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Thursday, June 28, 2012
A guide to WTA comebacks

By Kamakshi Tandon
ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- The WTA tour can sometimes seem like a giant collection of comebacks in action. Where does one end and the other begin? Who's coming and who's going? Here's a handy guide to where various players fall in the process.

The Comeback Completed: Maria Sharapova

After a long period away, a player usually is considered in comeback mode until she returns to her previous level, though only if it's within a reasonable period. Sharapova pushed the time limit. It's been more than three years since she returned from her 2008 shoulder surgery, but now her comeback can be considered complete.

Maria Sharapova
Maria Sharapova proved that though a full recovery takes a while, a full comeback is very much possible.

"In terms of comeback, yes, because (the French Open is) a Grand Slam win and to get back to No. 1," Sharapova said. "But in terms of my career, definitely not."

It's not like the surgery never happened, because there are still some lingering effects on the shoulder.

"I am much more disciplined with the physical rehabilitation aspect of it," Sharapova said. "Sometimes when it feels better you're like, 'OK, I'm done.' It doesn't work that way, unfortunately.

"I just know it's something I'll have to do for the rest of my career."

But her success does mean that from now on, losses can't be attributed to recovery.

The Choking Comeback: Serena Williams

The mental component is frequently the hardest thing to get back after a forced absence. Players on the comeback trail often have trouble closing out matches, as vividly illustrated by Serena Williams when she lost in the first round at the French Open after being up a set and 5-1 in the second-set tiebreaker. Before that came her nervous performance against Samantha Stosur in the U.S. Open final and a surprising loss to Ekaterina Makarova in the Australian Open quarterfinals. There's no question Williams still has the game, but for the first time, there are some doubts surrounding her nerves. Although she's made a career of coming back from long absences to win big titles, her recent health scares may have affected her and made this latest comeback feel like more of a challenge.

How can she get her once-unshakeable confidence back?

"You've got to keep going," Williams said. "I was playing excellent before Paris. You just got to keep going and not lose confidence more than anything."

Sharapova's example provides hope. Famed for her steely competitiveness, Williams began to double-fault at key moments and had trouble producing her best tennis on big occasions. But it's all different now. She saved three set points with big serves in her second-round match against Tsvetana Pironkova at Wimbledon.

"She had a lot of issues. It took her about five years to get back," said Williams, slightly exaggerating the time frame of Sharapova's comeback. "I'm a year back, and I'm already in the top 10. I'm trying to do like she does and just keep going."

The Chronic Comeback: Ana Ivanovic

Sometimes it's not all in the head. Players also can struggle to fully recover their games when coming back and may have to rebuild various strokes in addition to their confidence. Like Sharapova not too long ago, Ivanovic has developed problems with her serve on the way back and found it difficult to recover her earlier level of play.

After winning the French Open and reaching No. 1 in 2008, she felt the pressure and began to experience injuries, falling all the way to No. 63 in 2010. She bounced back into top-20 territory shortly after, where she's mostly stayed since.

At the moment, she's crept up to No. 14 after reaching the semifinal at Indian Wells earlier this year. More results like that are what the Serb needs to restart her climb.

Ivanovic's troubles began the same season as Sharapova's, so she, too, can hold the Russian out as an example.

"Definitely it's inspiring to see that," Ivanovic said. "I think you get what you deserve basically. You know, I've been working hard. I've been feeling much better on the court. I know good things are around the corner."

But she's been turning that corner so slowly that so far it's been more of a "someback" than a comeback.

The Crippled Comeback: Venus Williams

The biggest challenge is when players return before they're physically recovered. That seems to be where Venus is at, though with her autoimmune illness, it's not clear if she'll ever be able to complete at full fitness for sustained periods.

Venus returned earlier than she would have liked, needing to secure ranking points to qualify for the Olympics. Now that that's done, she has more flexibility to decide when and how much to play. How much that will help remains to be seen, but just being able to come back and play is impressive in itself, and she seems determined to continue.

"There's no way I'm just going to sit down and give up just because I have a hard time the first five or six freakin' tournaments back," she said.

The Continuous Comeback: Kim Clijsters

Some players get injured so frequently, they seem to be on a comeback loop of sorts.

Clijsters set a comeback standard by winning a Grand Slam in just her third tournament after un-retiring, but now she seems to be stuck in that state. She has experienced injury in almost every tournament she's played in the past year and a half, making nearly every opening-round match a comeback.

It's a big part of why she's decided to stop for good after the U.S. Open.

"Too old to play the game that I want to play physically," Clijsters said. "I've put my body through enough strain and everything."

But the cheery Belgian doesn't regret returning to the tour after giving birth to her daughter Jada.

"I didn't expect, obviously, when I started after having Jada, I never expected that things would be going so well so soon," she said. "It's been an incredible adventure these last three, four years. I feel like I've been able to kind of finish that chapter of my tennis year on a good note. I'm going to give 200 percent these last few tournaments that I have left."