Monday, April 26, 2021

Klahn attempts comeback after third back surgery

Stanford graduate Bradley Klahn said, "I've got to give myself a shot." 
2017 photo by Mal Taam 
   Bradley Klahn's career is in jeopardy.
   The 30-year-old Stanford graduate, who reached a career-high No. 63 in 2014, had surgery on the same herniated disc in his back for the third time in December. It's far from certain whether he can make another comeback or, if he does, how long it will last.
   "If I can get back and play five more tournaments, and my body is telling me I can't do it, or if that's five more years — or if I don't get back — at some point it's out of my control," the affable Klahn said Friday in a candid, thoughtful, introspective interview. "The only thing I can control is doing the work each day on my body."
   Klahn is not hitting balls yet.
   "I'm still in the gym working on regaining all the strength and stability," he said. "The only thing I can control is, am I building up my strength? Am I increasing my flexibility? Am I doing everything I can to be as healthy as possible physically and mentally? If I do that and I do get back, great. If I do that and it just doesn't happen, at least I'll know that I gave it a shot. The biggest thing for me is I've got to give myself a shot, and the best way to do that is to stay in the moment.
   "It's a struggle. It's easy to get ahead of yourself on down days in PT (physical therapy) where things might not be feeling great. There's plenty of times where you question yourself, like, how can I get back when I feel like this? But I've been in physical therapy for 2 1/2 months, and I look at where I am now compared to where I started. You realize how far you can come in a short period of time when you're not caught up in where the end of the road is and just go in and do the work every day."
   Klahn doesn't know when he'll start hitting balls.
   "I'm leaving that entirely in the hands of my medical team," he said. "When my doctor and physical therapist clear me to hit balls, you better believe I'll have my racket in my hand that day. Until then, I trust them. They've seen a lot more of these injuries than just mine. They have an idea what it looks like, and we'll build up from there. I'm gradually improving every day. I'm gradually increasing my workload, strength and cardio, and slowly building into some off-court exercises. Everything is trending in the right direction, which is all I can ask for."
Playing professional tennis "is a huge passion of mine," Bradley Klahn
 said. 2018 photo courtesy of JFS Communications 
   Klahn, who's single and lives in Marina del Rey in the Los Angeles area, said he rehabs five days a week for three to four hours a day. 
   "The weekends I try to taper back a little bit more and be more active enjoying myself," he said. "That just means getting out, going for walks, getting to the beach, just making sure I'm getting out and about and surrounding myself with friends, which I think is important.
   "It's tough when so much of your identity for better or worse is tied up in tennis. I've been a professional tennis player for nine years. I've struggled with identifying myself too closely as a professional tennis player and not as a human being who plays professional tennis. I've tried to work on that this time around. Having that outlet has helped me stay fresher mentally, be more excited to go into rehab every day and keep me more excited about tennis."
   Klahn even began watching tennis on TV. 
   "The last couple of weeks have been the first time I've turned on the tennis every morning," he said. "I've been watching Monte Carlo and Barcelona. I don't have the same kind of sadness or pain I've had previously. I'm excited to watch, and I'm learning from the guys I'm watching: How can I apply this to my game when or if I'm able to get back?"
   After Klahn's second surgery, in 2015, he couldn't bring himself to watch the French Open or the U.S. Open.
   "It was too painful knowing what I was missing out on," he said. "I have a tremendous amount of appreciation for what tennis has given me. I want to get back for the fun of it. I actually want to enjoy it out on tour. If it doesn't happen, I realize I've given it my all. I've had a pretty good career. I definitely feel I have more out there, but there comes a time when you have to be more of a realist about the whole situation."
   Klahn, who majored in economics at Stanford, also has been taking online classes. He just finished a course through Harvard Business School called Crossover Into Business for Professional Athletes.
   "We worked with a couple mentors who were current HBS students and got to learn from them" Klahn said. "We would read through case studies and discuss them. I really enjoyed that one. It started to get me thinking more in business terms."
   Ideally, Klahn would return to competition in time for U.S. Open qualifying, scheduled for the week of Aug. 23.
   "I don't know how realistic that is, to be honest," said Klahn, who will have a protected ranking of No. 138 for nine to 12 tournaments, depending on how long he's out. "The U.S. Open is always my favorite tournament. It's hard to describe my emotions and excitement when I step off the plane in New York and walk onto the grounds at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center for the first time that year. It's just a place that's always been very special to me. It's a place where I've had a lot of really memorable matches.
   "Every year I miss the U.S. Open, it's a tough year. That's always the goal, but I have to be smart. I have to think about my long-term health and not do permanent damage to my back or any other part of my body and see how I progress through the rehab process."
   Klahn put his back problems in perspective.
   "It's easy to get caught up and focus on the back, but as I've had time to step back after surgery, I realize that I am pretty fortunate that I've been able to play at a high level for such a long time given the back ailments," he said. "The same back that has caused me problems is the same back that has helped me win a lot of matches. There's good and bad that comes with it.
   "Playing professional tennis is going to stress the back more than if I didn't play professional tennis. But playing professional tennis has also given me a lot of unique opportunities. More than anything, it's a huge passion of mine. I've wanted to be a professional tennis player since I started playing tennis at 11. I've just loved being on court, and I loved going to Stanford and playing on the team there. There wasn't a doubt in my mind that when I graduated from Stanford that I was going to play on the professional tour. You make a lot of sacrifices in pro sports, and it is tough on your body, but I've always found the reward has been greater."
   Klahn won the 2010 NCAA singles championship as a sophomore and underwent his first operation the following year. After graduating in 2012, he won the first of his eight Challenger singles titles in Aptos, Calif., a one-hour drive south of Stanford, in 2013.
   Klahn reached the second round of the U.S. Open in 2012, 2013 and 2019 and at Wimbledon in 2018. Also, he and countryman Tim Smyczek advanced to the third round of doubles at Flushing Meadows in 2014, losing to top-ranked Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan.  
Bradley Klahn's lefty forehand is one of his biggest weapons.
2012 photo by Paul Bauman
   Klahn's last match came in the second round of a clay-court Challenger in Split, Croatia, last October. He retired with Alessandro Giannessi of Italy leading 7-6 (7), 3-0. 
   "I believe it was the first time I've ever retired in the middle of a match as a professional in singles," said Klahn, a 6-foot (1.83-meter) left-hander with a wicked serve and forehand. "I've always prided myself on my competitiveness and willingness to stay in matches. We don't bring our best stuff to the table every day, but when I step foot on the court, my job is to win the match. I've been in a lot of pain in matches before. I've played through herniated discs countless times, and that was the most pain I've ever been in on court. I couldn't actually put weight on my right leg to go up and serve.
   "There's a lot of emotions the next two months, and there's still a lot of emotions involved with it. I rehabbed for two months and made the decision that it just wasn't getting better and I needed to have the surgery. I wanted to get back to tennis. I had this bitter taste in my mouth of how the season ended and the fear of that being the way my career ends."
   Klahn added that he doesn't know what his chances are of coming back.
   "In some ways, that's the beauty of it," he said. "I can't pinpoint a percentage. I didn't think I was going to get back after the second surgery. I went from thinking that this is not that hard, I'm going to get back in no time and be even better than I was before to for a year thinking I was never going to get back and really struggling with that. Then I ended up getting back. I didn't hit my highest ranking, but I won more matches at the tour level.
   "It's hard to say. I don't know how my back is going to respond. There's just a lot of unknowns. The more I try to micromanage and control all the unknowns, the harder time I have mentally. I've found a lot more joy in embracing the unknowns, putting in the work and letting it fall where it may."

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