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Pablo Andujar has made his way back to the tour from multiple elbow surgeries. (AP)

Steve Flink: After a Long Journey, Pablo Andujar Is Finally Free of Pain

Every top-of-the-line tennis player goes to work on a regular basis knowing he is at the mercy of his body, realizing that an injury can be even more burdensome than an adversary on the other side of the net performing out of his mind. These athletes are fragile individuals, susceptible to frequent difficulties, vulnerable each and every time they step on a court to a physical breakdown of sorts. In my view, tennis at its core is fundamentally a contact sport.

Ask Pablo Andujar. This enduring competitor is on the comeback trail at 32 after suffering through a trying couple of years that tested his fortitude and patience to the hilt. Here is what happened to the Spaniard. He had spent four consecutive years (2011-2014) ranked among the Top 50 in the world on the ATP tour. In July of 2015, he achieved a career-best status at No. 32. He finished that season at No. 64, but his physical woes had shortened that campaign.

In March of 2016, he endured his first elbow surgery. Later that year, in November, he needed a second surgery; by April of 2017, a third surgery was required for that ailing right elbow. Only a man of Andujar’s extraordinary character and resilience could have dealt so honorably with this string of hard luck experiences. He had no ATP ranking at all as of October 2017. Andujar’s wrist had led him into psychological places few players would want to go.

This unswerving fellow has come gallantly out of that dark corner, reemerging significantly in 2018, winning his first ATP tour level match in two years at Rio in February. Earlier this month, Andujar secured back-to-back titles at the Challenger event in Alicante, Spain, and then, remarkably, the ATP tour 250 event in Marrakech. Sweeping 10 matches in a row through that stirring stretch, Andujar climbed back to No. 154 in the world after sinking to No. 1824 in February, and now he resides at No. 153. It won’t be long before he moves among the Top 100 again.

Speaking with Andujar last week, I wanted to know what kept him going and why he did not give up during his long struggle for survival as a tennis player after those three surgeries on his elbow.

He responded, “A lot of great things happened in the two-and-a-half years. I got married in November, 2016. My son was born on July 26, 2017. These two things were the most important, but I also spent a lot of time with my family and friends, going to visit people and places. The most important things in your life are not tennis. This is what I realized. When I had those five or six years of being in the Top 60, I didn’t value the important things in life because of the [constant] preparation and the competition. You are traveling and thinking just about tennis, and tennis is your life. Now that has changed. I had bad moments when I was away from the tournaments when I thought I did not want to keep up this fight, and I felt I could not do it anymore.”

Andujar pauses, and then adds, “I started to see tennis as a part of my life but not my whole life, and that is very important. Otherwise you get depressed because you have had two-and-a-half years that you can not do what you want to do, what you have been doing since you were a kid. But now when my baby boy smiles at me and enjoying the good relationship I have with my wife, this is the best feeling in the world. Winning Marrakech is great, but for me the strength is from my family. When I was suffering my wife was saying, ‘Don’t worry, you will make it back,” and that helped me so much. I didn’t want to finish my career with the feeling I had then, which was awful. I have the opportunity now to finish my career with another, much better feeling. I am very happy and lucky about that.”

The Andujar elbow crisis started in the summer of 2015. Facing Thomaz Bellucci in the quarterfinals of Gstaad, he took the opening set but “felt something” in his elbow during the second set. He eventually lost in three sets, but serving was painful and nearly impossible in the last set.

Andujar returned to Spain for diagnosis, and was told by doctors he had a tear in his tendon, and was given an injection. He managed to compete in Canada, Cincinnati and the US Open, but had to close his season down after playing the Grand Slam. He elected to undergo a non-invasive, conservative treatment and did not play for four months. He had tried to avoid surgery but, when he resumed tournament competition in Australia at the start of 2016, the pain was back. He had to retire from a match in São Paulo that February.

As Andujar recollects, “I had been having these problems for seven or eight months, so finally I had surgery. In three or four months, I started hitting the ball a little bit. At the beginning, I was feeling pain but I was managing some serving while it was hurting. More or less, I could play. It was not a really high level of pain. So after six or seven months I started playing some Challengers and I made a couple of semifinals. It didn’t go bad. But I was not improving with my pain. I think I played only three or four tournaments for the year.”

