2017 has been the unofficial season of comebacks: Maria Sharapova in Stuttgart, Petra Kvitova at Roland Garros and now Victoria Azarenka is making her return after giving birth to her son last year. More comebacks are on the way as we await Serena Williams’ return from pregnancy in 2018 and a healthy Belinda Bencic returning to tennis after wrist surgery.
With so many comebacks happening, we look back at some of the greatest career comebacks in women’s tennis.
Those who watched the Australian Open earlier this year will remember Mirjana Lucic-Baroni’s emotional run to the semi-finals.
In 2003 Lucic-Baroni hung up her tennis racquet. The teenage prodigy and rising tennis starlet revealed she was struggling financially and was suffering the effects of an abusive father. Her career appeared over, but the Croatian never fell out of love with the sport. Despite struggling to win matches in the first few years of her return, she never gave up and kept on fighting.
The dream comeback for Mirjana began in 2014 when she recovered from a set down to upset no. 2 seed Simona Halep in the third round of the US Open. Lucic-Baroni was 32-years-old and made the fourth round of a Major for the first time since 1999 at Wimbledon. A few days before upsetting the Roland Garros finalist and Wimbledon semi-finalist, Lucic-Baroni was two games away from being knocked out in her first round qualifying match.
Before falling to Serena Williams in the Australian Open semis this year, Lucic-Baroni defeated no. 3 seed Agnieszka Radwanska (2R) and no. 5 seed Karolina Pliskova (QF). It matched her career-best singles run in a Major, 18 years after making the Wimbledon semi-finals as a teenager.
In 2011 Timea Bacsinszky hung up her tennis racquet after a foot injury sidelined her from the game. Upon her recovery, Bacsinszky did not immediately pick up her racquet. She returned to participate in Switzerland’s Fed Cup team and used her protected ranking to enter smaller WTA tournaments, but left the game again. She began working in restaurants, waiting on tables and bartending. She even enrolled to attend school for hotel management between 2011 and 2013.
Bacsinszky’s comeback was ignited by an email she received from the Fédération Française de Tennis (FFT) stating that she was eligible to participate in the women’s qualifying draw for Roland Garros 2013. Bacsinszky drove herself to Paris from Switzerland to play. Despite losing her match, her love for the game was reignited.
Fast forward to 2014, Bacsinszky was in the main draw of Roland Garros and on an upward rise in the rankings. The season was highlighted by her massive upset over world no. 4 Maria Sharapova in the inaugural Wuhan Open.
Fast forward again to 2015, Bacsinszky became the world no. 12 in the WTA rankings thanks to a quarter-final run at Wimbledon and making the semi-finals at Roland Garros.
Finally, fast forward to 2017, Bacsinszky has made the quarter-finals or better at Roland Garros in her last three appearances. The streak includes two semi-finals. She has a 15-4 record in Paris dating back to her return in 2014.
Monica Seles holds the Open Era record for most Grand Slam titles won by a teenager (eight): US Open x2, Australian Open x3 and Roland Garros x3. En route to her third Australian Open title in 1993, Seles defeated rival Steffi Graf in the final to win her eighth Major.
Three months after winning in Australia, Seles was victim to one of the most horrific incidents in sports history. On April 30 in Hamburg, Germany, a Graf fan ran out from the stands and stabbed Seles during a changeover. She was stabbed between her shoulder blades and was immediately rushed to the hospital.
Though her wounds healed after a few months, the incident kept a traumatized Seles away from the tennis courts for two years.
Seles returned to the tennis court in August 1995. Her first tournament back was the Canadian Open, now Rogers Cup. She held a joint no. 1 ranking with Graf, and Seles went on to win the title in her first event back. Along the way, Seles set a tournament record for least number of games dropped in a title run (14).
A few months later, Seles won her fourth Australian Open title and ninth Major overall. Seles remained in the Top 10 until 2002 when she retired.
In 2012 Petra Martic made a fourth round appearance at Roland Garros, aged 21. The following year she made the third round at Wimbledon, aged 22.
She did not win another Grand Slam match between 2014 and 2015. Her last main draw appearance came at Roland Garros in 2015.
Skip ahead to 2017, Martic, now 26-years-old and the world no. 290 from Croatia, came out of qualifying and made a run to the fourth round at Roland Garros. Playing in her first tour-level clay event in a year, Martic equalled her career-best Roland Garros run. Her run through the draw included upsets over no. 17 Anastasia Sevastova and no. 12 Madison Keys. She nearly knocked out title favourite Elina Svitolina to make her first Major quarter-final.
"When I got out on the court I had a flashback of 2012 and I played my best tennis…"
— WTA (@WTA) June 4, 2017
The Croatian was out of the game for nearly 10 months after suffering a back injury in Wimbledon qualifying in 2016. After months of not feeling physically able to compete, Martic nearly gave up her tennis career.
A lowkey return at an ITF 25K in Italy in April put Martic back in the Top 600. After Roland Garros, she sits at world no. 126. Yes, in her first two months back, Martic rose 533 spots in the WTA rankings.
Kim Clijsters won her first Grand Slam title in 2005 at the US Open. She defeated Mary Pierce in straight sets. The year was a career-best for Clijsters, who held nine WTA titles by the end of the season and was the world no. 2.
Despite playing the best tennis of her career, Clijsters made the decision that 2007 would be her final year on tour. In May 2007, Clijsters announced her immediate retirement from tennis, citing her injuries as the reason.
The retirement was short-lived as Clijsters returned to tennis in 2009, one year after giving birth to her first child and a little over two years upon her retirement.
Clijsters received wildcards into Cincinnati and Toronto prior to playing the US Open. As a wildcard, Clijsters posted an impressive run to the final, which included victories over Li Na, Venus Williams and Serena Williams. Clijsters is one of the few women in history who have beaten both Williams sisters in the same tournament.
Clijsters defeated Caroline Wozniacki in the finals for her second Grand Slam title. It came in a matter of weeks upon returning to professional tennis. With the title, Clijsters joined Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong as the few women to have won a Grand Slam after becoming a mother.
In December 2016 Petra Kvitova was attacked in her home when an intruder broke in to her an apartment. Kvitova’s left hand was slashed and she underwent immediate surgery to repair the tendons and nerves in her hand.
Kvitova’s left hand is her dominant and playing hand. The attack left her career in doubt to many. In a time of darkness, Kvitova continuously found the light and used the incident as motivation to come back to the game stronger.
Having “already won the toughest battle” by making it back on court, Kvitova made her return five months after the attack to Roland Garros. She was only able to grip a racquet after three months. In her first match since November 2016, Kvitova won her (emotional) first match back 6-3, 6-2 against Julia Boserup.
Team Kvitova sported custom Nike shirts during the comeback in Paris – “Courage. Belief. Pojd!”
Fulnek…where it all started. Thank you to my family and team for sharing this moment with me ♥️ pic.twitter.com/JnrCmi5sNP
— Petra Kvitova (@Petra_Kvitova) May 29, 2017
Perhaps more determined than ever before, Kvitova remains one of the biggest threats on the WTA Tour.