Rewind to June last year and Jan-Lennard Struff was at a career-high No. 21 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, having advanced to the final on home soil in Stuttgart. After starting the season at No. 150, the big-hitting German was playing the tennis of his life aged 33, having also reached his maiden ATP Masters 1000 title match two months earlier in Madrid and the quarter-finals in Monte-Carlo.
“I built up a lot of good matches in the first months, but from the clay court season, Monte-Carlo and Madrid were just great tournaments,” Struff told ATPTour.com. “I climbed up the rankings and wanted to qualify for Paris for the main draw and I needed to win some rounds in Monte-Carlo. I was very happy with this and my performances in Monte-Carlo and Madrid… Then the Stuttgart final at home, it was nice. And Halle, a home tournament. I was in a good position.”
Enjoying the best season of his career, the German was set to attack Wimbledon and the North American hard-court swing as a Top 30 player, a ranking which would have guaranteed him a seeding at upcoming events.
However, disaster struck following Halle, with Struff forced to withdraw from Wimbledon due to a hip injury.
“The injury was not a small injury, so it was tough. I was so up and then went back down to earth straight away,” Struff said. “I needed to stop for three months, which was pretty tough because I had a high ranking. At Wimbledon I was going to be seeded and playing the US swing I would have been seeded and I wasn't seeded that many times in my career. I was really looking forward to that period.
“[The injury] was strange. I played a lot of matches and it was a very intense beginning of the year, but we still don't have some indicators of why it really happened at that moment. If it was just a lot of matches or something else. We were looking carefully at the body, but injuries are part of the game.”
Struff’s injury would keep him out for three months. While the German enjoyed spending time with his family and keeping an eye on the Tour from afar, the lack of uncertainty around his return was a frustration.
“In the beginning I couldn't work that much because it was just not possible,” Struff said. “But you try from the first day to think maybe you can go in four weeks again and you stay fit and do other things. This is not easy to structure straight away, because you're hoping to get back as fast as possible and you don't want to lose fitness, so you don't allow yourself to put the holidays in, so I just went four days with the family, five days to the Netherlands. It's harder to plan your comeback when you don't quite know the timings.
“I sometimes didn't watch a lot of tennis, sometimes I watched a bit, because it's tough to see other players playing, but still I love the game and still like to watch some games. It was not easy, but I could focus on my family.”
The six-time ATP Challenger Tour titlist did not pick up a racquet for seven weeks, eventually returning in Zhuhai in September. He then finished the season impressively, reaching his third tour-level semi-final of the year in his final event of 2023 in Sofia. He ended the year at No. 25.
His rise from No. 167 in January 2023 to No. 21 in June, coupled with his standout runs in Madrid and Stuttgart, helped him win the Comeback Player of the Year in the 2023 ATP Awards.
“It was special. I think there were many contenders who deserved it. I was just happy,” Struff said. “I'm happy because I want to thank everybody who voted for me. I know it's voted by the players, so I think they recognised how much struggle it was coming back from 150 at 32/33 years [old]. It's not the youngest age of tennis players, but to come back and even reach my career-high ranking. I feel proud because they gave me the award and a lot of players voted for me.
“I was really happy with the way I finished in the Top 30. I would like to have taken the injury away but I felt like this year was really good. If someone told me going 160 in a year to finish Top 30, career-high ranking, I would take that.”
This week Struff competes at the ABN AMRO Open in Rotterdam, where he begins against Spaniard Alejandro Davidovich Fokina. Aged 33, the German is the third-oldest player inside the Top 50, behind only 36-year-old Novak Djokovic and 35-year-old Adrian Mannarino. The average age of players inside the Top 100 is 26.4.
Having reached just one tour-level final before 2023, the German is now flying higher than ever. But why?
“I was always a player who was developing later,” Struff said. “If you see players coming up like Jannik Sinner or Alcaraz, they're so good in that early stages of their careers and for me, I wasn't that good in the youth. I just got a picture from a friend when we were playing under 16 in Germany. I was ranked No. 38 or No. 39 in my age. So I wasn't that great in juniors, but I always believed and had a dream to do it.
"I was small. I was I think 16 and I was like one meter and 78 centimetres. And I grew 18 centimetres in two years, which helped my serve, my game, the power. From that point on, it went much better. It's strange, but I developed a bit later. You see some other players like Mannarino reaching his career high now, he's playing amazing and there are still a lot of great older players.”
Still chasing an elusive first tour-level title, Struff will hope this is his week in Rotterdam, where the first ATP 500 of the season takes place.