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What are some of the best athlete comebacks we’ve ever seen? Here’s our top 10

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athlete comebacks

BEST EVER ATHLETE COMEBACKS | ONLY SPORTS

It’s coming up on one year since Tiger Woods made a simply insane return to golf, just 13 months after his horrific car accident that nearly cost him his life. So where’s it sit on our top 10 (plus some honourable mentions) list?

As time goes by on Tiger Woods’ return, plus Ash Barty’s post-retirement bombshell, it allows for more contextual dust to settle on the bigger picture.

There have been some truly exceptional bounce backs and unlikely comebacks over the years and here are our favourite 10 athlete comebacks. Let us know what we’ve overlooked!

Barty image
Athlete comebacks | Ash Barty breaks through to become a Grand Slam champion in Paris, 2019.

Best athlete comebacks of all time

Honourable mentions

There really are way too many to choose from with a list like this. And of course, there will be some great stories we’ve overlooked. But us at Only Sports don’t let great get in the way of perfect, so we’ve given it our best crack.

-Danish footballer Christian Eriksen has overcome a heart attack in the 2021 Euros 

-Anna Meares’ comeback from a broken neck to win Olympic gold in cycling 

-Lance Armstrong beating cancer was an inspirational sporting story until he admitted to doping

-Former rugby players Julian Huxley and Christian Lealiifano both overcame huge cancer scares 

-Alex Johnson made it back to the AFL in 2018 after four knee reconstructions 

-Robert Kubica returned to Formula 1 after an awful crash that left his right forearm partially torn

The list goes on….

Enjoying our athlete comebacks story? Check out our take on Australia’s greatest rivalries.

10. Allan ‘Alfie’ Langer

The Broncos and Maroons legend famously answered an SOS in 2001, playing in the UK.

After a 3-0 Origin series whitewash a year earlier, master coach Wayne Bennett came in and  handed out 10 debuts in Game I. The Maroons miraculously won 34-16 in Queensland,  before the Blues got revenge in Sydney.

That’s when Alfie got the phone call from the other side of the world, making the call to fly back and lace up. 

He dominated Game III, the Maroons won 40-14 and his late try down the right flank is one of the great Origin moments.

Embed from Getty Images

9. Ash Barty

Aussie tennis sensation Ash Barty has just retired, but it’s not the first time she’s walked away from tennis.

Barty was a junior Wimbledon champion but quit the game at 18 to focus on cricket, earning a professional contract with the Brisbane Heat for the 2015-16 WBBL season.

Barty was then convinced to return to tennis in 2016 by good friend and former player Casey Dellacqua. A few years later, she was French Open champion (‘19). 

Ash then, of course, went on to win Wimbledon in 2021, fulfilling her dream, before claiming the 2022 Australian Open and seal legend status.

8. Andre Agassi 

Agassi was a dominant force in men’s tennis in the 1990s. Across the ‘95 and ’96 seasons, he won the Australian Open, Olympic gold and held the World No. 1 ranking for 30 weeks; boasting a combined 111-23 record.

In 1997, a wrist injury forced Agassi off the tennis court and completely off the rails, which included dealing with a failed marriage to Brooke Shields and getting caught up with drugs. His autobiography details a fascinating series of events. 

In 1998, Agassi underwent an intense fitness program and caught everyone off guard, jumping back into the top 10. He completed a career Grand Slam in 1999, winning his first Roland Garros title, before ending the year with another US Open crown and returning to the top of the ATP rankings.

Embed from Getty Images

7. Tommy John

The pro baseball pitcher was at the top of his game with the LA Dodgers in 1974 when he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow.

John opted for revolutionary surgery, risking any kind of return to the game, where his elbow ligament was replaced with a tendon from his right forearm. He was the first pitcher to attempt this procedure.

After missing the entire 1975 MLB season, he returned the next year and played all the way through to ‘89, aged 46. 

