Thiem, Wawrinka, and Other Comebacks Starting at Challengers

By Damian Kust

In an extremely exciting week of ATP Challenger Tour action, the headline is undoubtedly the comebacks of Dominic Thiem and Stan Wawrinka. Instead of kicking off from a big event like Monte Carlo, the two decided to start at the AnyTech365 Andalucia Open, otherwise known as the Marbella Challenger, one of the most stacked events of the year on the ATP’s secondary circuit. Let’s take a look at some of the top players that have also made returns from injury at Challenger events in the past.

Andre Agassi – 1997 Las Vegas, Burbank

In 1997, Andre Agassi’s career was at a low point. The American was struggling with a wrist injury, started using crystal methamphetamine, and had a number of personal issues in his marriage with actress Brooke Shields, losing interest in the sport a fair bit. By the end of October, Agassi had only played 24 matches all year and his ranking fell to World No. 141. That’s when he decided to find his form back through playing a couple of ATP Challenger Tour events.

“I’m ranked 141 in the world, the lowest I’ve been ranked in my adult life. (…) Sportswriters say I’m humbled. They love saying this. They couldn’t be more wrong. I was humbled in the hotel room with Brad [Gilbert], I was humbled smoking meth with Slim. Now I’m just glad to be out here.” writes Agassi in his autobiography Open. “Brad feels the same way. He doesn’t feel anything demeaning about the Challenger. (…) He’s excited for this Challenger, he’s coaching me as if we’re at Wimbledon. He doesn’t doubt that this is step one on the road all the way back to number one.”

Over nineteen days in November 1997, Agassi played nine matches, getting to the final in Las Vegas and winning his only title at that level at Burbank. “I reach the final, and then my mind gives out. Shaking from the pressure, the strangeness, the ridicule from the stands, I lose,” he wrote in Open. Despite getting defeated by then World No. 202 Christian Vinck in the championship match of the former event, this decision granted him plenty of playtime and sparked his inner fire for tennis again.

Due to his lack of form, Agassi missed a Davis Cup tie against Sweden, playing in Burbank instead. “It’s sad, but appropriate that I’m not there. I don’t belong there. I belong here, under this ridiculous courtside tree. Unless I can accept that I’m where I’m supposed to be, I’ll never belong there again,” Open details.

The next season fans saw a completely different side of Agassi, who wasn’t quite at his best yet, but still finished the year ranked in the top 10. It all led to the phenomenal 1999 campaign, which saw the American’s only finish as the year-end No. 1 and his completion of the Career Grand Slam. 

Kei Nishikori – 2018 Newport Beach, Dallas

Over twenty years later, Kei Nishikori decided to go for a similar two-week stretch to start his season. The Japanese had been sidelined for a few months due to a wrist injury and while his ranking was nowhere near as low as Agassi’s (24th), he asked for wildcards to ATP Challenger Tour events in Newport Beach and Dallas to get some form going. These were his first appearances on that circuit since 2010.

The first attempt was a rather spectacular flop as Nishikori lost to World No. 238 Dennis Novikov in the opening round, but having a safety net paid off dividends. Despite drawing the same opponent in Dallas round one again, the Japanese was already a different version of himself, beating not only Novikov but eventually going on to clinch the title. What happened in the long run? Nishikori would go on to have a great 2018 campaign, reaching the finals at Monte Carlo, Tokyo, Vienna, making the semifinals of the U.S. Open, and qualifying for the ATP Finals in London.

Andy Murray – 2019 Mallorca

Andy Murray played two more Challenger events in 2021, but let’s focus on the one that helped him kick-start the comeback that sees him back in the top 100 today. After his “retirement” at the 2019 Australian Open (which now has to be considered non-canon), the Brit first played doubles only in the grass-court season that year, before going out in the opening rounds at Cincinnati and Winston-Salem, his first two singles tournaments since Melbourne.

But instead of playing the U.S. Open, Murray chose to compete in a Challenger event in Mallorca. Ranked World No. 328 back then, the 3-time Grand Slam champion received a wildcard to the main draw, competing in a tournament at this level for the first time since 2005. 

