Everyone loves a comeback story. When it’s a sporting comeback, it is even easier on the eye.
Like or dislike him, Tiger Woods performed a fairy-tale last weekend at Augusta. The epitome of getting up, after being severely knocked down. Four back operations. 11 years since his last Major win. 14 years since his last Masters. Ranked a staggering 1,199thin the world. Sunday, he put on the Green Jacket to make it 15 Major wins.
As a current sportsman, you appreciate the highs and lows of professional sport. Woods has to be up there as having some of the highest highs, but most famously, some of the lowest of lows. According to Golf Digest, Woods made $769,440,709 from 1996 to 2007 when he was at the top of his game. After the passing of his Dad, and the ‘cheating scandal’ in 2009, money, golf and his life, sunk to an all-time low.
Sunday reminded people of where Tiger had come from, but it also reminded them about his sporting greatness. The 43-year-old had made mistakes, but in adversity, resilience can be found. This got me thinking not just about the story of Tiger Woods, but a cast back to some of history’s great sporting comebacks of other individuals. After all, everyone loves a comeback story.
Andre Agassi (1997)
One of tennis’ most naturally gifted. Considered, like Tigers Woods, as a sporting God. Agassi was a poster boy, the first male player to win all Grand Slam Tournaments on all the different services. He won the Davis Cup, was named in 1992 as BBC Oversees Sports Personality of the Year and triumphed in Atlanta 1996 to win Olympic Gold.
He finished 1996 as world number one for yet another year. However, the legend fell emphatically from grace.
1997 and Agassi slumped to 141stin the world, barely lifting a racquet over 12 months as he battled his demons. A failing marriage and a compulsion to crystal methamphetamine. Coupled with reoccurring injuries, and a complete full out of love from the sport. The once king of tennis was at his lowest.
Yet much like Tiger Woods, adversity brought out the champion within him. A rigorous conditioning program and playing in many Challenger Series tournaments, saw the former world number one climb, what was thought by many as impossible, mountain. Agassi found his redemption, in 1999 he came back from two sets to love down to beat Andrei Medvedev in a five-set French Open final.
He became the only male player to win the Career Super Slam, consisting of all four Grand Slam tournaments plus an Olympic gold medal in singles and a Year-End Championship. He went on to claim four more Grand Slam titles before his retirement.
Perfectly written in his later autobiography, ‘Open’, the man himself suggested that “When you’ve been broken, you come back and give more”.
Monica Seles (1996)
During the 1990s, Seles was regarded as one of women tennis’ very best. The Yugoslavian/American became the youngest ever French Open women’s singles champion in 1990 at the age of 16. By the beginning of 1993 she had won a staggering eight Grand Slams, an impressive three Australian Open, three French Open and two US Open titles, with a narrow loss in the Wimbledon final in 1992.
She complied an astonishing record of 159 wins and only 12 losses by February 1993. Seles was comfortably in tennis deity and world number one.
On April 30thher career and life nearly came to a terrifying end. In a quarter final match in Hamburg against Magdalena Maleeva, a member from the crowd rushed on to the court and stabbed Seles in the back. Rushed to hospital, tennis thought it witnessed the most catastrophic of scenes. Luckily for Seles her injuries were nothing too serious but the once ‘Queen of the Court’ would not see another tennis court for two years.
In 1995, Seles found her feet back in tennis, reaching the US Open final but losing out to Steffi Graf. Her unbelievable resilience would eventually pull her through for one of the greatest comebacks to be seen in tennis. 1996 saw the Yugoslavian/American claim Grand Slam glory once again, with an emotion win at the Australian Open. The victory was a testament to her sheer talent that Seles processed, and the incredible desire to make a successful comeback.
Niki Lauda (1976 & 1984)
Not one, but two comebacks. The first after near death.
In Formulae 1, Niki Lauda was the dominant force and standout Drivers’ Champion in 1975. By 1976 it seemed the same story, the Austrian was down for a second consecutive title with more than double the points off second place. However, the Ferrari driver, at the Nürburgring on the 1stAugust swerved into a barrier, crashing, sending his car into a blaze. Lauda suffered severe burns, scarring most of the right side of his face, which also resulted in impairment to his right eye.
He incredibly managed to only miss two races and was back driving six weeks later. It was regarded as one of the most courageous comebacks in sport, dramatically displayed in the recent film ‘Rush’. Astonishingly, Lauda only managed to miss out on the Championship by one point.
He would gain redemption from his adversity in 1977 when finally winning back the Drivers’ Championship. Nonetheless, to continue with Lauda’s extraordinary comeback attitude, after his double retirement from the sport, he came back in 1984 to win his third and final Championship.
Muhammad Ali (1974)
Mohammed Ali, regarded as boxing’s greatest, became World Champion after infamously upsetting Sonny Liston in 1963, sparking an extraordinary career. Holding on to his title until 1966, the worldwide known phenomenon was stripped of his title by the boxing federation, after refusing induction into the US Army for the war in Vietnam.
Not the same sort of mistakes seen by Agassi and Woods, but the personal decision and beliefs from Ali meant that he was refused a boxing licence and would not be allowed to box for a full three years.
Eventually after appealing, Ali came out of exile, gained a new licence and managed to make his way up to be the number one contender to take on Joe Frazier in the infamous 1971 match, named ‘Fight of the Century’. The fairy-tale ending wasn’t to be for Ali that day, but the former champion never gave up, even though many doubted him.
He would get his revenge on Frazier soon after, but the title fight was to be in 1974, ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ against champion George Foreman. Against the odds, and amidst pandemonium in the ring, Ali manged to finally regain the title he once had been stripped of, by knockout.
He had missed out on his peak fighting, snubbed by many, thrown into exile; yet he floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee to make his comeback.
Ben Hogan (1950)
Finishing up with another on a golfing theme, this time a comeback from pretty much the dead.
Ben Hogan was regarded as the greatest golfer in the world. From 1938 through to 1959, he won 63 professional golf tournaments despite the interruption of his career by the Second World War and a near-fatal car accident. Hogan served in the U.S. Army Air Forces from March 1943 to June 1945.
His accident occurred in 1949, when on a foggy morning, he crashed his Cadillac after swerving to avoid an oncoming bus. He threw himself over his wife, who was sitting next to him, to protect her from the collision. The state of the car meant that many believed the couple were dead when they got to the scene. However, Hogan had saved his wife, and later when taken to hospital, the great American golfer managed to fight for his life. Numerous bones were broken, and he had a severe blood clot in his lungs. Doctors told him he would make it but said he would never play gold again.
Sixteen months later, Hogan made his return, and completed the almighty comeback to win the 1950 US Open title. 1953 was the year Hogan made sporting history, becoming the only professional golfer to have ever won ‘The Triple Crown’ in one season, championing at the Masters, the US Open and The Open. It just so happened that he was unable to enter the PGA Championship that year; as many suggested, he would have most certainly won that too.
Hogan became a legend. Defying what the doctors told him, coming back from near death and going on to win future Majors.
Tiger Woods’ achievement will go down in the history books, along with the many others who have come through adversity and succeeded. The past suggests that sport brings out the real fight in the human race, the ability to show unwillingness to quit. Maybe there is something that we can all take away from the athletes above. When you feel you may be beaten, knocked down and out, you can get back up. It may not be for a Masters title, a World Championship belt, or a Grand Slam, but the word ‘comeback’ exists for a reason. I tip my hat to Tiger, installing in us all why we should never give up.