Tipsarevic Wasting No Time After Painful Injury Layoff

Janko Tipsarevic is ready to turn the page on a difficult time in his career. 

There are no teammates to rely on, no timeouts and no substitutions. On the tennis court, a player’s success or failure is seen as a simple combination of talent and hard work. It’s part of the game’s appeal. 

In other words, tennis professionals control their own destinies—until they don’t. 

Injury can rip away that sense of autonomy as former World No. 8 Janko Tipsarevic knows all too well. 

The pain in his left foot started at the beginning of 2013 when he was forced to pull out of the Australian Open fourth round against Nicolas Almagro. With an MRI showing what experts thought was inflammation, he continued to play almost an entire season with the help of painkillers and injections. 

It wasn’t until the spring of 2014 when he resorted to surgery. That’s when the doctors found the cause of the pain: a benign tumor.

Tipsarevic, who had led a relatively injury-free existence from the time he first picked up a racquet at age six, was first bedridden, and then forced to use crutches for almost three months. But, resolved to make it back to the ATP World Tour as quickly as possible, he directed his attention to his rehab until the pain returned. 

The tumor was back.  

This time doctors made the decision to excise around 80 per cent of his plantar fascia, the band of tissue that supports the arch and connects the heel to the toes. While the surgery was a success, the 30 year old was advised that if the tumor were to return for a third time, it would strangle any hope of a return to professional tennis. 

“For the first time in my life, I got really scared,” he told ATPWorldTour.com. “It was out of my hands. I knew if it was in my control, I wouldn’t be afraid because I would do whatever it takes, but this fact was completely out of my hands and I couldn’t do anything.”

Despite the arrival of his daughter Emili and the love and support of his family, Tipsarevic struggled with feelings of depression and anxiety as his injury slowly stripped him of his identity. 

“I wasn’t myself. I wasn’t happy even though everything else in my life was going great; everybody was healthy and we had a lovely daughter. I honestly didn’t know that tennis meant so much to me until I wasn’t able to play.”

One of his lowest points came during the 2013 Davis Cup final where he watched his former teammates lose a tight tie to the Czech Republic. A member of Serbia’s first Davis Cup championship team in 2010, Tipsarevic felt he let his compatriots down in his absence. The resulting anxiety was so great that it led to an overnight stay in the hospital. 

Little did he know his road to recovery was just beginning. 

Ecstasy And Agony

Ranked No. 49 in the Emirates ATP Rankings, Tipsarevic mesmerized the crowd in the 2008 Australian Open third round, where he nearly defeated then-No. 1 Roger Federer in a dramatic fifth set. His trademark look, complete with glasses and tattoos, ensured fans wouldn’t soon forget the Serb who pushed Federer to the brink. But it wasn’t until 2011 that he moved from a Top 50 fixture to inside the Top 10, thanks to five final appearances and his first two ATP World Tour titles. 

Like an increasing number of tennis players, Tipsarevic found his stride in his late 20s, a result, he says, of the sense of urgency he felt as he approached the inevitable end of his career. 

Multiple foot surgeries have a way of exponentially increasing that sense of urgency. 

During his second rehab stint, Tipsarevic spent hours on the court hitting forehands and backhands while confined to a chair “just to feel alive again.” Even with a new daughter, he did much of his rehab at a German clinic, away from his home in Belgrade. 

"When you love somebody, you're a team that works together, sharing all good and bad things," said Tipsarevic's wife Biljana of the grueling recovery process. "I’m very proud of Janko. He has so much love for this sport and so much more to give. Maybe this will help him to be an even better player."'

His dedication allowed him to make a comeback to the doubles court at the Miami Open at the end of May. The only problem? He needed a partner. A run-in with his friend and fellow Serb Novak Djokovic provided the solution.

“I didn’t even ask him to play,” Tipsarevic said, smiling. “I told him, ‘I’m not even asking you because I see you are very tired.’ He told me, ‘No, we’re going to play…you’re going to need it.’”

They would lose their opening match, but Tipsarevic was thankful for a chance to take a baby step on his troublesome foot with the help of the top player in the world. 

“Not many No. 1s in history who won in Indian Wells the week before would agree to play doubles the week after.”

Tipsarevic also received support from former World No. 4 Juan Martin del Potro, who was making his own comeback in Miami after multiple wrist surgeries. 

“He told me, and I completely relate to him, that the toughest part was practising for nothing,” he explained. “Keeping a positive attitude for no positive outcome is very tough.”

Back In Action 

After a 17-month layoff and countless hours of rehab, Tipsarevic is finally ready to make his singles comeback. As he walked from the practice court to the players' lounge at the River Oaks Country Club in Houston where he’ll be making his return at the US Men’s Clay Court Championship, spectators clamored to get autographs and photos, one fan even asking him to leave her cell phone voice message. Fellow players joined the unofficial welcome parade, giving hugs and waves.

“Glad to see you back!” echoed around the grounds. 

With his last singles match coming in Valencia in October of 2013, Tipsarevic has mixed emotions as he readies for his start against qualifier Guilherme Clezar on Tuesday.

“I am more anxious than happy, but I’m happy about that because if I would be just happy to be here, I would probably go on court and say, ‘Let’s just see how it goes.’”

For now, Tipsarevic is back in destiny’s driver's seat, the sense of urgency that propelled him to his best results is as strong as ever. Thanks to his protected ranking and several upcoming wild cards from ATP World Tour 250 events, he looks forward to a full season of tennis.

“I’m aware that I’m turning 31 this year. I don’t have many years left. My goal and dream would be to come back to the Top 10, and I don’t have many weeks to waste.”