Pat Cash has returned to Wimbledon. Literally -- and figuratively.
One year ago, Cash left here a confused, distraught young man. He had been beaten by Ricardo Acuna, a qualifier; his back hurt, and no one could tell him why. Bad as it all seemed then, it was only a beginning.
In the next 11 months, Cash underwent back surgery, didn't hit a tennis ball for six months, played himself back into shape, and then, three weeks before the start of Wimbledon and six days after the birth of his son, he had an emergency appendectomy.
"It has not been my most enjoyable year," he said last week.
Strangely, though, it may have been a valuable year. In 1984, Cash reached the semifinals at Wimbledon and in the U.S. Open at age 19. He was hailed as the hero Australia had been looking for since all the great players of the 1960s and 1970s retired. But he also was excoriated for his behavior, his bad temper, his rudeness on and off the court. He was the second coming of John McEnroe, as a player and as a bad boy.
After he lost in the Open semifinals to Ivan Lendl in 1984 -- he had a match point in the fifth-set tie breaker -- Cash tossed his racket five rows into the seats. He said then, and says now, that he was throwing it to some fan. But he was fined for the toss and chastised. "I wasn't that upset," he said. "But I do still see the lob he hit on match point. It had to be perfect and it was. I'll never forget that."
He is philosophical now.
"I was hotheaded, I admit it," Cash said. "But every time I got fined or did anything, it was all over the papers in Australia, and then I would get all upset. It went back and forth all the time. I had to learn to get pretty thick-skinned. I think I've done that."
In fact, those who know Cash say that the last year has changed him considerably. He is more patient, less arrogant and far more mature. He also came into this tournament ranked 418th in the world. Twelve months ago, he was eighth.
That is why his straight-set victory on Tuesday over Guillermo Vilas was impressive. Vilas is not a grass-court player, but he is a good player. Cash was controlled, quick and, when he needed to be, overpowering. Eighteen days after surgery and four days before the match, Cash exuded confidence.
"When I practice my serve, my stomach still gets a little tight, but I think it will be okay," he said then. "I know if I can serve, I can beat Vilas on grass. But if I don't, I'll just keep working. When I first came back after the back surgery, I thought I'd come right back. Then I played some shocking matches in qualifying and I knew it wouldn't be so easy."
Maybe things have come too easily for Cash. His ascension as a tennis star was rapid, and his little-boy grin and muscular build made him a star among the teeny-boppers. He made lots and lots of money before he was 20 and thought he owned the world. His fall was as rapid as his rise.
"What was killing me all last summer was that I didn't know what was wrong," he said. "The doctors kept saying it would get better. I kept playing and I kept losing. I didn't understand it. All of a sudden I had gone from being a top player to being an average one. It was very frustrating."
Surgery meant going back to step one, starting a conditioning program to get into better shape and doing some serious thinking about the talent he had taken for granted. "I thought a couple times that it might be over," he said. "That scared me."
When Cash did come back to the tour in February, his ranking had dropped so much that he was forced to play qualifying. He lost. He did get into two tournaments with wild cards and lost to Aaron Krickstein and Tim Mayotte in first-round matches. But he never stopped thinking he could come back -- until the night of May 31.
That was a Saturday, four days after his son Daniel was born in Norway. Cash returned to London and woke up in excruciating pain. He went to a nearby hospital, was given some pills and was sent home -- still in pain. "Tough hospital," he said.
Two days later he was back, undergoing surgery. But Cash was lucky. The doctor used a new technique, pulling back muscles to reach the appendix rather than cutting them. As a result, he was back on a practice court 10 days after the operation. And another 12 days later he was on Centre Court at Wimbledon, beating a seeded player, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3.
He not only handled Vilas with ease, he is handling life much better. "You have to learn to live with people and be patient with them," Cash said. "I know how good a tennis player I can be if I just keep working and don't let things bother me.
"I'm happier now as a person than I've ever been in my life. But I won't be satisfied until I've played to my potential. I honestly believe that my potential is to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and to be the best player in the world."
Cash smiled. "Sounds cocky, doesn't it? Maybe it is. But I know I can do it. All I want is the chance."