Rafael Nadal has never been absent from the tour for so long. Away from the courts since late June, the Spaniard still doesn't know when he will come back. Does one come back stronger or weaker after such an extended leave? The recent history of tennis offers two scenarios: those who were never able to regain their former glory; and those returned stronger than ever…
1 / Rafael Nadal - Absent from July 2011 to ?
To learn more about the Hoffa’s syndrome afflicting the Spaniard since March, you have to get a medical dictionary. Hoffa’s syndrome: an inflammation of the fat pad located just behind the patellar tendon. Since his last match, a totally unexpected defeat in the second round of Wimbledon against the Czech Lukas Rosol, the seven-time winner of Roland Garros has, as he says, still not touched a racquet. Unless the organizers of the Bercy Masters choose to convert to clay at the last minute, a come back before the end of 2012 seems very unlikely. Anyway, Nadal warned he would only return with impeccable knees. Will they be ready for Australia? For the U.S. tour? He says that he's not afraid and that he was made to withstand anything. Knowing the phenomenon, we're tempted to believe him.
2 / Björn Borg – Absent from October 1981 to April 1982
A tired star. At the end of the 1981 season, which saw the great John McEnroe put an end to his reign, Björn Borg decided to cast off for a few months. At age 25, after fifteen years entirely devoted to his sport, the Swede finally sowed his oats. Let's party! "This is the first time I feel like a normal person" he said in early ‘82, while detailing his lighter program for the coming weeks. After five months away from tennis, the four times winner of Roland Garros began his season in April at Monte Carlo. An inspired Yannick Noah made him look ridiculous in the quarterfinals: 6-1 6-2 in less than an hour! Borg whistled during the change of side and played the fool. The man with six Roland Garros and five Wimbledon titles wasn't at the races, and never would be again. We understood it immediately. On April 8, 1982, his obituary made the headlines of every newspaper in the world. Without flowers or wreaths.
3/ John McEnroe – Absent from January to August 1986
6 months to breathe. January 1986, disgusted to be "only" number two in the ATP rankings after a perfect 1984 season, "Big Mac" took a break for a semester. A little holiday away from the tour; a wedding in New York with the actress Tatum O'Neal, to whom he gave a first child, and he came back in early August at Stratton Mountain, raring to go. He passed four rounds and lost in the semi-final against Boris Becker, after letting slip four match points and having a few words on the court with the German. "He seemed so sure of himself that it bordered on arrogance, I wanted to show him who was the boss." McEnroe was still electric, but in his absence, his main rivals didn't wait for him to make progress: from 1986 to the end of his career, in 1992, the American would never play another Grand Slam final. His sabbatical leave clearly divided his career into two, the first part marked by success, and the second by a vain search for a time long gone.
4/ Thomas Muster – Absent from March to September 1989
"You think you're strong and then everything collapses in a heartbeat." Thomas Muster, 21, has just qualified for the final of the tournament in Key Biscayne in 1989 when a drunk driver damaged his knee in the parking lot of the stadium. Was his career over? Tennis fans over 30 years old will always remember the wooden chair he built to be able to train with a plaster (and also a little to impress the photographers, let's be honest!). A monster of willpower, Muster came back in September in Barcelona. Robocop and comparisons with other superheroes of the 80s became unavoidable. In French newspaper L'Equipe, Philippe Maria had a laugh about it: "The legend says that the car would never have recovered from the shock and would be rusting in a landfill in Miami Beach. But, Muster, he's okay..." The rest you probably know: after the accident, and despite some periods of doubt, Muster won 39 tournaments, including Roland Garros in 1995.
5/ Juan Martin Del Potro - Absent from January to September 2010
In 2009, the Argentine won the U.S. Open, beating Roger Federer in five sets in the final. Fans and observers then predicted him a great year in 2010. People even thought that he could tame Rafael Nadal on clay. But the idol had a right wrist of clay. In January 2010, he was in so much pain that he had to have surgery. Del Potro would not come back until September, after many more-or-less-crazy rumours about his absence: we heard then that he actually was paralyzed by the pressure after his victory in New York. Since his comeback, the Argentine has returned to the top 10 but has beaten only once a member of the "Big Four" (Novak Djokovic in the bronze-medal match at the Olympics, Editor's note) . In early September, the wound reappeared against the Czech Republic in the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas. And it's time for another indefinite leave. Will we say once again that he’s young and still has all the time in the world?
6/ Richard Krajicek – Absent from November 1993 to April 1994
After five months spent to heal his balsa-wood knees, the giant Richard Krajicek - 6 ft. 5 - began his 1994 season in Barcelona on clay. This was the worst surface for him. He didn't expect anything special, but just to play a game or two... Creating a huge surprise: the serve-volley maestro won the tournament after eliminating his rivals, which included Sergi Bruguera and Carlos Costa! Wimbledon champion in 1996, Krajicek did the same thing at the end of his career when, in July 2002, despite 20 months without playing and an ATP ranking that was no longer scaring anyone (1093rd), he reached the quarter-finals in London in only his second tournament back.
7/ Guy Forget – Absent from May 1993 to April 1994
Suffering from osteoarthritis in his right thigh, Guy Forget went 429 days without winning a tennis match. The Frenchman eventually returned to the highest level, but between his return and the end of his career, in March 1997, he added only one trophy (the tournament in Marseille in 1996, Editor's note) to his mantelpiece.
8/ Mats Wilander – Absent from June 1991 to April 1993
After two years of idleness away from the tour, the Swedish star of the 80s who didn’t seemed very interested anymore tried to return in Atlanta in 1993 just for the fun of it. "This is not a comeback, I only came here because it is close to home." Mats would get back in the game for a while before retiring permanently in 1996, playing nearly sixty tournaments...
9/ Richard Gasquet – Absent from April to August 2009
In 2009, a positive test for cocaine ruined his confidence and earned him a two-and-a-half month suspension. During his punishment, Gasquet stayed at home, arms crossed. "I stopped completely. Didn’t touch a racquet, didn’t jog, didn’t do anything." Today the Frenchman is close to getting back into the top 10! Just a little effort and people will not speak again of his mental fragility or lack of ambition.
10/ Henri Leconte – Absent from January to May 1986
Set aside a meaningless match in Brussels in March. In 1986, his best year, Henri Leconte only started his season in May. In a total blur, patched-up everywhere, awaited nowhere, he won 12 of his first 14 matches, and in quick succession reached the semi-finals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.
By Julien Pichené