The world of sports is a mess at the moment but tennis player Radek Stepanek has a story worth hearing.
This is how it is in U.S. sports at the moment. An NFL player has been indicted for running a dog fighting operation whose members slammed dogs to the sidewalk, hung them and electrocuted them if they didn’t perform up to expectations. An NBA referee has been indicted for influencing the outcome of games to pay off his gambling debts. A grand jury has been extended for six months to get an indictment for perjury and tax evasion against Barry Bonds who is about to break the most famous record in U.S. sports.
It doesn’t look good out there but if you dig a little bit, you can find inspiration. One of the great joys of sitting in media sessions with athletes is the chance to hear their personal stories. James Blake’s story can be found in his new book, Breaking Back, which just debuted at number 22 on the New York Times bestseller list.
There was another compelling story at the Los Angeles ATP event last week and it belonged to the final victor, Radek Stepanek.
It was early August last year and Stepanek had just reached his first slam quarterfinal at Wimbledon and made his first appearance in the top ten. He was in Toronto for the Masters Series tournament that would start in two days when suddenly he felt “like somebody put a knife to my neck”. He was standing still at the time and he had no idea what was happening to him.
He had a dislocated disk in his neck. The disk was pressing on a nerve and after a few weeks, he’d lost all feeling from his right elbow to his hand.
He couldn’t hold a key to unlock his door or clean his teeth. He could have hit his hand against a wall for two hours and never felt a thing. A devastating turn of events for any right-handed tennis player but even worse for one who is old-school and depends on touch more than power
“That moment was the worst feeling so far in my career because I was not able to control part of my body which is the most important to play tennis. In twelve days I lost everything,” he said. “I felt like, the hand is not mine.” One day he’s close to making the top five in the world and the next morning he can’t feel his hand.
And if that’s not unfair enough, this is: Stepanek knows players who have a disk that is dislocated almost twice as far as his and yet they play at 100%. There’s no way to fix a nerve. All you can do is wait. The nerve has to regenerate itself and it does it at its own speed. The best he could do was refuse surgery and see if there was “small improvement” – as his doctor put it – in two or three months.
It wasn’t until the nerve started to improve that his doctor told him how lucky he was to have avoided surgery. The disk he dislocated was one of the most difficult to operate on. The doctor also told him he should forget about tennis for a year. As he sat there and listened, Stepanek felt like he was watching a bad movie.
His motivation changed from wanting to be a top ten player to just wanting to wake up in the morning and feel his hand. Whatever he did, it worked. On December 3rd, five months after the knife stab of pain, he started practicing for the new tennis season.
When the universe rises up and snatches everything away from you, at first you’re shocked and then you’re mightily pissed off. After enough time passes, though, you sit back and see what possible good you can get out of the situation because any other approach is self-destructive.
I was sick on the day of the final in Los Angeles so I didn’t go to the media session after Stepanek beat Blake for the title. If I had, I’d have asked him this question:
Many times when we face loss and trauma, we reevaluate our lives and place more importance on family and friends. Did those months of inactivity influence your decision to ask Martina Hingis to marry you?
Stepanek proposed to Hingis in November just before he started playing tennis again.
When Stepanek returned to the tour, the best he could do was win two games in a row twice. Not that he was complaining, he was just happy to be there. But after a first round loss at Wimbledon, he’d had enough being happy, he wanted to win.
The last step in healing is to switch your goals from your body to external results. If your goal is to play pain-free, that’s abstract and short-sighted. If you’re goal is to win the next tournament you enter, you’re not thinking about your body, you’re thinking about your next opponent and the next shot you have to make.
Stepanek entered the tournament in Gstaad and got to the semifinals and this week he got his second career title in Los Angeles.
The rehabilitation was frightening and grueling but it did have some humorous moments. One of Stepanek’s rehabilitation exercises is called pen spinning: rotating a pen between the fingers on one hand. Val Kilmer’s character Iceman does it the movie Top Gun. A few weeks ago Stepanek was working with a physiotherapist and his doctor came in to check his progress. Stepanek started spinning his pen and said, proudly, “Doc, look!” But as the pen got to his third finger it flew off his hand and hit the doctor dead center in the forehead prompting Stepanek to say, “You see how good I am!”
Yes he is. And he may get much better.
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Read about Stepanek’s victory over Blake in Los Angeles