Tennis is a cyclical sport in constant motion. Get off the merry-go-round, even for a moment, and the sport will move on without you. A harsh reality, but hardly one that intimidates players away from new beginnings. The WTA Tour has had its fair share of glamorous comebacks; Grand Slam champions and former No. 1s alike have thrilled many a crowd by reasserting their presence on a landscape they once dominated. They easily earn wildcards and return to the conversation so quickly, it’s as if they never left. For a brand name player, a career need never end.
Where, then, is the incentive for the rest?
For even the most respectable Top 100 stalwart, the road back to relevance can be exhausting, and rife with stumbling blocks. Players used to direct entry into Grand Slams suddenly have to fight their way into main draws at ITF $10K Challengers. All that came before no longer matters as rejoining the cycle means starting again.
For players like Tatjana Maria and Kateryna Bondarenko, however, starting again doesn’t mean starting alone. The Ukrainian and German are already used to new beginnings, having each left the tour to marry and have children. Maria (née Malek) looked to be hitting her stride by the end of 2012; as a qualifier, she reached the second round of the US Open and led Sloane Stephens by a set before fading in three. The German had reached a career high of No. 64 in 2009, and was looking to re-enter the Top 100 when she married her coach, former ATP player Charles Edouard Maria, in April of last year. Taking a maternity leave after Wimbledon, Maria gave birth to daughter Charlotte in December. Four months later, she was back on the court, playing small events to rebuild her eroded ranking.
The younger Bondarenko had reached far greater heights in her first career. With sister Alona, Bondarenko claimed a major title in Melbourne en route to a career high of No. 9 in doubles. On the singles court, the former No. 29 won a thrilling three-set encounter against a struggling Ana Ivanovic at the 2009 US Open. Fighting off match points, the Ukrainian took a decisive tiebreak as night fell over Louis Armstrong Stadium. Bondarenko parlayed the upset through a broken draw, double bageling Argentina’s Gisela Dulko to reach her first major quarterfinal. Two years later, she married businessman Denis Volodko and promptly disappeared from the Tour. Giving birth to a daughter of her own (Karin), Bondarenko didn’t not appear likely to return, and took her time to settle into married life. Returning within a few weeks of Maria, the Ukrainian leads the German by 10 spots in the rankings, each looking poised to crack the Top 200 by 2015. Both played qualifying at this week’s $50K Challenger in Captiva Island, winning the requisite matches to play the main draw without the loss of a set, and could potentially meet in the semifinals.
Looking from the sidelines will be Charlotte and Karin, still too young to understand, but a constant source of joy to parents playing with them in mind.