Long Road Back: Dent plans return after 3rd surger
Taylor Dent, once ranked No. 21 in the world, is hoping his injury troubles are finally over as he plans a return to the tennis circuit, possibly with fellow pro Jan Michael Gambill as his coach.
By Tom A. McFerson
Taylor Dent is gearing up for a return to the tour after being out of action since February 2006.
© Robert Laberge/Getty Images
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.
“I can’t wait,” Dent repeated. “I’ve really missed it.”
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.
Now he just needs his body to keep co-operating.