Tennis tie-break: The sport's seven greatest ever comebacks

Charlie Eccleshare
Andre Agassi reacts to winning the French Open in 1999 - AFP

In a new series, we celebrate seven of the best or worst from the history of tennis. Roger Federer is in the middle of a scintillating comeback, but he is still short of this group

7. Margaret Court

In purely numbers terms, the legendary Australian Margaret Court cannot be beaten in the pantheon of great comebacks. 

Having retired from tennis aged 24 after winning Wimbledon in 1966 - her 13th grand slam - Court moved back home to Australia to marry her husband Barry, supposedly never to return to the sport. 

Two years later however, Court was back competing and after winning Wimbledon and Australian Open titles in 1969, she pulled off the unfathomable feat of a calendar Grand Slam the following year. 

Margaret Court kisses the Wimbledon winner's plate in 1970

A third straight Australian Open title followed in 1971, before Court fell pregnant by the time she lost the Wimbledon final that year. Naturally, she was almost instantly back competing and after giving birth in 1972, won three majors the following the year. 

It was a similar story in 1975, when Court won the US Open having given birth to a second child a year earlier. 

Court retired in 1977 having enjoyed a nine-year renaissance that took in 11 grand slam singles titles, 10 in the doubles and seven in mixed doubles.

The Aussie finished her career with a still unsurpassed 24 singles slames, though the less said about some of her public statements since retiring the better. 

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6. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni

For overcoming adversity entirely out of her control, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni's story takes some beating. 

The Croat was a hugely talented teenager and reached the Wimbledon semi-final in 1999, at the tender age of 17. Everything was going to plan on the court but off it Lucic-Baroni (or Lucic as she was known then, before marrying Daniele Baroni in 2011) was not in a good place.

Prior to that Wimbledon run, she had fled Croatia to Florida with her mother and four siblings to escape what she claimed was the mental and physical abuse of her father. He denied the allegations.

The emotional turmoil led to the disintegration of Lucic-Baroni's tennis career. Her ranking fell to below 100 within a year of her Wimbledon success, and she effectively quit the sport between 2003 and 2007, playing just two matches between 2004 and 2006. She also became embroiled in a legal battle with her former management company IMG over unpaid loans. The dispute remains unresolved to this day. 

Mirjana Lucic-Baroni has overcome adversity to reach the top

But in 2006, Lucic-Baroni pledged to never give up her dream and that despite her father's alleged abuse she would return to top-level tennis. 

This January, Lucic-Baroni made good on that pledge as after a decade of toil she defeated Karolina Pliskova to reach the Australian Open semi-final, her first slam semi in 18 years at a venue where she had not won a match since January 1998. 

Lucic-Baroni is now up to a ranking of 29, and doing it with the mantra she championed in an court-interview earlier this year: “F everything and everybody, whoever tells you you can’t do it. Just show up and do it with your heart.”

5. Jennifer Capriati

The 'comeback kid' as she was known in the early 2000s took a circuitous route to the top. A prodigiously talented teenager, Capriati graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1990 under the headline "And she's only 13", before reaching the French Open semi-finals later that year having just turned 14. Soon after she became the youngest ever top-10 player. 

It was seen as just a matter of time before the American teenager lifted her maiden major, especially when she won Olympic Gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. 

The following year however Capriati was burned out and suffering with mental health concerns. After a first-round loss at the US Open, she decided to take a break from the sport that ended up lasting 14 months, and saw her arrested for shoplifting and possession of marijuana. 

Capriati played just one competitive match between 1994 and 1995, before making her first tentative steps back on the WTA Tour in 1996.

Jennifer Capriati at the 2004 French Open

Unlike some of the others in this list, Capriati's ascent back to the top was more of a gradual process and it wasn't until 1999 and 2000 that she began to reassert her authority. 

A semi-final appearance at the 2000 Australian Open acted as a springboard to a stellar run that saw Capriati power her way to the Australian Open and French Open titles the following year. 

For a period Capriati was the dominant player on the Tour, and her battles with fellow Americans Lindsay Davenport and Venus and Serena Williams took the game to new heights for strength and athleticism. 

On her day no-one could match Capriati's flamethrower of a forehand, and she added the 2002 Australian Open to her pair of slam titles the previous year. 

Injuries though began to catch up with Capriati, and she was forced to retire in 2004. It has not been an altogether happy retirement, which has seen the American battling depression and dealing with the shoulder injuries that afflicted her throughout her playing career. 

4. Juan Martin Del Potro 

There are few more popular players on the ATP Tour than Juan Martin del Potro, and probably even fewer who have had to overcome the obstacles that he has. 

Requiring wrist surgery once is a nightmare for a tennis player; to require four such operations as Del Potro has is beyond comprehension.

The level of misfortune the Argentine has suffered is part of the reason why only he and Tommy Haas have twice won the ATP's comeback player of the year. 

The first occasion in 2011 was in recognition for Del Potro's original return, having undergone surgery on his right wrist a year earlier, just eight months after he had stunned the tennis world by winning the US Open as a 20 year old. 

In 2011 Del Potro made a steady return to the tour, but his second comeback in 2016 was something altogether more spectacular. 

