- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 27, 2002

NEW YORK It was largely a shellacking, the sort of unilateral, boot-to-butt beatdown usually reserved for players ranked in the 400s, not a former world No.4.
For Magnus Norman, however, it qualified as an improvement.
Despite his haggard countenance following a 6-2, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 loss to No.8 seed Albert Costa in the first round of the U.S. Open yesterday, Norman had reason to smile: Only a year ago, the unseeded Swede was recovering from a hip operation, more concerned with walking than with winning Grand Slams.
"It's nice to be back in a big tournament again," he said. "It's been a while."
Has it ever. Since surgery, Norman has sunk faster than a cast-iron kayak, dropping from the ATP's top five at the start of last season to his current rank of No.208 just 16 spots ahead of the unofficially retired Patrick Rafter.
Along the way, the tour's winningest player for two straight years (1999, 2000) has missed six months of play, slummed in minor league tournaments and fallen to the forgettable likes of Marc Lopez and Jose Acasuso in an frustrating effort to regain his lofty, pre-injury perch.
"It's been very tough," Norman said. "I don't have the same confidence. You lose against guys that you normally beat pretty easy two years ago. What I've been through, it's been like hell."
When it comes to sniffing brimstone, Norman isn't alone. From former stars to onetime up-and-comers, the Open men's draw is peppered with players laid low by career-crunching injuries all of them ginger proof that, while getting hurt isn't quite tennis Hades, it's pretty close to purgatory:
Thanks to a slow-healing hip injury of his own, former world No.1 Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil has dropped to No.46 this season and is unseeded for his first-round match today against Julien Boutter.
Once a top-10 stalwart, hard-serving Dutchman Richard Krajicek missed much of 2000 and all of last season following elbow and knee surgeries; now ranked No.117, he had to retire during the second set of his match against No.14 seed Jiri Novak yesterday.
In 1999, Nicolas Kiefer rose to a No.6 ranking in 1999 and looked like Germany's next great player; following two years of wrist and ankle injuries, he sits at No.64 and today faces No.2 seed Marat Safin in the first round.
"Tennis is completely opposite from team sports," said Jan-Michael Gambill, an American ranked No.57. "There, you can have an athlete injured for a year, and they're OK. As long as they do the right things, get back out there and are as good as they were, they'll have a shot at it again.
"In tennis, if a player is injured for a year, they have no ranking. You're not playing tournaments, not putting on points."
Gambill's right: In the NBA, Jahidi White isn't about to lose his spot on the Washington Wizards roster because of his recent decision to have knee surgery. But in the Darwinian world of the tour, things work a little differently.
Consider a rising player say, No.11 seed Andy Roddick. Roddick earns rankings points by winning matches. A higher ranking means better seedings, more confidence and easier draws. All of which lead to more wins. Rinse and repeat.
Throw a serious or nagging injury into the mix, however, and the entire equation is reversed. While the ATP offers a form of ranking insurance for players who get hurt miss six months, and a player's tournament entry ranking is protected for the next eight tournaments or nine months, whichever comes first that often isn't enough to prevent career free fall.
"It's a whole long process," said Justin Gimelstob, an American ranked No.130. "You lose your ranking. You lose confidence because you don't win matches. Then you have to go down to lower tournaments and win more matches just to get back to where you were. It's just a whole spiraling effect."
Gimelstob speaks from experience. Ranked No.63 in 1999, the 25-year-old advanced to the third round of the Open, then reached Wimbledon's third round in 2000.
During a fall tournament in Tokyo, however, Gimelstob tore ligaments in his left ankle. He missed the remainder of the season and stumbled upon his return in early 2001, falling in the first round of six straight tournaments and dropping all the way to No.179.
Bad losses to Daniel Melo and Glenn Weiner didn't help. Nor did a painful pair of herniated discs in Gimelstob's back.
"It's been a struggle ever since," said Gimelstob, who at one point pondered retirement. "You go through stages where it's not going your way even though you're working hard. It's like hitting your head against the wall."
Gambill can relate. He entered a Masters Series tournament in Cincinnati last summer with a career-best top-20 ranking and promptly injured his right shoulder.
Instead of resting, Gambill tried to push through the pain. Bad idea. Tendinitis forced him to retire in three consecutive tournaments the Open included and a subsequent five-week break didn't help.
In fact, Gambill didn't feel fully mended until this summer, when he reached the final of a tournament in Los Angeles.
"Physically, I made the mistake of trying to play every event," Gambill said. "I wanted to play so bad. I was in the top 20. I wanted to be in the top 10, at least top 15. And I had a really good shot at it. But I just kept trying and failing. I should have just taken all of that time off."
Failure to do so can be disastrous. Playing with a bad back in the fall of 1999, American Vince Spadea suffered an excruciating 21-match losing streak that stretched to the next summer's Wimbledon.
Shortly thereafter, he was hospitalized for severe dehydration following a Davis Cup match and had to withdraw from a series of tournaments. While Spadea recovered, his ranking dipped to No.240.
"You keep thinking maybe it will get better, maybe it will get better," Gambill said. "But it doesn't."
Perhaps mindful of Spadea's example, Kuerten has vowed to put his health ahead of his match results since his February surgery. In June, hip pain forced him to withdraw from a first-round match in the Toronto Masters Series tournament.
"I'm just looking forward to getting in my best shape again," he said after a first-round loss to Tim Henman in Cincinnati last month. "That's the only thing in my mind."
Kuerten is lucky: Highly ranked talents often can afford to lose matches while playing themselves back into shape. Wild cards are plentiful, and so long as a big name doesn't fall out of the top 60, he'll qualify for the main draw of most tournaments.
Lesser players aren't as fortunate. For Gimelstob, the road back has been long and winding: Last year, he had to fight his way through a week of Open qualifying; since January, he's played in 11 Challenger tournaments the minor leagues of tennis scrapping for points against younger, just-as-hungry opponents.
In essence, Gimelstob said, he's reliving his first two years on tour only this time around, he's less a wide-eyed rookie than a once-promising prospect who's been busted back to Class AAA.
"To get [to a high ranking], everything is good," he said. "You don't mind playing qualifiers, because it's all new. But once you get to that level, with all the perks and making a certain amount of money and all that stuff, you get used to it. Fighting back to regain it is tougher."
That said, comebacks aren't out of the question. Once the world's top-ranked player, No.9 seed Carlos Moya languished for much of 1999 and 2000 with an injured back, dropping to No.41.
After returning to the top 20 late last season, the hard-hitting Spaniard has been superb this summer, winning 20 of his last 22 matches and snapping top-seeded Lleyton Hewitt's 10-match winning streak in the finals at Cincinnati.
Moya's secret? Patience. Hard work. And, above all, a clean bill of health. None of which has been lost on Gimelstob.
"I still need time, but I'm on the right track," Gimelstob said. "This is the fittest I've ever been."
Gimelstob glanced at his ankle.
"Right now, everything seems to be good," he said. "Knock on wood."

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