‘Tommy John surgery’ is now commonplace in baseball, literally named after him. 

6. Michael Jordan

A large portion of basketball fans believe he’s the greatest. His comeback has a lot to do with it.

The Chicago Bull retired from basketball in October 1993, losing interest after the death of his father, but announced a few months later he’d try his hand at baseball with the Chicago White Sox. 

It didn’t exactly go to plan and in ‘95 he declared, ‘I’m back’. Despite an 18-month hoops sabbatical, Jordan proved he stayed in MJ shape, leading the Bulls to a second three-peat between 1996-98.

Athlete comebacks
Athlete comebacks | Michael Jordan celebrates the 1998 NBA championship

5. Tiger Woods

Woods’ 2019 Masters win – his 15th major – is one of sports’ greatest feats. Before that, his last win in a major was the US Open in 2008.

Tiger had famously told Jack Nicklaus ‘I’m done’ two years earlier, but then underwent what proved to be career-saving spinal fusion surgery. His troublesome back required three microdiscectomy procedures.

He has displayed unrivaled resilience throughout his career.

4. Muhammad Ali 

After a three-year exile imposed on him over his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, Muhammad Ali returned to boxing looking to reclaim his world heavyweight title.

Ali lost his fights against Joe Frazier and Ken Norton and many thought his days in the boxing ring were numbered.

But on October 30, 1974, Ali shocked the world and took down the undefeated and undisputed heavyweight champion George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo), with the fight dubbed the ‘rumble in the jungle’.

3. Beth Hamilton

In 2003, aged 13, American professional surfer Beth Hamilton was surfing at Tunnels Beach in Hawaii when a 14-foot-long (4.3 metre) tiger shark bit off her left arm, which had been dangling in the water.

Hamilton managed to paddle back to shore before being rushed to hospital.

She had lost over 60% of her blood, was in hypovolemic shock and underwent emergency surgery.

Incredibly, just 26 days after her attack, she returned to the water and then back to competition in January 2004.

The one-armed Hamilton has won many events and is still an incredible surfer.

2. Ben Hogan

Golfer Ben Hogan is one of only five men to win all four major tournaments at least once.

In 1948 he won his first US Open and also captured the PGA Championship in the same year.

A year later, though, Hogan and his wife were involved in a head-on car accident with a bus near El Paso in Texas.

Just before the vehicles collided, Hogan threw himself over the lap of his wife to protect her. 

His injuries would include a broken ankle, broken collarbone, double fracture of the pelvis, a cracked rib and internal injuries.

Hogan returned to professional golf in 1950, just 16 months after the accident, and won the US Open. Then in the following season he did it again, along with the Masters.

Amazingly, six of Hogan’s nine career major wins came after his accident, and 1953 was ridiculous. He won the Masters by 5-shots, the US Open by 6-shots and the Open Championship by four.

1. Monica Seles

At the age of 19, Monica Seles was the best female tennis player in the world. She already had eight Grand Slam titles. 

But on April 30, 1993, in Hamburg, everything changed. Seles was stabbed in the back by an obsessed Steffi Graf fan, midway through her quarter final match with Magdalena Maleeva.

The Yugoslavian, who would later represent the US, was rushed to hospital. The mental toll that followed proved a tougher hurdle than the physical damage, returning to the tennis court only two years later. 

In her return event, Seles won the Canadian Open. She then made the final at Flushing Meadows, before winning a fourth Australian Open the next season. It’s either the best, or at least one of the best, athlete comebacks we’ll ever see in sport.

Joel Martelli
Joel Martelli
The only thing that Joel Martelli loves more than football (seriously, we wouldn't be surprised if he has a Wollongong Wolves tattoo) is writing about all things sports. With a Bachelor of Communications and Media Studies Degree specialising in Journalism, he spends his days uncovering breaking athlete news stories and diving deep into play-by-play strategies. We're glad that he's put his passion to the pages of Only Sports as one of our dedicated sports writers.

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