Del Potro is mobbed after beating Marin Cilic in the 2016 Davis Cup final

Having endured three surgeries on his left wrist between 2014 and 2015, Del Potro embarked on an even more arduous comeback last year. The operations to his left wrist had weakened it substantially and left the Argentine unable to unleash on his backhand, forcing him to pretty much exclusively hit slices on that wing. 

Fortunately for Del Potro his blunderbuss forehand remained as potent as ever, and it propelled him to a miraculous sequence of results. 

At the Rio Olympics he beat Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal before succumbing in an epic final against Andy Murray to claim a silver medal. Del Potro then reached the US Open quarters, and capped a comeback year in the most perfect way possible: almost single-handedly helping Argentina to their first ever Davis Cup title.

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The final could not have been more fitting - Argentina were 2-0 down in the tie against Croatia, but came back to win it as Del Potro battled back from two sets to love down against Marin Cilic in front of a partisan Zagreb crowd. 

Del Potro, with typical showmanship, could barely move by the end, but he had gone from fearing he would never play the sport again at the start of the year to the finest moment of his career by the end of it.

What's more, he had done it with one hand effectively tied behind his back.  

3. Kim Clijsters

It's one thing coming back from injury to compete at the top level, but it's quite another to come back from giving birth to win a grand slam, let alone at your first grand slam back. But that is precisely what Belgium's Kim Clijsters did eight years ago with her stunning US Open final win over Caroline Wozniacki

"Modern tennis has never had a comeback story like this; who ever thought it would be possible to combine changing nappies with winning slams?" reported The Telegraph at the time. 

Clijsters, a former world No 1, had not competed in a major for more than two years, and the US Open was only her third tournament since returning to the sport. 

Kim Clijsters at Wimbledon in 2005

No-one had given her a chance of lifting the title in New York, and she had needed a wildcard to even enter the event, which she had last played in 2005. 

Proving that the win was no fluke, Clijsters successfully defended her title the following year and won the Australian Open in 2011 to ensure she won three slams as a mother, compared to just one before. 

No mother has won a grand slam since, but a shout out to Australia's Evonne Goolagong who was the previous mum to win one when she triumphed at Wimbledon in 1980. 

2. Andre Agassi

In the mid-1990s, the hugely popular American Andre Agassi experienced an existential crisis. Forced into tennis from as young as he could remember by his overbearing father Mike, Agassi was sick of the sport and by 1997 he had suffered a spectacular fall. 

Having been the world No 1 a year earlier, Agassi played just 24 matches in 1997 and his ranking was down at 141 by the November of that year. Off the court Agassi was spiralling out of control, as his marriage to Brooke Shields fell apart and he later admitted to taking Crystal Meth. 

It was presumed that this was the end of Agassi's tennis career, and that his supporters would have to be content with the memories of those swashbuckling early days when he shook up the sport with his bandana and denim shorts.

Agassi competing at Wimbledon in 1999 

But Agassi was not done.  In 1999 he began an extraordinary comeback that saw him complete the career Grand Slam with an improbable French Open win having been two sets to love down in the final against Andriy Medvedev. Soon after, Agassi began dating Steffi Graf, and his contentment off the court was matched by a new-found serenity on it. 

Agassi was on a roll, and having won three slams prior to his return, he was now picking them up with carefree abandon, winning his eighth and final major at the Australian Open in 2003 aged 32. 

Having fallen out of love with the sport, Agassi ended up playing until the ripe old age of 36, bowing out at the 2006 US Open. 

In the space of a decade he had gone from the sport's lost soul to one of its finest ever players. 

1. Monica Seles

To give a sense of just how good Monica Seles was in her teenage years, put it this way: no-one before or since has been so dominant at such a young age. 

Between the age of 16 and 19 Seles was pretty much unbeatable, winning eight major titles and holding the top ranking for more than 100 weeks. Even Steffi Graf admitted that when Seles was on song, there was little anyone could do to stop her. 

Playing with two hands on both wings and grunting loudly as she thundered away winner after winner, Seles was a phenomenon and unlike anything the sport had seen before. At the rate she was going, Seles was on course to be the greatest player in the history of tennis. 

But on April 30 1993 a 19-year-old Seles suffered a tragedy from which she would never fully recover. Playing against Magdalena Maleeva in Hamburg, Seles was stabbed in the back at a change of ends by a deranged Graf fan - an unemployed 38-year-old German named Gunter Parche wielding a serrated knife. 

Monica Seles at Wimbledon in 1997

Thankfully the blade missed Seles's vital organs, but while the physical wounds healed, the psychological ones did not. Seles never fully recovered, but managed to return to the tennis court after 27 months away in August 1995, and miraculously win one last grand slam at the 1996 Australian Open. 

Seles's courage to return to the court was remarkable, especially as her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer in the middle of her two years away from the sport. Added to that, she was dismayed by the laughably lenient two-year suspended sentence given to the man who had attacked her, and was treated shabbily by her peers who voted down a proposal to let Seles keep her number-one ranking during her recuperation. 

Seles was never the same player, or person, again but the bravery to come back at all was staggering, and to claim another major title was a testament to her talent and ferocious will to win. 

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