Widom delighted after years of despair
Every tennis club has a ladder.
There are no gray areas; you are who you beat. Until you can handle the guy ahead of you, there will be no upward mobility. And going down is always a possibility.
The ATP World Tour, the biggest, richest tennis club in the universe, is no different.
This past week, a red-headed, blue-eyed journeyman from Coral Springs, Fla., made the largest leap of any player on the ultimate tennis ladder. After a series of outrageous misfortunes, Todd Widom did something extraordinary: He reached the quarterfinals of the SAP Open in San Jose.
Not only did he match his previous career ATP victory total -- two -- he received 57 precious rankings points and $14,000, his biggest payday ever. As a result, his ranking shot from No. 270 to No. 232, where he is now neighbors with No. 231 Santiago Gonzalez of Mexico and No. 232 Dawid Olejniczak of Poland, who like Widom are ambitious 25-year-olds desperate to advance farther up the ladder.
"If you had told me a year ago, almost in retirement, that I'd be in the quarterfinals of a big ATP tournament, I would have thought you were out of your mind," Widom said earlier this week from his Florida home.
In the past three years Widom has been visited by a terrifying brush with cancer of the eye, two knee injuries and an inflamed elbow. Tennis, one of the most demanding sports in terms of broad athletic skills, isn't possible if you can't: 1) see, 2) move or 3) swing at the ball. And yet, somehow, despite all the health issues -- which got so bad he interviewed a year ago for a teaching job that would have effectively ended his career -- Widom has prevailed.
Widom is good friends with Michael Russell, a fellow American who knows all about the vagaries of professional tennis. Russell, who reached a career-high ranking of No. 60 in the summer of 2007, finds himself sitting at No. 291 just 18 months later. The two were talking a few weeks ago, as they do almost daily.
"Wouldn't it be a great story," Russell said to Widom, "if you came back and started playing well again?"
Well, yes. Here's the abridged version of that story:
Widom, a 5-foot-11, 185-pound athlete, grew up playing tennis in Florida and followed the fairly typical path of a gifted teenager. He played at the University of Miami as a freshman in 2001-02 at No. 1 singles, finishing as the nation's No. 3-ranked frosh. In 2002, he turned pro and began working his way up through the Futures and Challenger events that constitute tennis' version of Double-A and Triple-A baseball.
In January 2006, Widom beat Wesley Moodie in the first round at Delray Beach, Fla., and his full-court game, led by a rock-solid backhand, had never been better. He would achieve his highest career ranking, No. 200, in August of that year, but Widom was about to fall into a vortex of doubt and, sometimes, despair that would consume him for more than two years.
"I noticed my left eye was getting quite red," Widom said, "but I was playing so well I didn't want to get off the road. I tried to keep going."
"It rained during the day, and we went out there at 8 o'clock at night. Now, the lights at the U.S. Open are great, but I couldn't see a thing. I called the trainer, and he gave me eye drops, but it didn't work. Koubek beat me quick."
Widom hung out with cousins in New Jersey and tried not to think about it. When his vision didn't clear, he visited the University of Miami's Jackson Memorial Medical Center. Upon examination, they told him he had CIN -- corneal and conjunctival intraepithelial neoplasia -- a cancerous tumor in the white part of his left eye.
"Eye cancer," Russell said from his home in Florida. "That is about as scary as it gets."
When three months of chemotherapy drops failed to reduced the mass, Dr. Carol Karp removed it in December 2006. She patched it up with an embryonic membrane from a pregnant woman.> When he was still having a tough time seeing 120 mile-per-hour serves, Widom ditched his contact lenses and had Lasik surgery performed by Dr. Cory Lessner in Fort Lauderdale. Equipped with 20-15 vision, he was ready to return to tennis in the summer of 2007, but then his right knee started to swell and he couldn't put any weight on it. Three of the best orthopedic surgeons in south Florida couldn't figure it out, but Nicholas Ruggiero, the chiropractor of the NHL's Florida Panthers, discovered a dislocated fibula head that was causing a tendon in Widom's knee to swell. Problem solved
" but the story goes on, trust me," Widom said in an almost blasé voice.
Late in the 2007 season, after training with James Blake, Widom felt pain in his other knee. An MRI revealed a torn meniscus, which was repaired by Dr. Daniel Kanell, the longtime orthopedic specialist for the Miami Dolphins and Florida Marlins. And then, just when Widom was returning to form in early 2008, his eye started getting red again.
"I was extremely nervous that the cancer was coming back," he said. "And then my elbow gave out. Honestly, I thought I was going to retire."
Widom actually interviewed for a tennis teaching job at an exclusive private community in Fort Lauderdale.
"If they had offered me the job, I would have taken it," Widom said. "But they didn't. I was so banged up from the previous five years, I really felt I didn't have a choice. You can't be injured every year and advance to the upper echelons of the game. It's impossible."
A biopsy of his eye in April revealed the cancer wasn't back, and that the reason for the reddening was a buildup of scar tissue.
"Unbelievable relief," Widom said. "I'm planning for a second cancer surgery and it's scar tissue. Right then and there, I decided to give [tennis] another go."
And so, back to the minor-league circuit he went. He knew he had made the right decision in May when he beat Russian Artem Sitak, an old foe, in the first round of a Challenger at Tunica Resorts in Mississippi. Then he defeated American Robert Kendrick in the second round. Widom wound up the 2008 season with a solid base of results and a ranking of No. 257.
A week ago in San Jose, despite a sore shoulder, he blew through three rounds of qualifying, then took out Robby Ginepri -- a U.S. Open semifinalist in 2005 and the ATP's No. 44-ranked player -- in a stunning first-round upset. Widom beat Taylor Dent in the second round and won the opening set from eventual champion Radek Stepanek, before losing the last dozen games.
"Great experience, really exciting," Widom said. "I heard from a lot of people I hadn't heard from in awhile, going all the way back to junior tennis."
Short-term goals? Cracking the top 150 as soon as possible. The effort begins in Delray Beach, Fla., where Widom has played well in the past. He's requested a wild card at Indian Wells but may have to try and qualify for the main draw. After that it will be another series of Future and Challenger events before an attempt to qualify at Roland Garros.
Doctors and therapists are a part of everyday life in tennis, and Widom credited Dr. Keith Parmenter of Boca Raton, Fla., a specialist in rolfing -- an aggressive, deep form of massage -- with keeping him injury-free. Four to five times a week, Widom subjects himself to the pain, a happy price to pay for his gains up the ATP ladder.
"San Jose was a huge breakthrough for him," Russell said. "He's rededicated himself to getting fitter, and you can see the confidence on the court.
"He hasn't played that many tour events, but he can play with those guys. It's a bigger ball coming at you than in Challengers, but he can handle it. He's already proved he can handle anything."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.