Tennis’s minor leagues are still a significant challenge. The newest evidence arrived on Tuesday in Marbella, Spain, where Stan Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem, two of the sport’s biggest achievers, launched a dual comeback at a low-level Challenger Tour event.
Neither had played in far too long, and neither won a set against players ranked outside the highest 100, with Wawrinka losing, 6-2, 6-4, to Elias Ymer of Sweden, and Thiem following them to the essential stadium and losing, 6-3, 6-4, to Pedro Cachin of Argentina.
“These guys, even on the challenger tour, their level is amazingly high, and as you well know the difference between being 150 or being 50 on the planet, there’s not an enormous difference in tennis level,” said Daniel Vallverdu, Wawrinka’s coach. “Most of it’s mental and luck.”
It was indeed a reality check for Wawrinka and Thiem, who once were ranked as high as No. 3 and are amongst the valuable few to have made a splash in an era otherwise dominated by Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.
Thiem, 28, won the 2020 U.S. Open, becoming the primary player outside the Big Three to win a Grand Slam singles title in 4 years. Wawrinka, who turned 37 on Monday, has won three Grand Slam singles titles, joining Andy Murray because the only man outside the Big Three to have won multiple major singles titles within the last 20 years.
But Thiem and Wawrinka are each removed from their peaks, and Tuesday’s quick exits were a reminder of how far each has to go. Wawrinka had not played a match for nearly a 12 months; Thiem for nearly nine months.
“Rusty can be the word,” said Mark Petchey, the previous ATP player who has coached Murray. “Challengers are a rough place.”
It’s rare to see a star like Wawrinka or Thiem at this level, but hardly unprecedented. Andre Agassi dropped down and played two Challenger events at the top of the 1997 season when his rating had fallen to No. 141. He used the experience as a constructing block to reconstruct his profession, eventually returning to No. 1. His longevity was a model for this generation of putting up with champions.
In his autobiography, “Open,” Agassi wrote that a tour official had likened his Challenger appearances to Bruce Springsteen playing a corner bar.
“What’s improper with Springsteen playing a corner bar?” Agassi wrote.
Nothing in any respect, so long as the corner bar is filled with fans thrilled by their success. Tuesday’s vibe in Marbella was removed from electric, with the stands within the essential Manolo Santana Stadium lower than half full for each Wawrinka’s and Thiem’s matches. On average, only about 4,000 viewers were watching the livestream made available by the tour, but those numbers underplay the importance of Wawrinka and Thiem returning to motion.
At different phases of their careers, with nine years between them, they’re in similarly gray areas relating to their futures.
Wawrinka, affected by long-term pain in his left foot, finally decided that he could take no more and underwent two surgeries, the primary in March 2021 after which a second, more significant procedure in June that involved work on his Achilles’ tendon. Thiem, who takes particularly aggressive cuts at his groundstrokes, injured his right wrist during a grass-court tournament on the Spanish island of Mallorca in June but didn’t resort to surgery, opting as an alternative for immobilization with a splint and extensive rehabilitation.
He has repeatedly delayed his comeback, finally selecting to return on the red clay that continues to be his favorite surface. But considered one of Thiem’s strengths has been his ability to thrive in prolonged rallies, and on Tuesday his baseline game kept breaking down. He lost the primary five games to the 228th-ranked Cachin before recovering and making it a match, however the frustration was audible down the stretch as he lectured himself, gesticulated between points and remained unable to interrupt Cachin’s serve down the stretch.
Wawrinka was sluggish in the beginning as well, misfiring along with his signature one-handed backhand. He briefly found his range early within the second set, going up two service breaks against the 131st-ranked Ymer. But Ymer, far quicker across the clay, reeled Wawrinka in by sweeping the last five games.
“Obviously it from the skin it looks different, but for me and for Stan this match is a big step in the best direction,” Vallverdu said by telephone. “The goal within the last six to eight weeks was to get back on court and to have the opportunity to do this without enthusiastic about the body or any injuries. The very fact he’s in a position to play knowledgeable tennis match again is a big step considering where he was about three months ago where from our perspective we didn’t even know if he would have the opportunity to play again.”
Wawrinka has said he didn’t wish to end his profession with an injury, just like what Federer, his friend and Swiss compatriot, has said as he tries to work his way back at age 40 from his latest knee surgery and long layoff. For now, the one major winner on this golden era who has bid farewell, nonetheless informally, is Juan Martin del Potro. Even Andy Murray, with a synthetic hip joint, plays on and has rehired Ivan Lendl as his coach to assist him get essentially the most out of his remaining years.
“I believe for somebody like Stan, the undeniable fact that the opposite guys are still around is certainly an element,” Vallverdu said. “I believe if one or two of them quit, it should have a little bit of a domino effect.”
Wawrinka only resumed practicing on a court at the top of February, and, with the pandemic hiatus on tour in 2020, he has played few matches over the past three seasons. His next stop can be the Monte Carlo Masters, where he has a wild card and where the sphere, featuring a lot of the top 10, can be significantly stronger than in Marbella. Thiem plans to be there, too, after playing in next week’s tournament in Marrakesh, Morocco.
But evaluating their comebacks will take quite a bit longer. They need competition. They need the boldness that their bodies and shots will delay on the points that matter most.