Tick . . . tick . . . tick . . .
Depending on one's perspective, the clock on Pam Shriver's professional tennis career is either winding down to a precious few months or being rewound for the latest in a series of comebacks. And, depending on one's outlook, Shriver is either over the hill or looking for another one to charge back up.
The past year has not been kind to Shriver. Her right shoulder began giving her problems last December. She broke a bone in her left foot kicking an empty courtside chair in March and was sidelined a month. Shortly after she returned, the pain in the shoulder worsened, torn tissue was discovered and arthroscopic surgery was performed in early June.
"I have to be optimistic about it, but I also have to be realistic. The chances of me getting back to where I was [in the rankings] are less than 20 percent," Shriver said last week. "But the chances of me getting back into the top 20 and having a couple of big tournaments every year are around 50 percent. I've got to find out if I can do it."
Ranked third in the world as recently as June 1988, and No. 17 at the start of this season, the combination of Shriver's erratic performance in six tournaments earlier this year and the inactivity since surgery has dropped her to 66th in the Women's International Tennis Association rankings. Considering the difficult nature of tennis comebacks, and the fact that, at 28, Shriver is among the oldest players on tour, the chances for even the latter might even be less.
But she recently has started to try to play again. Two weeks ago, she played with fellow Baltimorean Elise Burgin in doubles at the Virginia Slims of Nashville, losing in the first round. On Nov. 27, she will team with Burgin again, this time in the First National Bank Tennis Festival at the Baltimore Arena. Shriver and Burgin will meet the event's two featured performers, Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati. The tour's latest phenoms, ranked third and 10th in the world respectively, also will play each other in singles.
"It was kind of ironic, the day after the surgery, I was at home and a little groggy, and my mom turned on the French Open semifinals and the two of them are bashing the ball all over the court," Shriver said. "I was kind of worried, this was my first summer in about 20 years without tennis. But I got to do some things -- like visiting my little sister at camp -- that I didn't have the time to do before. And because of all the things that happened in tennis this summer, it was kind of neat to be a spectator."
Two of the sport's more intriguing stories -- injury-plagued Andres Gomez winning the French Open and John McEnroe's wonderful run at the U.S. Open -- had a profound effect on Shriver. So did conversations she had with former men's star Vitas Gerulaitis and the recently retired Chris Evert. Despite a busy schedule that included several television appearances as an analyst, Shriver found that she missed the grind.
"One of the things Chris told me that between the ages of 28 and 32 she probably worked the hardest," said Shriver, who is in Europe, where she will work as an analyst on two men's events. "I've talked to a lot of players, like Vitas, who thought they had quit too early. It would be uncomfortable for me to look back and wonder why I didn't give myself another chance."
Shriver, whose rigorous weight training regimen helped her last rise to the No. 3 ranking, has gone through an even more strenuous program in order to regain the strength and mobility in her shoulder. She even has tried plyometrics again for the first time in two years, exercises designed to increase speed and power in the lower torso. Never the most gifted of athletes,
Shriver has survived and flourished with a firm serve and a devastating overhead volley.
The injury to her shoulder threatens Shriver's future because it could limit her game, but the surgery is expected to mend it completely. Julie Copeland, one of two physical therapists to work with Shriver during her rehabilitation, said last week that the flexibility in the shoulder is "about 95 percent" and her strength is back to where it was two years ago.
"I've always played a pretty patterned game, I didn't have 80 kinds of shots," Shriver said. "I've talked to [longtime coach] Don Candy and asked him, 'Do I go to Australia without a serve, without a weapon?' I hope by the end of December, I'm crushing it."
Said Candy, "If there's no serve and no overhead for Pammy, there's no Pammy."
Candy said he was encouraged by what he saw at a workout prior to Shriver's departure last week, but he knows she has a difficult road back. Candy, who has been with Shriver during most of her 12 years on tour, says that it will be as much a struggle with her mind as it will be with her body.