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Kiefer's Comeback & The Getting of Wisdom

Finals 2007

Nicolas KieferGetty ImagesNicolas Kiefer made the most of his time while injury kept him off the court.

Still in the infancy of his comeback from a 12-month injury layoff, Nicolas Kiefer is somewhat nervous as he enters the locker room of the All England Lawn Tennis Club. Suddenly he feels a hand on his shoulder and hears a voice: "Good to have you back." 

Kiefer turns around to see Roger Federer smiling back at him. The world No. 1 had followed the German's return at the Gerry Weber Open in Halle two weeks earlier, when Kiefer surprised everybody with an impressive first-round performance against eventual champion, Czech Tomas Berdych.

Kiefer had been sidelined by a left wrist injury for more than a year in what was the biggest setback of his career. It was a year full of fear, frustration and doubt, but also a year that opened up new and unusual opportunities that may have helped to focus and somewhat mellow the feisty 30 year old.

It all began on a fateful day in May 2006, when Kiefer hurt his left wrist during an epic victory over Marc Gicquel in the second round of Roland Garros. "At that time, I'd never have thought that the injury was so serious," says Kiefer, who continued playing and eventually won the match 11-9 in the fifth set. But the German was forced to retire early in the next round after losing the first set to Berdych.

Two weeks later he remained hopeful of competing at Wimbledon, but when he still was unable to grip his racquet with both hands to hit a backhand, Kiefer began to accept that his recovery may not be a short one.

The timing could not have been worse. Kiefer was on a great run, having begun the season by reaching his first Grand Slam semifinal at the Australian Open. At No. 11 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings, he was now poised to return to the Top 10 for the first time since 2000.

After a few days contemplating his fate back in his hometown of Hanover, Kiefer decided not to give up. Like boxing star Rocky Balboa would do in the movies he likes so much, Kiefer worked hard off the court in preparation for his return to the tour. He intensified his fitness program and, for variety, competed in a small triathlon and tried yoga.

"I've always been sceptical of trying out new things, but it was a great experience," Kiefer says. "It really helped a lot. I learned to control my breathing better and it made me much calmer." Like a nine-to-five employee, Kiefer created his own weekly schedule: Practice and rehabilitation went till midday and resumed in the afternoon. Evenings and weekends were free time. Who knew that 'Kiwi - his nickname since early childhood - would enjoy the simple life so much?

Even shopping in a supermarket turned out to be fun. "It was great - I even wrote up a shopping list so that I didn't forget what to buy. At the tournaments, I don't need to think about anything. They do everything for you. But then I had to take care of my things on my own. I was responsible. That felt good."

Kiefer not only went shopping, he also took cooking lessons. For a long time he has been intrigued by the importance of a balanced diet that includes no red meat, but allows chicken and turkey. Sweets are off limits, naturally, but he can chow down on all kinds of pasta and fish. And better yet, he can cook for his mother. "I baked a marble cake for Mother's Day. I'd never done that before, but it worked out well right away. Every woman that can't cook now badly wants to marry me," Kiefer says with a big smile. 

There was also a natural distraction for Kiefer during the early months of his layoff - the 2006 soccer World Cup that took place in Germany. As a close friend of Per Mertesacker, Kiefer was twice invited to visit the national team. "It was like a dream come true to be able to follow it. And the atmosphere in the cities with the fans partying was incredible." When he was not with the team he invited his friends over for a barbecue to watch the games, just like thousands of other Germans did. "This is so normal for my friends, but not for me. I've never really had that."

A promising junior soccer player himself, Kiefer never lost his love for the game. His local team, Hanover 96, remains very close to his heart. When Hanover's coach once asked him to take part in a 'friendly' it was the realization of a childhood dream. Kiefer even scored a goal. "I was so happy and proud," he recalls. "The coach called me later, saying 'Next match on Saturday'."

Grinding rehab exercises with just small progress marked the daily routine of Kiefer. But the fact that Mertesacker and some other of his soccer friends were also injured at that time and shared the same sports rehab centre in Donaustauf, made things lot easier for him. Having turned 30 during this period, some critics started to doubt whether Kiefer would ever make it back.

But he tried everything possible to return to tennis court as soon as possible, even going into an ice-chamber - with temperatures of minus 64 degrees Celsius - in order to strengthen his immune system. Wearing only shorts and a mask for his mouth and ears, he extended his stay in the chamber over the weeks from 90 seconds to 180 seconds. "I felt like an Eskimo and it was really difficult to overcome my inner temptation. But I wanted to get well again so badly," Kiefer admits.

In July 2006, Kiefer underwent the first of two operations on his wrist. After follow-up surgery in October left him unable to move any fingers on his left hand, a return to the court seemed farther away than ever. "I tried to stay positive. I've learned that it'll get you nowhere being mad about things that you can't change."

Another eight months passed before Kiefer would return to the tour. At another stage of his career, the enforced layoff may have been Kiefer's undoing. Instead, with his life and career now in healthy perspective, Kiefer was mentally and physically prepared to make the most of his comeback in the second half of 2007. His return was highly impressive, and stamped him as a leading contender for the ATP Comeback Player of the Year Award.

The former World No. 4 disappeared altogether from the South African Airways ATP Rankings for a three-week period in June-July. But Kiefer surged back into the Top 50, after just 11 tournaments, including a run to the Masters Series Madrid semifinals and the Basel quarterfinals in late October (l. to Federer on both occasions). He will finish inside the Top 100 for the 11th consecutive season.

Having more time to work with his foundation, Aktion Kindertraum, (Make Kids' Dreams Happen) also played a big role in Kiefer's more mature perspective on life. The foundation strives to fulfill the needs and wishes of children with serious diseases; assistance can range from a visit to an amusement park to raising money for live-saving operations. Whenever he is in Hanover, Kiefer lends a personal touch, spending time with the children.

"I actually wanted to help these children, but they helped me in a much bigger way," he says. "Some of them are going to die in one or two years. That is so sad. My injury was nothing compared to that. And I realized that I'm all right."

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