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Comebacks that are best forgotten

Ben Blackmore October 29, 2010
The size difference of the racket heads used by Bjorn Borg and Jordi Arrese told its own story © Getty Images

In a week that began with Roger Federer heralded for the emulation of yet another Pete Sampras landmark, the tennis world eventually switched focus away from the Swiss master towards a man who ruled the roost before Federer had even embarked on his professional career.

Austrian veteran Thomas Muster, winner of the 1995 French Open, picked the Bank Austria Tennis Trophy in Vienna to make his comeback after 11 years in the wilderness. Unfortunately for the 43-year-old, he was well beaten, prompting ESPN to reflect on ten other reappearances that would have been better avoided...

Bjorn Borg
Muster's comeback sparked inevitable questions about whether he could cope with the pace of today's game, but at least he came equipped with the necessary tools, unlike a certain Swede. Bjorn Borg, winner of 11 grand slam titles, including five at Wimbledon and six at the French Open, suddenly robbed the world of his ice-cool exterior and paintbrush of a wooden racket when he retired from tennis at the age of 26. When Borg returned in 1991, he did so as if he had spent the past eight years locked in a time capsule. Apparently oblivious to advancements in the sport, Borg was back - and so was his wooden racket. Unfortunately for the Swede, no amount of talent can suffice for technological breakthroughs that promote 'sweet spots' and 'vibration reduction', and 12 straight first-round defeats proved as much. In the end a three-set loss to Alexander Volkov, which ended after a 9-7 tiebreaker, finally prompted Borg to make a move to the senior tour... using modern rackets.

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali never got outclassed... or at least he didn't until he made a vast error in judgement by ending his retirement in 1980 to chase a fourth and, quite frankly, unnecessary world title. Ali had already dominated boxing's heavyweight scene on three occasions, he had beaten every major opponent of the golden generation, and he had bowed out at the top. However, no man had won the world title four times, and Ali was always tempted by a good storyline. No longer able to 'float like a butterfly', Ali was clearly hoping he still possessed the deadly offence of a bee, but that was not the case when he took on Larry Holmes. Previously never defeated by anything other than a decision in his career, Ali bowed his head as Angelo Dundee refused to allow his man to emerge from the corner for round 11. A further defeat against Trevor Berbick ensued the next year, before Ali finally hung up his gloves in time to save his immense legacy.

Mark Spitz
Mark Spitz's seven gold medals in the swimming pool at the 1972 Olympics caught the attention of the world. However, his attempted return to action almost 20 years later, when he entered qualifying for the Barcelona Olympics, failed even to catch the attention of the American Olympic selectors. At 22 years of age, Spitz was a phenomenon, setting Olympic standards in the pool that would remain until 2008 when Michael Phelps chalked up eight golds for the US. Now 41 years of age, Spitz's effort to appear in the Barcelona Games fell short of the required qualifying level by two seconds - although to his credit he was still posting times that were similar to his Olympic-winning performances.

Michael Schumacher's return has not exactly gone according to plan © Getty Images

Michael Schumacher
Given the fact that Michael Schumacher is a seven-time world champion, it might be foolish to consign the German to the 'failed comebacks' basket when he remains firmly wedged into the Mercedes cockpit. However, much like our man Muster, initial signs have been far from flattering. Flanked by fanfare upon his return, well deserved given his past exploits, Schumacher began the 2010 Formula One season courting more attention than new world champion Jenson Button. However, a series of unspectacular finishes - cast further into the shadows by the quicker drives of team-mate Nico Rosberg - saw Schumacher swap headlines for question marks. A tenth-placed finish at the Chinese Grand Prix prompted former driver Stirling Moss to suggest Schumacher was "past it", although Mercedes claimed the below-par performances were due to the car. A series of adjustments appeared to have done the trick when Schumacher came fourth in Turkey, but two races later in Valencia, he chalked up the lowest recorded finish of his career (15th) to leave him comparing notes with Muster.

Ben Johnson
When minds are cast back to Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, the Olympic drug scandal of 1988 in Seoul always dominates descriptions of the two-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist. However, when it comes to a lasting legacy, his somewhat comical return four years later should not go forgotten. Johnson's spell out of the sport had been enforced, after he tested positive for stanozolol following a record-breaking 100m run of 9.79s in the Olympic final. Johnson later admitted his guilt, but protested that he was only attempting to put himself on a level playing field with the rest of his allegedly performance-enhanced peers. Whatever the truth was, he was certainly not on the same playing field four years later in Barcelona, when the shamed sprinter made his Olympic return - targeting one more shot at the gold medal of which he had been stripped. Unfortunately for Johnson, he never got that shot, because an embarrassing stumble in the semi-finals saw him finish last in what many an observer viewed as sweet justice.

