his friend and Davis Cup teammate Félix Auger-Aliassime.

He ran into him again in the first round of the Rogers Cup. But he upset top-10 player Karen Khachanov in the first round of the US Open. And in Shanghai, he went from the qualifying to the third round. That gave his ranking a boost, as he entered it all the way down at No. 248.

Pospisil was smart in using his allotment of ATP Tour events as he returned to action. He efforted hard on the Challenger circuit in the fall and won back-to-back events in Las Vegas and Charlottesville. He still has several opportunities to get into ATP events before his time runs out.

Yen-Hsun Lu (TPE)
PR No. 71)
No current ranking

Lu, who is now 36, is going to give it one more shot in 2019.

His career-high ranking of No. 33 came all the way back in 2010. And other than a pair of Challengers last spring, he has been out of action since Nov. 2017.

A shoulder injury has been the culprit.

He has had a lot going on, as he’s a pretty big deal in Taipei. He’s done television commentary. He has an academy. And, of course, he’s a longstanding member of the ATP Tour Players Council, which means he’s been in the thick of it in 2019.

We’ll see if he makes the date. If he doesn’t, you’d have to think that his time is probably up.

ranking
Lu at the 2012 Australian Open. At 36, this is probably his last kick at the can. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Mackenzie McDonald (USA)
PR No. 83
Current ranking: No. 130

The young American, now 24, hit his best ranking of No. 57 back in April after reaching the third round in Barcelona.

But he’s been out since losing a tough five-setter to Yoshihito Nishioka in the first round of the French Open.

He had surgery on his right hamstring back in June.

ranking
Mackenzie McDonald, who has has some great moments at the Australian Open, hopes to return in style next month. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Cedric-Marcel Stebe (GER)
PR No. 95
Current ranking: No. 166

The German lefty, now 29, reached a career high of No. 71 in singles back in 2012.

But his career has been beset by major injuries.

He was out from Oct. 2013 to Feb. 2015 after ship surgery. He returned for two $10,000 ITFs in Turkey – and then was out another full year after pelvic surgery.

In Feb. 2018, he had surgery on his right wrist. Five months later, he had a second surgery.

ranking
Stebe definitely gets an “A” for perseverance. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Stebe returned in April, 2019 with no ranking, having to start all over again. He lost his first four matches at the top level, then finally won a match – and made a run – at the clay-court tournament in Gstaad last July. Stebe reached the final there.

The lefty made another move in Stockholm in October, reaching the final there and losing to Denis Shapovalov.

Already, to go from … nothing to No. 166 is quite the feat. 

Jared Donaldson (USA)
PR No. 99)
Actual ranking: No. 717

ranking
Jared Donaldson in Melbourne in 2018. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Still just 23, Donaldson jumped into the top 50 just before Indian Wells in 2018.

But he’s another player who has lost significant momentum, just as things seemed on a roll.

Donaldson was done for 2018 after the Rogers Cup in August, due to knee tendonitis.

He missed the 2019 Australian Open, starting his season at Delray Beach. But he managed just four tournaments (and one match victory) before going off the tour again after this year’s Miami Open.

Donaldson had knee surgery in May.

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