As 2016 concluded, Andujar’s pain was worsening. He says, “In my first surgery they had put in a rope so that the tendon got really tight and didn’t move, but it was too tight. So in the second surgery in November of 2016, they removed that rope and just left the tendon the way it was before the first surgery. They thought that with time and recovery they would insert the tendon in the elbow and the pain would be relieved.”

He went into rehab for a period of months and then tried to hit six or seven serves on the practice court.

As Andujar puts it, “By the seventh serve, I needed another arm, because it was really hurting. So I moved back to Valencia and changed doctors again. All three surgeries were with different doctors. The one who did the third surgery that was in Valencia decided it was not the tendon that was the problem, but the nerve that was really inflamed. They found a new path for the nerve and put it in the upper part of my elbow. After the surgery, it hurt in the beginning but with a lot of rehab and patience I can say now—one year later—that I feel no pain. It won’t feel completely perfect, but the goal for me was playing without pain. I have finally done that.”

Andujar did not pick up a racket for three months after the third surgery, and then began working with a recovery man in Valencia who specialized in elbows. His entire arm became considerably stronger. Gradually he increased his activities on court, starting from the backcourt and then, in the sixth month of recovery, serving. The serving hurt for quite some time. Not until a month-and-a-half ago, or thereabouts, did Andujar serve without fear.

Yet beefing up his serve again led to other issues. In Rio this spring, he had to retire from a second-round match with a tear in his pectoral muscle.

“In this case,” he says, “I have to admit I was happy because i was thinking about my pectoral injury and not my elbow. I was happy also because that injury came from starting to hit the ball correctly.”

Once more, Andujar took time to heal, but then his game came around thoroughly and his confidence was reestablished. His triumph in Alicante was critical in many ways.

As Andujar explains, “What happened in Alicante [at the Ferrero Challenger Open] was very positive. First of all, I had practiced correctly for two weeks and I was feeling good. Second, I had a wild card that Juan Carlos Ferrero gave me. Third, I was playing that tournament close to home, one hour and fifteen minutes from Valencia. So a lot of people from Valencia came and watched me play. That motivated me. Fourth, I was with my small baby and my wife. I had no pain so I just had to play tennis. I was down 6-1, 4-1 in the quarterfinals [against world No. 167 Guido Andreozzi] but I still believed in my possibilities and I came back to win [1-6, 6-4, 6-4]. In the finals of that tournament, I played really well [defeating Alex de Minaur 7-6 (5), 6-1].”

That triumph was pivotal in Andujar winning Marrakech the following week, where he ousted world No. 70 Joao Sousa and No. 26 Kyle Edmund back to back at the end. He established himself as the lowest-ranked player (No. 355) to win an ATP tour title since world No. 550 Lleyton Hewitt ruled at Adelaide in 1998.

Andujar says, “I had been able to play five matches during the whole week in Alicante without pain. That gave me the confidence and the calm, and is probably the reason why I won Marrakech. I was playing really, really well in Marrakech. I can tell you one thing: when I started playing tennis on the ATP, a player ranked No. 150 didn’t play as well as a player ranked 150 now. You cannot find much difference between a guy ranked 50 and a guy ranked 150. Those two wins over Sousa and Edmund meant a lot. They are better players than the ones I beat in Alicante, but my feeling is that those guys I beat in Alicante had a lot of value for me also. When I played Sousa and Edmund, my confidence had gone up. So the only thing I had to be aware of was to continue the same level and to manage my nerves the way you have to do in semifinals and finals.”

After he claimed the crown in Marrakech, Andujar was showered with well wishes from all kinds of players.

He says, “When I won the tournament, all of them were phoning me and texting me, saying how happy they felt for my achievement. Spanish tennis is like a big family but really not only the Spanish players were texting or phoning. Fognini wrote me and so did Benneteau, Wawrinka, Mahut and a lot of others. That is probably the nicest part of the sport, to know that when you finish your career you still have friends. When I say friends, it is different to be a friend of somebody that you are trying to beat on the court, but at the same time I was surprised how many players congratulated me.”

Understandably, after that dreamlike run from Alicante through Marrakech, Andujar was brought back to the reality of the thin line that can separate victory from defeat in the highly competitive world of tennis. In the final round of the qualifying for Barcelona this week, he lost 0-6, 7-6 (5), 6-1 to world No. 107 Bjorn Fratangelo. But inevitably Andujar will make his presence known over the rest of the clay-court campaign.

Read more articles by Steve Flink

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