The question of sporting comebacks

Deputy sports editor Joel McInally reflects on the idea of the sporting comeback and judges some of the great success stories versus the embarrassing returns to sport.


One sporting story from the back end of 2017 that flew under the radar somewhat was the announcement from Marion Bartoli, the 2013 Wimbledon champion, that she was planning to make a comeback, having finally overcome the health struggles that initially forced her to retire. While this news on its own may not appear to be particularly noteworthy, it does raise the question of why many athletes struggle with the issue of when to call it a day for good. What draws those like Bartoli to continue to push their body to the extremes?

Bartoli is not the first top tennis player to launch an ambitious return to the game. In 1983, tennis great Björn Borg shocked the sporting world by walking away from the game aged just 26 due to his growing frustration at the scrutiny and pressure he was under. However, if Borg’s decision to retire was shocking, then his comeback in 1991 was something that no one could have predicted. Despite having rarely played tennis in the last eight years, as well as sporting a wooden racquet in a graphite age, Borg attempted to return to the tour. The result was disastrous and predictable, with Borg being defeated in virtually every match. While the fact that he returned because he simply missed tennis is somewhat romantic, his struggles were sad to see for those fans who only remembered his dominance, especially as he had originally left the game at the top.

A happier tennis comeback story is that of Kim Clijsters who had retired from tennis in 2007 before giving birth to her daughter a year later. Having already won the US Open in 2005, Clijsters would have been forgiven had she enjoyed a well-earned retirement. However, just over a year after giving birth, she became the first wildcard to win the US Open in 2009, as well as the first mother to win a grand slam in almost 30 years. Clijsters followed this remarkable achievement by winning the US Open for a third time in 2010 before capping off a remarkable career by winning the Australian Open in 2011. As comeback tales go, Clijsters’ was a pretty special one.

Cynics will say that athletes such as Bartoli are driven by money whether a quest for more riches, or a need to boost their dwindling finances. This is an accusation that has been levelled at heavyweight boxer David Haye, whose farcical comeback witnessed him knocking out two human punching bags, before suffering an embarrassing defeat to the cruiser-weight Tony Bellew in a fight marred by Haye’s injury. Given his failing body, coupled with the growing dominance of Anthony Joshua, it appears that his mission to regain a heavyweight title is doomed to failure, making fans question what possessed him to attempt to return in the first place.

If Haye’s return has caused people to question whether money was his primary motivation, boxing fans, and indeed the world, were left in no doubt when it came to the ring return of the “retired” Floyd “Money” Mayweather, who defeated “the Notorious” Conor McGregor. It is difficult to count this multi-million dollar fight as a true comeback given that the Irishman had never fought in a professional boxing fight. It was no surprise when Mayweather stopped his opponent in the 10th round of the bout. However, the comeback was undoubtedly a success for the American, with the money made from the fight surely enough to satisfy anyone, even a man who embraces the name “Money” as a badge of honour.

In the world of golf, the word comeback has become almost synonymous with the name of Tiger Woods. After having won the US Open in 2008, despite playing an 18-hole playoff with a ruptured ACL, Woods has launched numerous comebacks in the years since then after layoffs due to both marital infidelity and injury yet has so far failed to recapture the major winning form that led to him being labelled one of the greatest ever to play the game. While some greats are able to walk away from their sport satisfied after long careers, Woods seems incapable of doing so, and is instead limping along, a sad shadow of the player he once was. After each new false dawn in Woods’ career, it becomes harder to watch him attempt to drag himself back to the top of a sport that has clearly moved on.

It is easy to criticise the athletes who attempt to return to sports after months or years out. It should not be forgotten that these athletes are used to being at the pinnacle of their sports and often are not ready to live without this status. One only has to look to the examples of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, who after long barren spells without winning Grand Slam titles have dominated the tennis world for the last 12 months. Many pundits and fans were questioning whether the pair would ever return to the incredible levels they had previously reached, hoping that they would retire at their peaks before they were being regularly defeated by far inferior players. Instead they have returned revitalised and now have the tennis tour at their feet. Given that these two greats have won virtually everything that there is to win, as well as having made all the money that they could ever want, they could have happily retired as legends. It is their desire to win and to be the best that is driving them to create more tennis history.

While fans will inevitably approach any comeback with scepticism, it is important to remember that for every farcical comeback of Borg, Mayweather or Haye, there is a success story like those of Clijsters, Nadal, or Federer. Sporting comebacks are simply a reflection of sport itself: they can sadden, enrage, and appal, but they can also be the most incredible things in the world


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