'I'm feeling alive again': Dancevic

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Canada's top player, who suffered from back problems, hasn't competed since August

Frank Dancevic hopped in his old Jeep and made the long drive from his hometown of Niagara Falls, Ont., to Montreal last week, the first step on a journey he hopes will resurrect a tennis career that once held so much promise, only to end up very much in jeopardy.

"I'm feeling alive. I'm alive again," Dancevic said. "I've been dead to the tennis world for six months."

The country's top male player, 25, hasn't competed since a first-round loss in the qualifying at the U.S. Open last August - the last straw in a year of pain caused by a nerve problem in his back.

He tried therapy for three months in an attempt to avoid surgery. It was unsuccessful. So Dancevic had a microdiscectomy performed Dec. 8, which shaved part of the disc that was hitting the nerve in his back and causing all the pain.

"Everything went through my head. It was so painful I thought

I wasn't going to play again. For months, I was thinking it was over," Dancevic said. "It's definitely one of those intermissions in my career,

I can say. You hear a lot of horror stories, about how after surgery it's never the same, that sort of thing. But when you have no choice, you have no choice."

After spending the last month strengthening his core, with Pilates and yoga to keep the area loose and flexible, he finally returned to the courts last week at the national training centre at Uniprix Stadium.

"Oh God, all I've been dreaming about is competing the last six months - especially lately, since I've been feeling better," he said. "When I was hurting, I always had it in my head. It was tough to get going, and every time I'd play, I'd play in pain."

Dancevic spent the week doing rehab, sweating in the gym and hitting tennis balls for about an hour a day. It went well - far beyond what anyone expected, given his six-month absence. He has decided to rent an apartment for a month and stay in Montreal, where there are training partners and fitness and physio facilities available.

The hope is he'll return for the clay-court season at the ATP Tour event in Belgrade, Serbia, at the beginning of May. Then would come a small Challenger event in Zagreb, Croatia, and the French Open qualifying.

He has to get going. Unlike many jobs, a tennis player's income is directly related to how many tennis matches he wins. Dancevic is a long way from Rafael Nadal territory; the Spanish star can miss a few months with injury, but then he'll sign a multimillion-dollar watch endorsement and end up even farther ahead.

"I'm looking forward to getting back and start making money again," Dancevic said. "It's tough when there are a lot of expenses - medical bills, therapists and that sort of thing - with no income coming in."

When he stopped, Dancevic's ranking was No. 104; it's currently at No. 153 and will fall even further after next week's event in Miami, where Dancevic qualified and reached the second round a year ago before losing to Novak Djokovic.

He gets a break with the ATP Tour's protected injury ranking system. For those purposes, he is at No. 119, and can enter a certain number of events based on that ranking.

All of that is a far cry from his best moments in 2007, when he upset Andy Roddick in Indianapolis, beat Fernando Verdasco (who has since gone on to the top 10) at the Rogers Cup in Montreal and took Nadal to three stirring sets before a delirious full house at Uniprix Stadium.

He was at No. 65 in the world and rising, and his smooth all-court game had some experts calling him the poor man's Roger Federer.

If you're going to be the "poor man's" anyone, it might as well be arguably the best player ever.

But his dedication always seemed in question. It sometimes seemed he'd rather be home fishing than out there grinding it out week after week. The talent, many thought, was being wasted.

Dancevic doesn't exactly deny it.

"Looking back, this is sort of a wakeup call. All the little things, maybe I could have avoided that. Not that this is why I got hurt, but thinking back," he said. "I'm going to change it going forward, doing all the little stuff right, not taking things for granted.

"I have a lot of years ahead of me, and you learn a lot from your accomplishments, what you've done wrong in the past, and move forward," he added. "As bad as it was that I got hurt, it could be a blessing in disguise. It let me reflect on my career and everything. I believe in fate, and everything's meant to be."

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