The returns of Wawrinka and Thiem will have to continue

Minor league tennis is always a major challenge. The latest evidence came in Marbella, Spain on Tuesday, where Stan Wawrinka and Domini...


Minor league tennis is always a major challenge. The latest evidence came in Marbella, Spain on Tuesday, where Stan Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem, two of the game’s greatest players, threw a double comeback in a low-level Challenger Tour event.

Neither had played for too long, and neither had won a set against players ranked outside the top 100, with Wawrinka losing, 6-2, 6-4, to Elias. Ymer of Sweden, and Thiem following them to the main stage and losing, 6-3, 6-4, to Pedro Cachin of Argentina.

“These guys, even on the challenger circuit, their level is extremely high, and as you well know the difference between being 150 or being 50 in the world, there is not a huge difference in level of tennis “, said Daniel Vallverdu, Wawrinka’s coach. “Most of the time it’s mental and luck.”

It was indeed a reality check for Wawrinka and Thiem, who were once ranked No. 3 and are among the few to have caused a stir in an era otherwise dominated by Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

Thiem, 28, won the US Open 2020becoming the first player outside of the Big Three to win a Grand Slam singles title in four years. Wawrinkawho turned 37 on Monday, has won three Grand Slam singles titles, joining Andy Murray as the only man outside the Big Three to have won multiple major singles titles in the past 20 years.

But both Thiem and Wawrinka are off their peaks, and Tuesday’s fast outings served as a reminder of just how far each must go. Wawrinka hadn’t played a game in almost a year; Thiem for almost nine months.

It showed.

“Rusty would be the word,” said Mark Petchey, the former ATP player who coached Murray. “The challengers are a tough place.”

It’s rare to see a star like Wawrinka or Thiem at this level, but far from unheard of. Andre Agassi dropped out and played two Challenger events at the end of the 1997 season when his ranking had fallen to No. 141. He used the experience as a cornerstone to rebuild his career, eventually returning to No. 1. His longevity was a role model for this generation of enduring champions.

In his autobiography, “Open”, Agassi wrote that a tour official compared his Challenger appearances to Bruce Springsteen playing at a local bar.

“What’s wrong with Springsteen playing at a local bar?” Agassi wrote.

Nothing at all, as long as the local bar is filled with fans delighted with their good fortune. Tuesday’s atmosphere in Marbella was far from electric, with the stands at the main Manolo Santana stadium less than half full for Wawrinka and Thiem’s ​​games. On average, only around 4,000 viewers watched the live stream made available by the tour, but those numbers understate the significance of Wawrinka and Thiem’s ​​return to action.

At different phases of their careers, nine years apart, they find themselves in similar gray areas when it comes to their future.

Wawrinka, suffering from long-lasting pain in his left foot, finally decided he couldn’t take it anymore and underwent two surgeries, the first in March 2021 and then a second larger procedure in June which involved work on his tendon. of Achilles. Thiem, who takes particularly aggressive cuts to his groundstrokes, injured his right wrist during a grass-court tournament on the Spanish island of Mallorca in June but did not have surgery, opting instead for immobilization with a splint and extensive rehabilitation.

He has repeatedly delayed his return, finally choosing to return to red clay which remains his favorite surface. But one of Thiem’s ​​strengths has been his ability to thrive in extended rallies, and on Tuesday his baseline game continued to crumble. He lost the first five games to 228th-ranked Cachin before recovering and making it a game, but the frustration was audible on the stretch as he lectured himself, gesticulated between the points and remained unable to break the Cachin service on the section.

Wawrinka was also slow at first, missing with his one-handed backhand. He briefly found his range early in the second set, increasing two service breaks against 131st-placed Ymer. But Ymer, much quicker on clay, brought Wawrinka back sweeping the last five games.

“Obviously from the outside it looks different, but for me and for Stan this game is a huge step in the right direction,” Vallverdu said by phone. “The goal for the last six to eight weeks was to get back on the court and be able to do it without thinking about the body or the injuries. The fact that he is able to play a professional tennis match again is a huge step. held from where he was about three months ago where, from our perspective, we didn’t even know if he would be able to play again.

Wawrinka said he didn’t want to end his career with an injury, similar to what his friend and fellow Swiss Federer said as he tried to return to 40 after his last knee surgery and long layoff walk. So far, the only big winner from that golden age to have said goodbye, even informally, is Juan Martin del Potro. Even Andy Murray, with an artificial hip joint, is playing and has rehired Ivan Lendl as a coach to help him make the most of his remaining years.

“I think for someone like Stan, the fact that the other guys are always there is definitely a factor,” Vallverdu said. “I think if one or two of them give up, it will have a bit of a domino effect.”

Wawrinka only returned to training on a pitch at the end of February and, with the pandemic break on tour in 2020, he has played few matches over the past three seasons. His next stop will be the Monte Carlo Masters, where he has a wild card and where the field, with most of the top 10s, will be significantly stronger than in Marbella. Thiem plans to be there too after taking part in next week’s tournament in Marrakech, Morocco.

But evaluating their feedback will take a bit longer. They need competition. They need to be sure that their body and their shots will hold up on the most important points.

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