In professional sports, comebacks can be exhilarating, awe-inspiring, frustrating, or disappointing. Sometimes, they can be inspirational. Rarely are they easy.

In 2009, ATP tennis player Sam Querrey’s career was on an upward trajectory. Then 21-years old, the Southern California native was ranked 25th in the world and had every reason to believe that, with continued hard work, his ranking would climb even higher. Earlier that year, he had won the LA Tennis Open, his second ATP World Tour title, and held an impressive 41-23 match record for the season. But then, two injuries sidelined him.

The first injury occurred while he was in Bangkok, Thailand, for the Thailand Open. After a practice session, he sat on a glass table. The table broke, cutting his right, dominant, arm. The accident sent him to the hospital, and Querrey spent long months healing and rehabbing, planning to return to the tour as quickly as he could.

“Everyone told me to be patient,” Querrey said in an interview with me in July 2012, during the Farmers Classic tennis tournament in Los Angeles. “But I’m not patient. It’s a fast game, and a short career,” referring to the relative young age at which tennis players tend to retire from the game.

While someone is rehabbing from an injury, the “fast game” of tennis never stands still, waiting for them to return. The other players on the tour are moving ahead. New players enter the draws and challenge more seasoned pros. The seasoned pros develop new weapons to remain competitive. For those on the sidelines, rankings drop rapidly.

Querrey had a significant challenge upon his return to the tour. Not only did he need to make sure he was fit for the rigors of the tour, but he had points to defend in order to preserve as much of his ranking as he could. He returned to the tour and was able to defend his title in Los Angeles in 2010. However his comeback was short-lived. Another injury, this time to the elbow on his right arm, set him back once again and, in 2011, he found himself watching the tournament from the stands and counting the days when, two weeks afterward, he could once again begin training.

Learning to accept the time it takes to truly heal from an injury was a valuable lesson for Querrey, and one which he took to heart the second injury around.

“Watching the tournament actually energized me to get out there quicker,” he said. “But I had to manage expectations and know that there was a lot out of my control.”

His time horizon for the second comeback had also matured.

“It’s going to take a year to get back to where I was,” he said. “I have had to learn to accept that.”

Sidelining injuries also have a way of teaching better respect for overall physical conditioning, and Querrey added a full-time physio to his team.

The consistent approach to fitness, and the one step, one match at a time approach turned out to be the best prescription for Querrey. At that same Los Angeles tournament, Querrey moved through the draw carefully and methodically and won the title handily.

As the season moved on, and Querrey gained confidence and strength, he started to achieve better and better results, coming full-circle in a remarkable way at the Paris Masters Tournament in early November 2012.

Querrey’s side of the draw included a match up with the number 1 player in the world, Serbian Novak Djokovic. Even on a bad day, Djokovic’s technique and firepower could overcome the best of players. So it went in the first set, which Djokovic won 6-0.

But the lesson that Querrey had had to learn over the past few years, the need for preparation and patience, took deep hold in the second set. He held the line, serving splendidly and challenging Djokovic’s sharp-angled shots with equally hard returns. Querrey’s mettle was tested in a tie-break, but his serves and shot placement got the better of Djokovic. Querrey won the second set and the third, clinching the match and putting the proverbial icing on the cake of the comeback he’d been working through all season.

We often equate our own comebacks with physical concerns: rehabbing from an illness or injury, putting the right scheduling and support concerns in place to help us get back in the “game.” But the physical side of a comeback is inextricably tied in with something else, something intangible but equally important. In order to affect a solid comeback, we have to take care of our “inside” selves, our spirits and emotions, and all those things that work for and against our coming back fit, sound, and strong.

Querrey’s lesson of acceptance and patience show that, the more we pay attention to and nurture our spirits, the more we’ll reap the benefits of all the hard work it takes to truly make a comeback.

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