Career, Interrupted

Wednesday, October 16, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

If you weren’t paying close attention, you could read this first-round result from the Swedish Open as just another routine case of an inspired local player playing out of his gourd on a fast indoor court and demolishing an over-matched and out-gunned South American clay-court specialist.

The scoreline said: Joachim Johansson (SWE) d. Alejandro Falla (COL), 6-1, 6-3

Is that the same Johansson who assumed a high rank on the all-time list of “one-Slam wonders” when he won the 2002 Australian Open, or the son of one of those hockey-playing Johanssons, or some relative of former World Heavyweight boxing champ Ingemar Johansson? 

None of the above. It’s the 31-year-old tennis player formerly known as “Pim Pim,” who was once ranked No. 9 in the world but hadn’t played a pro match since his appearance at a Swiss Futures tournament in March 2011. This is the same Johansson who set the record for most aces in a match (since shattered) when he popped out 51 of them in a fourth-round, four-set loss to Andre Agassi at the 2005 Australian Open. He’s the man who, in his previous 2006 comeback at Stockholm, knocked off a kid named Rafael Nadal—in straight sets no less.

You just know you had a screwy career if you’ve made a comeback at the same tournament two different times, seven years apart.

Oh, and do you remember that Johansson was dating Jaslyn Hewitt at the time her brother Lleyton ended the Swede’s best run at a Grand Slam (U.S. Open semifinals)? It’s all there on YouTube, including Kim Clijsters sitting in Hewitt’s guest box, cheering on the man she was dating. Ah, memories:

Don’t be shocked if Johansson goes deep in Stockholm this week, because his ferocious, power-based game doesn’t require great stamina, and his serve still is so big it ought to require a permit to use. This guy was Tomas Berdych before the Czech came on the tour, but at 6'6" he hits the ball even harder. 

Lest you think he’s just some big galoot who lumbers around raining down the aces, Johansson also owns a one-handed backhand that might wean some of you romantics off your Gasquet-Dimitrov obsession. He’s one of the most flexible big men ever to swing a racquet.

Should Johansson have a good tournament—say, quarterfinals or better—perhaps he’ll change his mind about this tournament being a lark, and make a dedicated effort to squeeze another year or two out of his career. Having him back, silly nickname and all (Pim Pim is also the name of a popular pellet candy in Sweden), would be a nice addition to the tour, particularly during the indoor season when he could blow people right off the court with that serve. 

Johansson’s woeful tale of injuries rivals that of Brian Baker. Within weeks of that aforementioned loss to Agassi, Johansson cracked the Top 10. But after a breakthrough win at Marseilles, Johansson won only five matches in his next dozen tournaments. Plagued by a shoulder that had gone bad (do not think there isn’t a price to pay for hitting 51 aces in a single match), he elected to have surgery shortly after Wimbledon. He had just turned 23 when he went under the knife. 

In 2006, Johansson sallied forth with a world ranking of No. 254 to play San Jose and then missed a few months, hitting rock bottom at No. 1,171. But he blasted his way back up through the ranks, and in his final two events of the year (Stockholm and the Madrid Masters, which was a fall hard-court event at the time) posted wins over Nadal, Juan Martin del Potro, and Nikolay Davydenko (then No. 5). 

The following year, Johansson played just two tournaments before he underwent surgery on his right shoulder, again. He was out until the Sweden vs. United States Davis Cup tie in September, where he lost the only singles match he played, to Andy Roddick—who lost to Johansson in the 2004 U.S. Open quarterfinals. In what seems an apt symbol of his star-crossed career, Johansson won one match in Stockholm in 2007, but then had to give Ivo Karlovic a walkover because he got sick.

Disgusted, hurt, and fearing that he might end up crippled for life, Johansson said there was “no option” but to retire in early 2008. After all, he had not played his best tennis, or at anything near 100 percent fitness, since he was a mere 22 years old. However, Johansson had a change of heart later in the year, declared his shoulder healed, and took a wild card into—where else?—Stockholm. He had a win over Nicolas Mahut but lost in the second round to David Nalbandian.

Over the ensuing two years, Johansson popped up here and there to log upsets over the likes of Hewitt and Juan Monaco. But his problems persisted and he retired, ostensibly for good, in 2011 with a ranking somewhere in the four digits. 

Meanwhile, that other Johansson, Thomas, retired and went on to become the tournament director at Stockholm. A few weeks ago, knowing that his namesake was in good shape and eager to test himself, Thomas offered Joachim a wild card into the Stockholm qualifying event. At the time, Thomas said, “I know he is eager to play it and it looks like he will attempt to qualify.”

And qualify he did, after which he knocked off Falla. So here we are again, in the midst of a Joachim Johansson comeback. It feels just like old times, right? And is it just me, or are all those coincidences and overlapping narratives especially poignant?

Whatever the case, Johansson is playing Milos Raonic tomorrow, and that’s going to be a real treat for anyone who enjoys a good rock fight, or just watching things explode.

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