Bent But Not Broken, Stebe Soars After Three Years On Sidelines
UPDATE: Stebe has claimed his first Grand Slam match win since 2012, defeating Nicolas Kicker in four sets at the US Open.
Cedrik-Marcel Stebe had his doubts if he would ever play professional tennis again. Every player has a breaking point and the 26 year old was closing in on discovering his, as he sat at home recovering from a multitude of injuries... for nearly three years.
"I was struggling with myself. I was thinking 'What did I do to deserve this?' I didn't do anything wrong. Was there something wrong with my body? It was as much of a mental struggle as it was a physical one."
Hip impingement surgery. Lower back ailment. Pubic bone inflammation. Pelvic surgery to insert netting. Stress fracture of the pubic bone.
The list is nearly as painful to read as it was for Stebe to endure. But when the body fails, perseverance prevails. As the German returns to the US Open for the first time since 2013, roaming the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, memories have been flooding back. But as the former World No. 71 has learned throughout his comeback, these moments of nostalgia are exactly what fuel him to rediscover his top level and return to the Top 100.
"I'm playing different now than I was when I was 71 in the world (in 2012)," Stebe told ATPWorldTour.com. "Your game is always developing in every direction. I'm trying to play a little more aggressive now than I used to. There are many young players that try to hit it hard and have a good serve. You need to adjust it as well."
To say that Stebe has been on a tear since returning to full-time competition on the ATP Challenger Tour and ATP World Tour in March 2016, would be an understatement. This time last year, the 26 year old was attempting to qualify for a Challenger in Alphen, The Netherlands. Now, up nearly 500 spots in the Emirates ATP Rankings, the World No. 106 is back in New York seeking a successful US Open qualifying campaign to push him inside the Top 100 and beyond.
Stebe has significant momentum at his back as he enters the final Grand Slam of the year, after cruising to the title at the Odlum Brown VanOpen - a $100,000 ATP Challenger Tour event - on Sunday. A 6-0, 6-1 rout of 74th-ranked Jordan Thompson in the final capped a dominant week on the hard courts of Hollyburn Country Club.
"I wasn't missing any balls and made just a few unforced errors. Mentally I was feeling really good and I was just playing really well. I was right on point. Maybe he wasn't feeling 100 per cent, maybe 95, but that is usually not good enough against me."
Stebe looks back on the entire five-year experience as a wake-up call. Nothing is guaranteed in life, especially as a professional tennis player. At age 21, the German was playing the best tennis of his young career before undergoing surgery for a hip impingement in 2013. He explains that walking on crutches afterwards led to lower back problems as he shifted weight to one side of his body.
Seeking a swift recovery from the setback, he started practising again, but the pain returned. This time, it was above his pelvis. An MRI revealed inflammation, which persisted for 10 months. Surgeons needed to insert netting to stabilize the gut and prevent it from creating tension against the muscles and pubic bone. Hoping the worst was behind him, Stebe suffered another blow to his comeback soon after returning to the court. A second MRI showed a stress fracture on the other side of the pelvis.
"I was struggling with myself. You may have a surgery or an injury, but then you recover from it and start playing again. For me, I was almost tournament ready and then I got knocked out again. I visited many doctors and it's just been a mental struggle for me. I wasn't always positive."
Stebe says the turning point in his comeback was a run to the quarter-finals at the Banque Eric Sturdza Geneva Open in May. A lucky loser, it was his first appearance in the last eight of an ATP World Tour event in five years. He would also score his first Top 50 win since the 2012 US Open, upsetting countryman Jan-Lennard Struff.
Stebe's success in Geneva was the catalyst for his surge up the Emirates ATP Rankings, subsequently claiming the title at the Challenger in Poprad Tatry, Slovakia and finishing runner-up on home soil in Marburg two week later. He would reach the second round at the ATP World Tour 500 event in Hamburg as a qualifier, before notching a second Challenger title of the season in Vancouver.
"It means a lot to me. I didn't know if I was ever going to come back after such a long time away," Stebe added. "Nothing is certain at this stage. I was just really thrilled that I am playing this well. It feels great to be there again and it also feels unreal. I didn't expect to be playing this well, to be honest. I don't know how I'm doing it, but I am. It's really a weird feeling, but I'm happy about it.
"I knew I could play some good tennis if I'm healthy. If I could make it again, I could be in the Top 100. I used to be there and I know how to get there. That kept me going. My girlfriend and my family were always there for me. I needed some time off during the period. There was a while that I didn't follow tennis at all. Otherwise I would have gone crazy for sure."
Sitting at No. 471 in the Emirates ATP Rankings to open 2017, Stebe has had to constantly reassess his goals as the season has progressed. An initial target of Top 200 by the end of the year has transformed to a goal of finishing in the Top 100 and solidifying his place in the main draw of the Australian Open. But, despite his resurgent run, he stresses that it is important to put everything in perspective and avoid unnecessary pressure.
"Everything else is pretty much a bonus. After winning in Poprad I thought the Top 100 could be a goal if I'm playing like this. I don't want to put any pressure on myself. If I'm No. 103 by the end of the year, I don't care. To be this high after starting the season near the Top 500, it's great. I just want to play good matches and everything else will come by itself. If you perform well, the rest will come."