Ferrero, Haas and GonzÃƒÂ¡lez: classy trio make comebacks
In a single week, the ATP tour welcomes back three 30-somethings from injury, writes Marianne Bevis
The opening of 2011’s clay season has had something of the London bus about it. You wait for hours, and then several turn up at once.
And so it is with the longed-for return of a trio of players who have been away with injury for what seems like an eternity. Suddenly there were three of them headlining the ATP website at the same time.
Juan Carlos Ferrero
First in the frame was the evergreen Ferrero, world No1 for two months back in 2003, who returned to the tour in Barcelona a week ago for the first time since major surgery last October.
The motorbike-addicted Spaniard won titles every year from 1999 to 2003, including four Masters and the French Open. He reached a final in every one of his 12 years since turning pro, including the US Open, the Masters Cup and Cincinnati, so his talent was not simply confined to the red stuff.
But there followed a string of injuries. In 2008 alone he pulled out of Roland Garros and Wimbledon with leg problems and, at the US Open, it was his shoulder.
After 2003, it would be another six years until he claimed a title, in Casablanca in 2009, and that marked the first step in a major resurgence. A new fitness regime, and ambitions to reach the top 10 again, reaped rewards.
Ferrero won titles in Umag, Buenos Aires and Costa do Sauipe, reached the final in Acapulco, the semis in Stuttgart and the quarters in Monte Carlo and Hamburg, all of which took him into the top 20 for the first time in more than two years. 2010 turned into his best season since that chart-topping 2003.
Then once again, the US Open brought progress to a halt. Ferrero subsequently succumbed to left knee and right wrist surgery and, turning 31 in February, he might have called it a day and turned his attention to his many other tennis interests.
He jointly owns, with David Ferrer, the Valencia 500 tournament that moved to a stunning new venue in 2009, and he runs the JC Ferrero Equelite Sports Academy that he set up in 2001 to promote young tennis talent.
But no, he’s back: And his return in Barcelona was more than encouraging. He reached the quarter-finals, eventually falling to new top-10 entry Nicolas Almagro. The result took him a modest seven places up the rankings to 70 but, if his 2010 surge is anything to go by, that could be just the beginning for one of most elegant clay-courters in the business.
Talking of elegance, another welcome return -after a 14-month absence -has been made this week by Haas.
His storyline bears many similarities to Ferrero’s. Once No2 in the world, Haas had an Indian summer of a comeback year during 2009 and early 2010.
Haas proved his huge talent early, winning a first title at 20 and his first Master’s at 22, and with each passing month of 2009, he was showing more of the tennis that had taken him to No2 in 2002.
At the age of 31, his rise up the rankings between Easter and June covered more than 50 places, a period topped by his 12th ATP title -his first ever on grass -in Halle. After a dozen years on the professional tour, he had a complete set of titles on all surfaces.
The green shoots of this 2009 success first appeared in his outstanding performance against Roger Federer in the fourth round of the French Open. It took a near-superhuman effort from Federer to turn around a two-sets deficit in one of the matches of the tournament. Haas went on to meet Federer again -the German must have cursed his luck -in the Wimbledon semis, having beating Djokovic in the quarters.
But while riding high at 17 in the world, in the middle of 2010’s spring North American hard court season, injury forced Haas from the tour and into dual surgery -first on his right hip and then on his right elbow.
It must have seemed like the final straw in a career bedevilled by injury. He had broken one ankle just as he made the transition from junior to senior status. Within a year, he broke his other ankle. In the run-up to the Sydney Olympics, he suffered a bulging disc in his back yet went on to win a silver medal.
Haas’s progress was then brought to an abrupt halt after an accident nearly claimed the lives of his parents and left his father in a coma. He would spend much of 2002 taking care of his family, and went on to miss most of 2003 when a serious shoulder injury required surgery.
In 2004, he surged back from outside the top 1,000 to No17, earning the ATP Comeback Player of the Year award, but in 2005, there was a twisted ankle in the first round of Wimbledon, a wrist injury in 2006, and torn stomach muscles during Wimbledon 2008. More rehabilitation of his troublesome shoulder finally dragged him back down to the 80s.
Not surprising, then, that Haas’s return in Munich this week has been a cautious one: He took part only in the doubles at his former home event to assess how his 33-year-old body felt. He and Radek Stepanek lost in a 10-8 tie-breaker, but it was valuable opener before he migrates to the singles tour in a few weeks.
Haas is a player to value on many levels -a classy character, an elegant and attacking shot-maker, and with a backhand and a volley style not unlike Federer’s
He also has a similar incentive to his long-standing friend: “If I can stay healthy and play a little bit, it would be great if my daughter could maybe see me play at least a couple times, to see what I actually did before I stopped.”
The third of the maturing comeback trio also has something in common with the fellow members of this 30-plus band.
GonzÃƒÂ¡lez, a former world No5, was at 10 in the rankings a year back when he won both of his rubbers in Chile’s Davis Cup match against Israel.
After a second round exit at Roland Garros, however, he needed time out for rehab before trying to make a tentative return on the American hard courts, but he was forced to retire in his opening match at the US Open and underwent hip surgery in October.
If there was any good news for the 30-year-old, it was that he escaped knee surgery as well, and made it back into full-time training within just five months. He initially worked with Chile’s Davis Cup team and players at the ATP Challenger in his home city of Santiago before travelling to California to join up with a new coach, Horacio Matta.
GonzÃƒÂ¡lez won the first of his 11 titles in 2000, and has been a finalist in a further 11 events, including two Masters and the Australian Open. With such a long -and often fiery -career already on the table, he is now pragmatic enough to concede that, this time around, his campaign will be different: “It will be symbolic because I feel it will be the beginning of the end of my career.”
But he does have one particular target to act as an incentive: the 2012 Olympics. He won a bronze medal in 2004 -with a gold in the doubles -and won silver in 2008. National success once more would crown a 13-year career perfectly.
The start of this final phase began well at the Belgrade Open, where he had a wild card entry, and he opened with a 6-2, 6-4 win. He has one other piece of good fortune: Novak Djokovic, hoping to resume his 2011 unbeaten run in front of his home crowd, is in the other half of the draw.
So, three 30-something storylines converge in a single week. The powerful and pugnacious Chilean GonzÃƒÂ¡lez; the stylish, Spanish Ferrero; and the elegant, passionate German, Haas.
Combined, they add up to just six years short of a century. Separate, they add more than a touch of excitement to the tennis scene.