While it wasn’t a complete success (a third-round exit to Matteo Viola), Murray won two matches and impressed particularly by defeating Norbert Gombos, seeded second for the event. “I think I did well, it was a tough match,” said Murray after the win. “He hits his shots very hard, so I had to do quite a lot of moving and defending…I don’t play tomorrow, so that’s nice to get a day to rest and recover. That’s important at this stage of my comeback.” It proved Murray still had something to show and by the end of 2019, the Brit had a spectacular run at the ATP 250 event in Antwerp, defeating Stan Wawrinka in the final, which ties nicely to the current events in Andalucia. 

Dominic Thiem, Stan Wawrinka – 2022 Marbella

Following in the footsteps of Agassi, Nishikori, and Murray, Dominic Thiem and Stan Wawrinka chose to launch their comebacks at the Challenger event in Marbella. The Austrian hadn’t played in nine months, healing a wrist injury. With plenty of points still in the ATP Rankings, Thiem was top-seeded for the event. 

Wawrinka had to undergo two foot surgeries and hadn’t played since March 2021. The Swiss is currently sitting at World No. 232 and required a wildcard to get into the main draw of the event. Eight years older than Thiem, it’s his ability to bounce back and reach the top level again that’s under a bigger question mark. “I see that I still have what it takes to be able in the future, if things go well in the other areas, to hang on against [the] best and win matches.

“[But] I’m not where I want to be in terms of fitness yet but my body allows me to push three to four hour training days,” he commented to a Swiss newspaper Le Matin, after practicing with the Austrian on Monday. “There with Thiem, it was two hours of high intensity and the level was there, now we will have to do it in matches, repeat it day after day. This is the goal for the next few weeks, see how the foot reacts in competition, as emotions cause the body to behave differently.” The Swiss came out on top in the friendly practice match. 

Unlike Thiem, Wawrinka competed in a Challenger event quite recently – that’s the way he chose to grab form after the tour restarted from a pandemic break in August 2020. After struggling in the early rounds at Prague, the Swiss defeated Aslan Karatsev in the final and was supposed to face him again in the quarterfinals the week after, but opted to withdraw. 

How did they fare?

Wawrinka was the first one to enter the Estadio Manolo Santana, playing Elias Ymer in his first-round match. The Swiss kicked off with a series of mistimed one-handed backhands and gave away the opening set mostly on his own errors. He was able to find more margin in his groundstrokes early on in the second though, going up 4-1 and a double break. 

However, his consistency was understandably off and with Ymer raising his level again, Wawrinka wasn’t able to take even one more game. The Swede chased down a few incredible shots and returned more aggressively to break the veteran three times in a row. The 37-year-old will need to look at this match this way: he got an hour and a half of quality practice. 

Thiem and Wawrinka after a practice at the Marbella Challenger. Screenshot: Jérémy Santallo

Thiem’s display was a little more of a shock – not only did he draw an easier opponent, Pedro Cachin, but as he’s significantly younger than Wawrinka, he was expected to handle the lay-off much better. The overall dynamics of their matches were similar though – lots of struggling to get the basics right with moments of brilliance in-between. Thiem went down 0-5 in the opening set and hit a stunning patch of play that made you believe he would come back, but the improvement soon faded away. He, too, lost in straight sets.

Both Ymer and Cachin deserve applause for treating these matches exactly like they would against opponents without Grand Slam titles on their resume. They executed their games very well and focused on staying consistent in it, which is always a good idea against rusty rivals. Neither one stumbled with the finish line in sight either – when you have a great player on the ropes, you gotta finish the job as soon as possible. 

Perhaps the constant injury comebacks of superhumans like the Big Three created some unrealistic expectations about other top players. Thiem and Wawrinka clearly have a long way to go before they compete at their best level again. Even if they didn’t exactly get the match rhythm they wanted from Marbella, it’s probably still for the best that they tried a Challenger first. Imagine them starting at Monte Carlo, where almost every single player in the draw will be even better than Cachin or Ymer. That could have been a disaster. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: