AT THE DODDERING age of 23, the Belgian tennis star Kim Clijsters has announced that she will retire this fall. Which likely means one thing: Clijsters will be a major force on the WTA Tour in, say, 2009 or 2010. For to the litany of tennis's endearing quirks we can now add this: There is no sport more accommodating to the comeback.
It wasn't always so. Once, players who quit the circuit found their magic irretrievably lost. John McEnroe took a sabbatical at age 26. He returned a shard of his former self and never won another noteworthy title. Bjorn Borg, too, skulked away from the game in his mid-20s. When he reemerged nearly a decade later, both his precision-based game and his wooden racket had been rendered laughably obsolete.
Yet today's players tend to bounce back like the felt-covered balls they hit for a living. In 1997 27-year-old Andre Agassi was in such a protracted slump that his ranking tanked to No. 141. He decided to play a much lighter schedule the next year, and by the end of '98 he was up to No. 6. Bedeviled by teen burnout, Jennifer Capriati was inactive for two years that included a stay in rehab. By her mid-20s she was winning Grand Slam titles. Martina Hingis retired at 22 in 2003 and spent a few years riding horses, barely touching her racket. She wearied of a life in repose, returned to tennis in 2006—and finished the year firmly embedded in the top 10.
This phenomenon was on vivid display last week at the Sony Ericsson Open at Key Biscayne, Fla. Beset by injury and apathy, Serena Williams played only four events in 2006 and finished the year ranked No. 95, prompting her own mother to question her commitment to the sport. Ah, but Mom forgot that tennis is like an NBA game: Everyone stages a comeback. Having already won the 2007 Australian Open, Williams, 25, took the women's title in Key Biscayne, blitzing top-seeded Maria Sharapova 6--1, 6--1, and outlasting Belgium's Justine Henin in the final. "I guess you could say I'm back," said Williams, with considerable understatement. She is up to No. 11 and, after just two tournaments, has reclaimed her place as the most fearsome figure in the women's game.
On the men's side in Key Biscayne, Argentina's Guillermo Canas toppled the mighty Roger Federer for the second straight event to reach the final. (He lost to Novak Djokovic.) A former top 10 player, Canas, 29, had only recently been paroled from a 15-month doping suspension. He played no ATP matches in 2006 and was ranked so low heading into the tournament that he needed to go through the qualifying draw just to get into the field. No matter. He played two weeks of unsurpassed tennis and is suddenly hailed as Federer's new rival. "For me," says Canas, now ranked No. 29, "it's like a dream."
What is it about tennis that permits these Travolta-like career resurrections? For one thing, despite its image as a pristine, country club divertissement, the sport, especially at the highest level, is physically brutal. When a player such as Canas can spend a year working on his game and convalescing, free from the grind of tournament play and travel, it is less a punishment than a disguised blessing. Though Canas claims he was given mislabeled medications, he concedes that time off may have made him "more fresh."
Tennis, of course, is a mental exercise too, predicated largely on self-belief, an asset that, as we're reminded by those Holiday Inn Express commercials, is bolstered by rest and refreshment. Serena may be lacking in match-play and fitness, but it hardly matters. During her time away she played the role of starlet and fashionista, but ultimately she realized her greatest talent lay on the tennis court—and now the more mature, refocused Serena is projecting strength and serenity. In Saturday's final she staved off match points to win 0--6, 7--5, 6--3. "When I'm motivated I don't think anyone can beat me," she said. "It's just not in me to give up."
Of course, confidence is a fragile commodity, prone to vanishing as abruptly as it flares up. Heading into the season, Sharapova was the It Girl, a teenager fresh off winning the U.S. Open. But she has yet to win a title in 2007. In four sets against Serena she has won all of five games. Her serve is in the breakdown lane, a sure sign of a fractured psyche. "I think it's one of those things," she says with a sigh. "You obviously go out on the practice court, and you work on it."
If all else fails she can always walk away—then mount a comeback.
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