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Breaking Back

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Taylor Dent of the USA fires a backhand return to Andy Murray of Great Britain during the US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, Sunday, September 6, 2009 in Flushing Meadows, New York.

After shaking hands with Ivan Navarro and the chair umpire, American tennis star Taylor Dent grabbed the microphone from the umpire's chair and turned to the U.S. Open crowd.


It was not the typical ending to a professional tennis match. But then again, Dent will never be accused of being typical.

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""You guys are awesome!"" he yelled.


The New York audience went wild, but it might as well have been a shout-out to the UA campus on Sept. 4.


Thirty-one other players made the third round, but this night belonged to Dent. While all eyes may have been on U.S. Open winner Juan Martin Del Potro on Monday — who dethroned World No. 1 Roger Federer — it's an American who is catching the imagination.


Somewhere, UA tennis assistant coach Tom Lloyd was most definitely smiling.


""It was amazing,"" Lloyd said. ""But it didn't surprise me one bit.""


Lloyd knows better than anyone the up-and-down saga of Taylor Dent.


It was Tom Lloyd who convinced Dent to volunteer coach at the UA in 2007 during a back injury that sidelined Dent for more than two years.


Two days after his match with Navarro, Dent fell to World No. 2 Andy Murray in the third round. It didn't matter, though. The word was already out—Taylor Dent was back.


A top-25 player before his injury, Dent was in his prime and rising through the ranks of professional tennis. Reaching a career high ranking of 21 in 2005, Dent seemed destined to break onto the world stage.


That was the plan.


""No plan ever goes 100 percent the way you want it to,"" he said.


The Fallout


Then something decidedly untypical happened to the upstart American, something that left Lloyd not smiling.


Having dealt with back pain his entire career, Dent received regular shots to ease the pain, shots that suddenly stopped working. Dent was forced to retire after surgery to deal with the fracture of his L5 vertebrae on both sides.


Dent likes to keep his composure on the court as to not let emotion get the better of him.


""If every match I won was a high and every match I lost was a low, God,"" Dent said, ""I don't know if I could play this sport.""


This wasn't a match, though. This was Taylor Dent's life.


""It was no longer necessary for my tennis career,"" Dent said. ""It was necessary for quality of life.""


""It wasn't about tennis. It was about whether he'd be able to mow the lawn or tie his shoes,"" Lloyd said. ""He was told he'd be lucky to pick up his child.""


Seeing his best friend since childhood struggle with the hand that life had dealt him, Lloyd reached out to Dent.


""I was just sitting around not knowing what to do, and he offered me a volunteer coaching job out there,"" Dent said. ""I said sure.""


It was an easy call for Tom Lloyd to bring Taylor Dent into the UA tennis family.


""We grew up together in southern California,"" Lloyd said. ""I mean, we were the best men at each other's weddings.""


While at Arizona, Dent melded into his new role as a mentor to the young players, as well as a recruiting tool. He never went to college, so the UA became his new home, his default alma mater.


A year later, the unthinkable happened. Dent was told by his doctor that he might be able to give a tennis comeback a try.


Taylor Dent, the fan favorite forced into early retirement who had to worry about completing mundane everyday tasks, was now going to come back to the sport he had been told he would never be able to play again? It sounded risky to most. It sounded typical to Tom Lloyd.


""That's who he is,"" Lloyd said.


The Comeback


After sustaining a second surgery, Dent was left ""pretty disheartened"" by practice sessions that left him out of breath. This comeback thing was going to be hard.


""I didn't know what to do,"" Dent said. ""So I just sat down later that day for like three hours and just kind of weighed my options.""


Dent pulled out a piece of paper, sat down and wrote down exactly what it would take for him to return to professional form.


""There wasn't really anything I was writing down that was unattainable,"" he said. ""Everything was in my hands.""


With the support of his best friend and the UA tennis team, Dent worked vigorously with a passion that may be rare for some, but was typical for Taylor Dent, and in 2009, he competed in three Grand Slam tournaments for the first time since 2005.


His world ranking improved from No. 800 in the world to under No. 200. He received an enormous outpouring of support from tennis fans. And all the while, there was the UA tennis team and Tom Lloyd, watching Dent's new achievements with admiration.


Dent will never forget.


""My time (at the UA) was great,"" he said. ""It's pretty tough when you're playing a full-time tennis schedule, but I still keep in touch with the team.""


Now 28, an age when tennis players find themselves falling out of their prime, Dent sees his best days ahead of him.


""(This year) was an amazing success. I proved that not only could I compete with these guys. I could beat them,"" Dent said. ""I'm arguably healthier and stronger now than before I stopped.""


Strong words from a man who is entering an age bracket reserved for the tour's ""old guys,"" but that's typical Taylor Dent, Lloyd said.


""He's got a newfound respect for the sport and a love for the game,"" Lloyd said. ""And I think we still haven't seen his best.""


So what might his best look like? What can fans expect in the future from the man who rose the tennis ranks, fractured his back, was told he would never play again, then defied the odds by not only coming back to the tour, but making it to the third round of American tennis' ""holy grail"" of tournaments?


""The sky's the limit with this guy,"" Lloyd said. ""But we don't want to really look too far ahead. There's a lot of tennis to be played.""


Lloyd isn't willing to speculate on the future of the aging comeback project…but Dent is.


While Dent is focusing on playing as many tournaments as possible to get his ranking back to the top 100, there is one tournament in particular that has caught Dent's eye in the future.


""We all grow up dreaming of winning the U.S. Open one day…Hopefully by the time the U.S. Open rolls around next year, I'll have a good chance to do really well,"" he said as he laughed. ""I'm back. Yeah, I'm back.""


Typical Taylor Dent.

 


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