Loss of form. Injuries. Loss of form brought on by injuries. They can all, among other things, cause a tennis player to experience a drop in the rankings.
To be a professional tennis player, though, one must subscribe to the notion that after a fall, the only way to go is up.
The question, though, is what’s the best way to get there?
For an established player,is it going back through the ITF or Challenger circuits to get in match play and build confidence? Or is it by taking advantage of wild cards into ATP and WTA main draws—even though there’s a risk of facing a top seed or someone more battle-tested early on?
Last week, we saw examples of both approaches. Former Australian Open semifinalist Hyeon Chung started this season ranked in the Top 25, but he didn’t make it through February, as a back injury sent him to the sidelines. Returning to the court at a Challenger event in Chengdu, China, and ranked 166th in the world, the Korean proceeded to win the tournament. And although Chung he faced only one opponent ranked higher than him in the standings, the 23-year-old won five consecutive matches for the first time since that Melbourne run more than a year ago.
Hyeon Chung, champion in Chengdu. (Getty Images)
While Chung was playing in China, Jack Sock was contesting his second consecutive tournament on home soil, at the ATP 500-level event in Washington, D.C., in the first steps of his comeback after a hand injury took him out of action for the bulk of the season. Sock lost his opening match in Atlanta to the Serbian teen Miomir Kecmanovic in two tiebreak sets the previous week, and in Washington, the American fell to Jordan Thompson in straight sets, putting his record for the year at 0-3.
Both Kecmanovic and Thompson are in the midst of career seasons, and would have been a tough out for a number of players. Before his injury this year, Sock went through 2018 in an inexplicable slump that saw his ranking plummet from the Top 10 to the triple digits. He’s even further outside of the Top 100 now, down to No. 176.
Despite his current place in the standings, Sock is still a top draw at events held in the U.S., and is certainly deserving of wild cards, given the feats he’s accomplished in his still-young career.
At the same as the Citi Open in D.C., a Challenger was held on U.S. soil in Lexington, Ky. It was won by the youngster Jannik Sinner, who defeated Alex Bolt (Sock’s Melbourne conqueror this year) in the final. Was that tournament a better option option for Sock, to begin working his way back to his 2017 form? The tournament's top seed was Peter Polansky, ranked No. 147 in the world.
Jack Sock, first-round casualty in Atlanta and D.C. (Getty Images)
Chung and Sock illustrate the different paths on the pro-tennis comeback trail, each with their own sets of obstacles and considerations. It's more difficult to earn substantial ranking points in Challengers; it's more difficult to win matches on the main tour. Juan Martin del Potro, the 2009 US Open champion, has experienced more setbacks than the majority of his peers, but usually returns to action when he’s ready to test the waters of ATP main-draw play.
Kei Nishikori has gone the opposite route a few times over the course of his career, most recently in 2018. After being forced to shut down his 2017 campaign early, Japan’s top-ranked male started the next year at a Challenger event in Newport Beach, Calif., where American Dennis Novikov, ranked more than 200 spots below him, defeated him in the first round. The two met a week later in the first round in Dallas, where Nishikori turned the tables, going on from there to win the title. He ended the year back in the Top 10.
Perhaps the most famous instance of a player going back to tennis' “minor leagues” happened in 1997, when Andre Agassi—who had reached No. 1 the first time only two years earlier—had fallen all the way down to No. 141 in the world. Deciding with his coach at the time, Brad Gilbert, to start fresh, Agassi reached the final at a Challenger in his hometown of Las Vegas, then won the following week in California.
A year later, Agassi was back among the Top 8, and at the end of 1999, he No. 1 once again, having captured two majors and completed the career Grand Slam at the French Open.
The American’s run could serve notice to any player that taking a step back is more than a viable option in working their way toward the top again. Jumping in both feet first can pay off as well—where and when the diving is done, though, is crucial to a successful return.