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At 28, A New Beginning For Taylor

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Taylor Dent© Getty ImagesTaylor Dent (centre) with Agnes Szavay, Anna Chakvetadze, Caroline Wozniacki, Andreas Seppi and Marin Cilic at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells.

After being told his career was over, Taylor Dent is making every day count as he continues a remarkable comeback.

The performance room at the IMG Academy seats about 120 athletes, and on this particular Tuesday evening, it is filled to capacity. The match on the big screen – though it featured Roger Federer – is to most observers a routine third-round contest at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami. But the fact that American Taylor Dent is standing across the net from the Swiss maestro gives the match great significance.

"The room was slammed with all the up-and-coming kids cheering for him at the academy, male and female," said Trevor Moawad, the IMG Performance Institute Director. "Everyone was just so excited to watch Taylor play. Genuine happiness for him."

Though Dent would end up losing in straight sets to Federer, his third-round showing at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tennis tournament was a victory in its own right, setting into motion a remarkable comeback season that saw the 28 year old surge more than 800 positions to No. 76 in the year-end South African Airways 2009 ATP Rankings.

"Everything would need to be retrained and re-hardened to tolerate the abuse again"

A return to the tennis court, let alone the Top 100, seemed unlikely for the former World No. 21 after a fractured vertebra and two resulting surgeries left him bed-ridden in a full body cast for nearly a year. Doctors had warned him to not undergo spinal fusion surgery, explaining it would essentially end his professional tennis career, but Dent was left with no other choice. "I had that surgery just for quality of life," said Dent, who fatigued easily from even menial housework.

He had accepted that his career was over but then received surprising news from the doctors in 2008. After seeing how well he had healed following his second surgery, they suggested Dent get back on the court and try playing again.

"How many people get second chances to pursue something they love, and something they're relatively good at? I jumped on," said Dent. "That was kind of the best day and the toughest day for me because I got back out on the court, and I saw how far I had come – backwards – with my year in bed, and the years away from tennis."

Dent, New York 2003

Graeme Lauriston, a therapist at IMG, said, "When I first saw him I was sceptical on how far we were actually going to get him, or how high a level we were going to get him on the court, but we kind of took it one day at a time and little step by little step."

They worked on manual therapy – hands-on soft tissue work, stretching and mobilisation – and on functional rehab, going through certain exercises that would wear out Dent. During the first month, Dent could handle no more than 10 minutes on the court. He endured frustrating spells when he felt he was making improvement, only to be set back by pain in his knees and arms, in addition to other niggling injuries caused by his long injury layoff. "Everything would need to be retrained and re-hardened to tolerate the abuse again," said Dent.

But armed with his characteristic optimism and determination, Dent began making steady progress, with time regaining the strength in his muscles and his endurance. When he graduated to practice matches on consecutive days, it proved a milestone. "I think that's when Taylor realised that his body could actually handle this," said Lauriston.

Dent tested his form in a handful of tournaments in 2008 before making his full comeback the following season. He got the year off on the right foot, winning his first tour-level match since 2006 at the circuit opener in Brisbane. But the two performances signaling his return came on home soil, at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami and the US Open. He strung together five straight wins in Miami – qualifying into the main draw, and then upsetting Top 20 players Nicolas Almagro and Tommy Robredo before falling to Federer. Six months later, that effort would be eclipsed by his pulsating second-round match against Spaniard Ivan Navarro at Flushing Meadows.

"I still feel like I’m barely tapped into my potential. I feel like it's just the beginning for me"

For Dent, his performance at the US Open proved the highlight of the year. "It was almost a five-hour match, and I'd been working really hard on my fitness and it showed. I was hopping around to the bitter end on the court. I think it also highlighted my new-found mental toughness out on the court. I had chances to win that match in straight sets... But down two sets to one, and I was able to hang in there. That match brought about a lot of positives. It was something for me to build on for the rest of the year when I did well in the Challengers, and for next year in 2010."

The following week, the inspired Dent won the Challenger title in Tulsa without the loss of a set. He used further successes on the Challenger circuit to continue his rankings climb in the final month of the season, re-entering the Top 100 after winning in Knoxville and following that up with a runner-up effort in Champaign.

Dent, New York 2009Reflecting on his season, Dent said: "It was filled with some ups and downs, but overall looking back at it, it was phenomenal. I'm out here competing with the best players in the world, and I still feel like I've barely tapped into my potential. I feel like it's just the beginning for me and I'm as motivated as I ever have been and I'm working as hard as I ever have… I think my consistency isn't quite there yet, but on my better days now I'm a much more well-rounded player than I was when I was [ranked] 21 in the world.”

Dent is intent on ranking inside the Top 50 as soon as possible to guarantee himself a spot in the main draws of ATP World Tour events, and has set goals within his own game to help him achieve that end, including improving the accuracy of his serve and his attacking forehand shots.

But above all, he has prioritised what he calls his "perspective and mental goals" for 2010. "My biggest goal is to keep looking at my game as a work in progress and make sure that the weakest parts of my game are improving, and I keep the strength up there," he said. "I feel like in the past, I've gotten in trouble with not improving because I've gotten too emotional with my game and made a couple excuses of why it didn't work that day. I really want to avoid that and stay as fact based as possible in this next year."

"I've gotten too emotional with my game and made excuses why it didn’t work that day. I really want to avoid that and stay as fact based as possible"

One factor sure to play in Dent's favour in 2010 is the belief in himself. While others may not have predicted his rapid ascent in the course of a season, Dent asserted, "I didn't think it was out of the realm of possibility at all. I knew exactly what needed to be done, and I was very disciplined in my training and my eating. It's always vindicating to see your plan pan out."

With the same fire that took him from a bed-ridden state a mere two years ago back to the Top 100 on the ATP World Tour, Dent's opponents can expect the 28-year-old American to be a dangerous force in the years to come.

"There's nobody he's competing against or very few people that have been to the places he's had to go through personally to come back from this injury," said Moawad. "I think that that's something that's going to bode well for him... What he's gone through and the structure he has in place right now, in my mind, makes him very tough to beat."

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