Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Tennis [Print without images]

Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Updated: February 26, 9:42 AM ET
Win or lose, Bubka a success story

By Sandra Harwitt
Special to ESPN.com

Sergei Bubka
Sergei Bubka spent a month and a half in bed after a horrifying plunge.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- At most tournaments, the qualifying draw holds little interest beyond being another group of players looking for their spot in the main draw that week.

But at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, one name immediately jumped out from the player field.

Sergei Bubka Jr.

Now, this guy was more than worthy of attention. The fact that the Ukrainian, son of world-renowned pole-vaulter Sergei Bubka, is back on a tennis court is nothing short of a miracle. After all, how many people would take an accidental plunge out of a third-story apartment and even be alive -- no less playing tennis?

"I spent six months on crutches, so, at that stage, I was just dreaming and hoping to walk and live a normal lifestyle," said Bubka, who admitted doctors offered various opinions as to whether he'd ever play again. "Little by little, I managed to recover. It took a lot of hard work. I'm playing tennis again, doing what I love and just hopefully will manage to get in better shape and get back to even higher than where I was."

Flash back to that early morning in November 2012: The 186th-ranked Bubka found himself locked in the bedroom of a friend's apartment in the swanky 16th arrondissement in Paris. Not sure what to do, he opened a window to survey whether that would provide any options. Taking note of a platform covering the air-conditioning cover, he decided to test it out to see if it might hold his weight. His answer was an immediate no, one that led to desperate consequences. Leaning out of the window, the steel cover gave way, and he went plummeting to the inside courtyard below.

Flash forward to a balmy Dubai Saturday afternoon in February 2014: Bubka is just an hour or so off the court after a qualifying first-round loss. He's played four qualifying matches in his 2014 comeback and won one at the Bergamo Challenger two weeks ago. Nonetheless, he's looking like the happiest guy on earth. His baby-blue eyes are wide and bright. His smile is about as wide as physically conceivable. And the only outward sign of the trauma he experienced is a faint scar line that runs from his hairline directly down to the start of his left eyebrow. He later says he did sustain vivid scars and points to their being hidden under his shorts.

As an internal protective instinct, Bubka says his memory bank has blocked out much of the incident.

"From such a shock, the doctor said that parts of memory goes, because it's very painful for the brain, so it erases it," he said. "The main things I remember. I was locked inside the bedroom, I tried to get out of the bedroom, the door got locked, I couldn't open it, couldn't break it and I found a window. It's difficult to explain.

"Basically, in the window, there was a very long windowsill, which was a metal plate covering the air-conditioning boxes. So it looked like a floor because it was very wide and it was made of metal. So I leaned on it and it collapsed. I wasn't trying to go across or jump. I just leaned on it. I'm afraid of heights, so it's a little bit ironic."

Bubka has no recollection of actually hurtling out the window, but he remembers the few minutes of consciousness when lying on the ground as being "very scary." The next time he was conscious was after nine hours of surgery and his mom, coach and a few friends were there. His dad arrived a couple of days later. Among the many friends who rushed to see him at the Georges Pompidou Hospital was Victoria Azarenka. The two had recently broken up after dating for quite a while.

In all, he would spend 15 days in the hospital and a month and a half in bed at the family home in Monte Carlo.The recuperation and rehabilitation was a long process with ups and downs along the way. He would end up being on crutches for six months, and the idea of resuming his career was the farthest thing from his mind.

"At that stage, of course, I wasn't thinking anymore about tennis," Bubka said. "It was just about getting back on my feet."

Once back in Kiev, Bubka had a physical therapist that was both a stern taskmaster and positive motivator.

"The guy who I did rehab with in Kiev, he managed to, I don't know how, but I went to the gym every day on crutches, trying to activate my leg again, because I couldn't even lift it from the ground," Bubka said. "It was very difficult, and every day it was the same thing, but he made it seem for me like if I miss a practice it would be so bad that even when I didn't want to, I still made myself go there and do those things."

When Bubka turned up to play the Australian Open qualifying last month, he was greeted with great disbelief. None of the players anticipated he'd be returning to the game.

"Many people believed I wouldn't try to come back, but tennis is what I love. And I felt that if I have a chance, I should go for it and try, and I'm playing again," he said. "So I guess that's already a victory."

Dmitry Tursunov, a good friend, jokingly started to take photos of Bubka doing this interview in the player lounge. Tursunov later admitted he would have never thought his friend would be able to play competitive tennis again.

"When it happened, the question was whether he'll survive or not, secondly, if he'll be able to walk and, now that he's playing, it's surprising," Tursunov said.

Sergei Bubka
For a long time, tennis was the furthest thing from Sergei Bubka Jr.'s mind.
After first going on the court in June, by August, he was spending three or four times a week hitting balls. Eventually, he determined that rejoining the tour could be a reality. His next step was finding a coach, and he sought out Australian Jack Reader, who had been working with Viktor Troicki before the Serb was given a 12-month suspension for failing to take a required drug test.

Reader enthusiastically agreed to work with Bubka. However, when the Ukrainian first turned up in Australia, Reader had his reservations.

"It's admirable, isn't it?" Reader said. "When he came to Australia in the first week of December -- we started out doing a lot of water work -- he was still walking with a limp. The things we did was just remarkable to get back on the court. I'm very proud for him."

At this juncture, Bubka is honest enough to say he has limitations with his range of motion, and his movement is slow. For now, he plans on concentrating on playing at Futures and Challenger events to build his game and strength.

"It's already a success that I'm here," Bubka said. "But I'm coming with expectations. I want to go further than before. I'm 27. This is really my last chance of getting parts of the goals I dreamed about as a young kid. I'm definitely not doing this just for fun."

He understands his ultimate dream of winning a Grand Slam title is now unlikely, but he's hoping that joining the top 100 -- and maybe even the top 50 -- remains a distinct possibility. And who would bet against someone who was questionable to even walk again?