LOS ANGELES—Thirty days. If all goes well – and a lot still can go wrong – Taylor Dent will be back hitting tennis balls in a mere thirty days.
“I can’t wait,” Dent said, moments after completing his daily rehab routine. “I’m desperate to get back out there.”
Dent recently underwent his third back surgery since May 2006. Doctors are optimistic – so far, the back appears to be mending like it should, and Dent has been given the green light to begin his rehabilitation.
“The news from the doctor was good. Things are healing nicely. We’ve done a week of low-impact work and it’s going well,” said Dent, who now lives in Orange Country, Calif., with his wife, former pro Jenny Hopkins.
The American is more than ready for his second chance – like a race car, he’s revving his engines and waiting for the race to begin.
But he’s been there before, only to stall at the starting line. So while the 26-year-old wants to believe the nightmare is over, he’s still cautious.
Over the next couple of weeks, he’ll up the ante with more strenuous work – a bit of running, some light weights. If things continue to progress, Dent’s doctor will allow him back onto the tennis court, where he’s anxious to be.
Since his first, unsuccessful back surgery, Dent has tried to avoid reminders of the tour. Watching from the sidelines is painful. “Toughest time of the year for me is during the US Open. Especially this year, with the commentating that I did,” he said.
“I’d sit there and think, that should be me out there, competing, mixing it up. Watching up close the guys that I’d beaten, [seeing them] doing well… it was frustrating.”
Like many an injured player before him, he realized that the tour doesn’t slow down for the weak or invalid. Guys that Dent used to hang with – Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish, the Bryan brothers – have all fallen out of touch. But Dent doesn’t reproach them.
“I was out there. I know how it is. You get a break and you want to just chill out. You reach the off-season and you want to hang with your family”
The one tour player Dent is still in close contact with is Jan-Michael Gambill, also suffering from his own chronic injury problems.
Gambill has migrated towards coaching while he’s been sidelined, and has expressed a real interest in coaching Dent once he’s back on the tour.
“We’ve talked about it. It’s too soon to say for sure, but we’ve talked about it,” Dent said.
It would be a logical fit. At this point in his career, Dent is comfortable with his game and isn’t looking for a coach to retool his strokes. His serve, when he can hit it, is one of the best on the tour. Likewise for his volley. What he wants is a supportive voice in his ear from someone who’s been there and has real-time, first-hand experience.
“I’ve been through so many ups and downs with coaches,” said Dent. “I’ve realized that I need more of a buddy out there. Someone to take the edge off while I’m traveling, someone. I also need someone who can play, someone I can hit with.”
What’s more, Dent’s two weak spots – his ground strokes and his movement – are both areas where Gambill has excelled.
The real question mark is still physical. Dent has been hampered by back issues for about as long as he can remember. As the physical nature of the tour began to take its toll, Dent began to receive injections for the pain – occasional, at first, and soon regular.
Then, the tolerable became unbearable. At a tournament in Rotterdam in early 2006, Dent pulled out after feeling a disturbing “twinge” in his back and hobbled home for another injection. This time, the pain didn’t subside. After no fewer than ten fruitless injections, Dent realized the problem had progressed to the next level. He had a fractured vertebrae, and it had to be dealt with.
Dent tried surgery for the first time – “a minor procedure” – in May of 2006. That didn’t help either. He went under the knife for a second time in March of 2007. A compound was inserted in and around the fractured vertebrae to promote bone growth. Unfortunately, the fracture was too large and too far along. The material never took hold.
After months of frustration and pain, Dent and his doctor decided to try once again, this time with a similar, but more involved procedure. The vertebrae were fastened with screws and small bars, and the bone-growth compound was again inserted into that area.
The doctor, based in west Los Angeles, was pleased with the surgery. Dent wasn’t so sure. For weeks after the September operation, the pain was excruciating. “I’d go walking for an hour, then spend the rest of the day in bed,” he said.
But slowly, the pain began to subside. Routine movements no longer hurt and Dent began to hope against hope.
Now, he’s recovered enough to start allowing himself the opportunity to plan a comeback. “Two, maybe three months of training. Then start with the futures. See how those go, then move on to challengers,” he said.
He’ll resist the temptation to jump into ATP events straightaway. “I could ask some tournament directors I know for wildcards, but I don’t want to put them in that position. Not until I know how I’m playing.”
Dent, who last played a professional match in February of 2006, still holds a protected ranking. He hopes that’ll help accelerate his reemergence on the tour. “You can use it nine times, so you don’t want to waste them. I’ll pick my spots”
He’s even been talking to Wilson about changing racquets “for a little more pop.”
New coach, new schedule, new racquet – it sounds like the Taylor Dent comeback is moving forward.
Anyway, I hope Taylor can heal up and get back out on court again. He may never be the same player that he was before, but I always prefer to see players go out on their own terms, with some control over the decision.
Those who organize and host the annual Pro Tennis Invitational Tournament at the Country Club of Spartanburg (South Carolina) focus on improving the event each year.
For the 20th edition, they have taken the event to yet another level.
The festivities will span five days - April 23-27 - and include much more than rackets, nets and balls. The event's theme will be "Back to Wimbledon," a tribute to the sport's most prestigious championship.
"We wanted to take the tennis level up and back to Wimbledon, being more proper," said Kerin Hannah, the tournament chairman. "We're trying to raise the bar quite high and show the Upstate we can really do a phenomenal tournament in Spartanburg."
Events planned include ladies' high tea, an outdoor barbecue, a Wimbledon's White Night, and Night at an English Tavern.
Players expected to attend include accomplished professionals Pat Cash, Jimmy Arias and Justin Gimelstob.
Tournament officials announced Thursday that a last-minute addition to the field will be Taylor Dent, who was ranked as high as 21st in the world in 2005, and will be making his pro return with the Spartanburg event. He was sidelined last year with a shoulder injury. Dent has won four pro singles tennis titles in his career.
Cash won Wimbledon in 1987 and was ranked as high as No. 4 in the world.
Arias ascended as high as fifth in the rankings and is now a commentator for the Tennis Channel.
Gimelstob, who retired from full-time tennis last year, is known as "the most quotable guy on the ATP Tour."
"We are very excited to feature the talent of Cash, Arias and Gimelstob in this year's tournament," CCS head tennis pro Cornelius Jordan said in a release. "The field will not only be a lot of fun to watch but will have a lot of character, too."
Funds benefit children
All proceeds raised will again go to The Boys & Girls Club of the Upstate. More than $35,000 was raised during last year's tournament.
"Basically that's half the cost of the club for the whole year," said Greg Tolbert, president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Upstate.
"We serve 100 kids every day throughout the year. So financially, this event means a whole lot to us," he said.
Besides that, it introduces children the club serves to a sport they wouldn't normally get to experience.
"It exposes my kids to tennis, and we use that as momentum to use (the sport) in clubs throughout the year," Tolbert said. "They love tennis and have a natural knack for it."
The tournament also means a great deal to its host club.
"This is as big as an event as we have of any kind," CCS president Ron Smith said. "Club-wise, we hope to give something back to the community and raise the visibility of the club at the same time."
Back to Wimbledon
What: 2008 Pro Tennis Invitational Tournament
When: April 23-27
The happenings: Five days of tennis action as well as social events. Players scheduled to attend include Pat Cash, Jimmy Arias and Justin Gimelstob.
Cost: $5 per day and $10 on Championship Sunday. Children 15 and under are admitted free. For patron passes, sponsorship opportunities or more information, visit www.bgcusc.org or call Jennifer Bauer at 583-4867, ext. 101.