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Oscar Down, But Not Out

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Hernandez© Oscar HernandezOscar Hernandez began his rehabilitation in February, accompanied by a new training partner, his dog Buffy.

A routine operation on a slipped disc nearly ended Oscar Hernandez’s tennis career. Now, at the age of 33, the Spaniard is determined to return to the game he loves.

Christmas is normally a time of joy and celebration, but Spain’s Oscar Hernandez found himself struggling to enjoy the holiday this past December. As he lay confined to a hospital bed, Hernandez was consumed by feelings of loss and isolation, contemplating the news that he would never again be able to play professional tennis.

Troubled by lower back pain for the entire 2010 season, doctors diagnosed a herniated L5 S1 disc that would be career threatening without surgery. They suggested to Hernandez a routine operation to put it right. So, on 24 November 2010, Hernandez went under the surgeon’s knife. However, what happened next was far from routine. He suffered a rare complication that affects just one in 1,000 patients.

“He suffered a rare complication that affects just one in 1,000 patients”

“After the operation they sent me home to rest for a little bit,” recalls Hernandez. “One week later, I started walking a little bit and I started feeling dizzy during the night. It felt like I was drunk. So after three or four more days I started walking a little bit more and I couldn’t because the dizziness was worse. I went to the hospital again and they said to me I had to spend three more weeks in bed until the scar got a little bit better. They told me it wouldn’t be a problem, that it sometimes happens with this kind of surgery.”

The problem turned out to be a spinal fluid leak, which can occur due to inadvertent tears in the sac around the spinal cord. With Hernandez still no better three weeks later, the doctors advised him to undergo another operation followed by a lengthy rest period. For a man described by his lifelong friend, Alberto Martin, as “a great guy, very funny and always with a smile on his face”, it was going to be a real test of character.

For nearly two months he lay in his hospital bed, unable to move. For an active person, used to running, training, and competing on the tour, it was torture. “Spending nearly two months in bed was very tough for him,” recalls his coach, Marcos Roy. “He was pretty depressed at the beginning at not being able to move.”

HernandezThe only thing Hernandez had to break the monotony were a few more small operations. “It was really bad for me because I’m used to doing a lot of physical activity,” he says. “I used to run a lot, and I couldn’t. It was so horrible. I just watched television, that’s it. It was so difficult to be positive during that time because it was a really bad moment in my life.”

A relatively private individual, Hernandez told only one of the Spanish Armada – Martin – about the surgery complications. It was largely with the support of his family and fiancée, Raquel, that he endured the boredom and depression all over Christmas and New Year. Finally he was discharged on 5 January with the express instruction to rest in bed for one more week.

“They said to me to start walking a little bit in the morning and then rest,” explains Hernandez. “I was a little bit like a kid when I started walking. All my body was so skinny and my legs were not too good; they were really painful. I lost all my muscles too, but I didn’t have too many muscles before!”

He didn’t know it yet, but the worst news was yet to come. It turned out to be an extreme case of ‘be careful what you wish for’ for the Barcelona native. Lying in his hospital bed he had declared to his coach that he didn’t want to play tennis any more, such was his misery and frustration at the turn of events. “There was a moment when he wasn’t feeling good and he did mention that he wanted to stop [playing tennis],” recalls Roy, “that he couldn’t see how he could come back to play."

“I was a little bit like a kid when I started walking”

The moment swiftly passed though. And it was with eagerness and optimism that Hernandez asked the doctors when he would be able to return to the sport he had been playing professionally since 1998.

But more bad fortune awaited Hernandez. When the doctors had done the initial operation to correct the herniated disc, they discovered that the Spaniard was also suffering from spondylolisthesis, a condition in which a vertebra in the lower part of the spine slips out of the proper position onto the bone below it. They entered his room bearing bad news.

“I spoke to the doctor and asked him if I could play tennis again and he said, with these words, ‘Yes, you can play tennis, but only on Sundays with your friends!’” Hernandez reacted in horror at the doctor’s assessment. “I said, ‘I’m not talking about playing tennis only with my friends, I’m talking about playing pro tennis.’ And he said to me it would be painful again. If I were to do a really good rehab, I could play without pain, but it will be really difficult.”

HernandezMartin remembers, “I think he went through difficult moments because after the injury he found out that the surgery hadn’t gone that well. He had difficult moments there, but when he passed that, he started to see the light and to enjoy himself again. But he went through very difficult moments and he was a little bit down.”

When considering Hernandez’s skills and attributes as a tennis player, Marcos Roy bemoaned the right-hander’s temper. Although Hernandez had managed flare-ups better over the years, it had often caused him to lose confidence during matches. In light of his current hardships, it seemed that very passion to compete and his love for the game would be what would drive Hernandez to refute the doctor’s analysis and channel all his energies into returning to tennis.

