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By Jean Kirshenbaum | Monday, July 30, 2018

Juan Martin del Potro

Photo credit: Dan Huerlimann/Beelde Images

After my stroke 15 years ago, I was back on the tennis court in just three months. I was not playing my former aggressive game, but I was back, which is what was important.

Over the 15 years since, I recovered my serve after many, many hours of practice to a point where it was better than it had been.

Lรผthi: Roger Relaxed on Rafa Chase

I have been so grateful to have found players at my new level (from 3.0 to about 2.5 and 2.75!), and somehow I have managed to almost hold my own in doubles clinics. I told everyone about my stroke, not for pity, but by way of explanation and apology for my poor mobility.

Some players felt sorry for me, some were annoyed to play with someone who could hardly run for balls, and many, they oohed and ahhed about how I was so courageous and an inspiration. They heaped these accolades upon me, and I was both embarrassed and encouraged.

Unfortunately, I now face a challenge that is even bigger than my stroke.

Oddly, one day I was fine, and woke up the next with poor balance and little mobility, and I began falling for no reason.

When I try to step forward with my left leg, it seems as though someone has tied rope around my ankle and won’t let go…as if my foot is stuck in concrete.

This is called gait freeze and can sometimes be a symptom of Parkinson’s disease.

Unfortunately, I have not played tennis for the past seven months.

My dear friend Tom Eckhardt was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease five years ago. With Parkinson’s, exercise is essential to maximize mobility. So, with great courage, in my opinion, he took up tennis!

I met him and his wife, Mara, last year and you would never even know he has this condition. He told me about it quietly while we were sitting on a bench at the tennis court waiting out our turn to rotate in.

I nearly fell off the bench. You would never know unless he told you, especially because he plays tennis.

Who has Parkinson’s disease and plays tennis?!

Tom is a big, quiet and gentle guy, whose long legs move him around the court pretty well—four to five times a week—in matches and in clinics. When you play against him he is definitely a factor. His lovely wife has become one of my closest friends.

Thinking about my own condition, Mara said to me: “I knew we came into each other’s lives for a reason.”

We are not at all alike, but in addition to a love of tennis, we have one other thing we have in common: We both adore ice cream.

So many players come back from a variety of injuries and illnesses and other circumstances that have knocked them down.

Who is more admirable than Venus Williams, who, despite her Sjogren’s syndrome, has clawed her way back into the Top 15, where she lives today.

What about Juan Martin del Potro, who is back at the top of the game after four wrist surgeries, including three on his left wrist.

Serena Williams, who reached the Wimbledon final after being out after 10 months after giving birth, at a risk to her own life?

And Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who many thought would never play again after one the most horrific injuries ever seen on a tennis court—a dislocated knee at least year’s Wimbledon.

Five surgeries later? Back on court at the French Open.

And remember, too, doubles specialist Corina Morariu who, In May 2001, was diagnosed with an advanced form of acute myelogenous leukemia and found herself in the match of a lifetime. After a grueling regimen of chemotherapy, Corina returned to competitive tennis 16 months after her diagnosis. She was named the WTA Tour Comeback Player of the Year in 2002, but the effects of the leukemia lingered.

On the court, she struggled to come to terms with the cancer and two subsequent shoulder surgeries that diminished her physical capabilities as a tennis player. Off the court, she struggled to redefine herself in the wake of her trauma. She later reappeared as an excellent television commentator.

These pros, and many others, have made spectacular comebacks, as do ordinary recreational players.

You probably know many of these, or you yourself are a comeback player.

For example, I know a woman in her 80s who has had two knee surgeries and shoulder surgery, another with two knee surgeries; and woman with numbing and painful neurothopy in her feet, due to chemotherapy to treat her colon cancer.

We had all missed Connie, but eventually she came to back to us. Tiring easily and with very painful feet, she ran nimbly around the court and soon returned to her previous level of play.

A love of tennis brings us all back.


Came through drippin' #drip #drip @iamcardib #inspiration

A post shared by Venus Williams (@venuswilliams) on

Unlike the orthopedic injuries of pros and seniors, however, who do or do not make a comeback with time, expert treatment, and exhausting struggle, Parkinson’s disease simply happens to you, like Sjogren’s syndrome happened to Venus Williams.

Like Venus and so many other players we define as comebacks, it’s not only a matter of coming back, it’s even more important to earn your way forward.

Since Tom had never played tennis before, I would say he’s earning his way forward now, just as Venus Williams has, and I had done following my stroke.

Tom astonishes me. He has become my hero, and I want to pay tribute, and pass on to him the accolades, support and love that so many players have given me.

What is next for us?

My goal is to be Tom’s doubles partner and crush ‘em! 


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