Lance Armstrong
Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong will always be labelled an inspiration, rightly so after he returned from a battle that saw cancer spread to several parts of his body to triumph in one of sport's most gruelling events. Naturally, the Tour de France has become intrinsically linked with the standard-bearing Texan, so when he announced his comeback after a three-year break in 2008, even casual observers of the sport of cycling took a glance to see how Armstrong would fare. In 2009 he did OK, finishing third, but the 2010 race was always earmarked as his last. Now riding for Team RadioShack, Armstrong said he was riding to raise awareness for his Livestrong charity, which he did effectively as crowds flocked to see his final goodbye. There was little else to attract the attention though as Armstrong's swansong never truly got going, with a serious crash on Stage Eight encapsulating a frustrating ride that saw the Texan finish 39 minutes and 20 seconds behind winner Alberto Contador.

George Best enjoyed the high life © Getty Images

George Best
By December 1972, George Best was no longer able to balance up a career of sublime football skill and a life of boozing and womanising - so he chose the latter, fleeing to Marbella. The Northern Irishman's excesses had also done for Manchester United manager Frank O'Farrell, but replacement Tommy Docherty was later persuaded by Sir Matt Busby to take back the prodigal son for the 1973/74 season when he became bored of a lifetime of sun, sea and the rest of it. Full-bearded and bulkier than in his heyday, Best no longer possessed the physical fitness to get away from defenders and his presence soon became a burden to Docherty, who had already rid the club of Denis Law by somewhat sharp practice. Best was soon out, the last appearance coming in a 3-0 defeat to QPR on New Year's Day 1974. Best would complain that "The Doc" had gone back on an arrangement that would allow him to train in the afternoon when he had missed a morning session. Docherty, by contrast, would claim that Best turned up for the next match - an FA Cup tie with Plymouth Argyle - drunk and in the company of a woman, which Best would always deny. Best, just 27 and now finished at the top level, stayed on to watch the game, staying long after in the empty Old Trafford stands to sob to himself about the end of the affair.

Jonah Lomu
While many failed comebacks can be put down to an individual simply not knowing when to let go, Jonah Lomu's story is one of consistent health failures. After debuting for the New Zealand All Blacks in 1994, Lomu's immense size, speed and power undoubtedly swept rugby union into a new era of athleticism. Claiming 63 caps, Lomu scored 37 tries from the wing, but just when he had defences praying for something to strike the big man down, those requests seemed to be answered as Lomu suffered from a serious kidney disorder. After nine years of cobbling a career together whilst receiving treatment, it was reported that Lomu finally received a kidney transplant in 2004. The comeback of big Jonah was now on the cards, but every step forward arrived with several others in the opposite direction. A promising display for an Invitational XV saw Lomu suffer a shoulder injury, and then some decent displays in the blue of Cardiff ended with a broken ankle. A return to New Zealand followed, but the dream of appearing in one more World Cup never became reality.

Nigel Mansell
Nigel Mansell will forever be remembered for his titanic on-track duels with great rivals - notably Alain Prost, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna - and for finally winning the drivers' title in 1992 after two near misses. But the phrase 'quit while you're on top' was one that was alien to Formula One's comeback king and it backfired embarrassingly in 1995 when he signed to drive for McLaren after losing his Williams seat to David Coulthard. Mansell could not fit into the cockpit at the start of the season and wasn't able to race until Imola, where he ran in the middle of the field well off the pace of team-mate Mika Häkkinen. After a similarly frustrating second outing, Mansell, outpaced and frustrated with his car's handling, walked away from the sport for the last time after only two races for the team.

Mike Tyson
Such was the nature of the circus surrounding Mike Tyson that it was never entirely clear towards the end of Iron Mike's career whether he had entered retirement. Certainly in 2002 the former world heavyweight champion still believed he was the real deal, threatening to 'eat' Lennox Lewis' children, but the only thing entering Tyson's mouth during the eighth round was the canvas following a right hook by Lewis. He would later bounce back with his final professional victory, but then came an extended absence as Tyson dealt with financial and promotional troubles. After 18 months out of the ring, he finally made a comeback against the pedestrian Danny Williams, suffering an embarrassing fourth round KO against a man he surely would have wiped the floor with in his heyday.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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Ben Blackmore is deputy editor of ESPN.co.uk