“When you are lying on your back and you have these kinds of problems, you appreciate your love for tennis,” Hernandez says. “For me now, it is really important to get one racquet and play just for 15 minutes. Now it’s my dream. Being in bed at the hospital for a long time made me realise the importance that tennis had in my life. Now I realise during all that time that I didn’t give a 100 per cent in my practice or matches.”

“When you are lying on your back, you appreciate your love for tennis”

Coach Roy remembers, “They weren’t very positive about Oscar playing again. He was very sad the day he was told. But what I can tell you is the following day he was telling me how he wanted to do everything to try and come back. He didn’t want to retire this way, he really wanted to come back to play.

“I think he also grew as a person and became stronger with this bad experience. It was Oscar himself who found the motivation to come back. At the end of the day I’m only the coach and I can help him in any way I can. But there is no player who, if he doesn’t have the motivation, can play good tennis.”

It would not be the first time that Hernandez had prepared to start afresh. Indeed, this was to be the start of a third career for the 33-year-old Spaniard. Success has never come easily to Hernandez. At three he began playing tennis with his parents, Domingo and Pilar, on the courts he could see from his bedroom window. A late developer, he was described by Martin, as “a very small kid, who didn’t have much power”.

Hernandez“I was never a great tennis player,” confesses Hernandez. “I think I won my first ATP point when I was 20 or 21. It was too late to be perfect.”

So it was at the age of 23, ranked outside the Top 300 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings, that Hernandez was forced to make a decision. “For players like me, in the Top 500, you don’t have money. I didn’t want to say to my parents, ‘Please pay my hotels and the tickets and everything to play tennis,’ because I was feeling like I was losing my money and I would have been losing the money of my parents. I said, ‘Okay, that’s not my life. I cannot be a good player.’”

Disillusioned with tennis, Hernandez hung up his racquet and turned his hand to working as a waiter in a nightclub where some of his friends worked. It lasted just three months.

Enter Marcos Roy, the man hailed by Hernandez as the “best coach in the world”. Roy transformed his career. At the start of their working relationship, they laid out a two-year plan to reach the Top 100. It happened within a year. “Oscar was away from the court because he didn’t achieve what he wanted,” recalls Roy. “He tried to have a normal life and a normal job, but then he realised himself that he could do more. He wasn’t a young player, but I had a lot of confidence in him and he had a lot of confidence in me.”

The difference? More self-belief and a greater work ethic, claims Martin. “I think Oscar realised at a late age that he had skills he didn’t know he had. He became more professional when he was 24 years old and that’s when he got his results. Before he stopped I don’t think he believed in himself the same as he did afterwards. But he also hadn’t worked as much as he did when he started again. He worked harder, was more professional and he realised that he had the chance; and then he believed in himself more.”

“I want to retire from this fantastic sport inside the courts, not outside of them”

Now, 10 years later, there are parallels to be drawn as Hernandez once again looks to claw his way up the rankings. During his most successful years on court, the right-hander reached a career-high World No. 48, defeated two-time Grand Slam champion Lleyton Hewitt at the 2007 Internazionali BNL d’Italia, and scalped now-World No. 5 Robin Soderling in his own backyard in Båstad in 2007. It is those memories, coupled with the realisation that he could have achieved even more had he applied himself better, that are driving Hernandez to declare a Top 100 finish in 2011 as his ambition.

Currently World No. 407 in the South African Airways 2011 ATP Rankings, it seems a lofty ambition. But he is a man determined to realise his goal. He began his rehabilitation in February, accompanied by a new training partner, his dog Buffy; encouraged by his fiancée Raquel; and guided once more by Marcos Roy.

“It’s a very slow process,” says Roy. “Even today he’s not 100 per cent. He has days where it’s tougher and of course his motivation is a bit affected by it. But this is where I come in and play my role as a coach. I need to make him see things on the positive side. You don’t get anything without putting the work in and he will achieve what he really wants if he keeps working at it and is consistent about it.”

HernandezAs a former Top 40 player, Martin appreciates the difficulties of returning from a serious injury, but states, “The important thing is that he wants to return. He loves tennis and he wants to do it. We will see the result. He’s very determined and he wants it a lot. So I think he has to try it and he has nothing to lose now.”

For Hernandez, the saying rings true that ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’. It is with renewed vigour and appreciation for both his health and his tennis that the Spaniard is prepared to embark on his third career.

“My ambition is to finish 2011 in the Top 100. Maybe I won’t even be able to play one match, I don’t know. At this moment it’s so difficult to say that. I don’t think I can improve my tennis. But I have a really important thing: I have a lot of experience. I know how life is, I know how tennis is.

“During my recuperation I had difficult moments, but I know for sure that I want to play tennis again and retire from this fantastic sport inside the courts, not outside of them.”

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