When you’re a tennis player and fall out of a third floor window into a courtyard in Paris, you don’t really expect to be competing on a court in Dubai 15 months later.
But that’s what Sergei Bubka Jr, son of Pole-vaulting legend Sergei Bubka, has managed to do.
One night in November 2012, the Ukrainian got stuck in a room at a friend’s apartment and when he leaned out the window on an airconditioning panel, it collapsed and sent him three stories down.
Nine hours of surgery, two weeks in the hospital, six weeks of bed rest, six months on crutches and countless hours of rehab have led Bubka back to the tennis courts.
His qualifying match in Dubai last Saturday was only his fourth match – in his third event – since his accident and although he’s won only one clash – a qualifying round in the Bergamo Challenger two weeks ago – so far, the 27-year-old considers being able to compete again as a victory in itself.
“Many people believed I wouldn’t try to come back, but tennis is what I love. And I felt that if I have a chance, I should go for it and try and I’m playing again. So I guess that’s already a victory,” said Bubka on the sidelines of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
Bubka himself had moments when he doubted he’d be able to walk properly again, let alone compete as a tennis professional.
“When I was on crutches, first I thought maybe it will be for two months, after two months I did x-rays and they said at least another month. After three months, at least another month,” he said. “And every time it got extended – after six months if I wouldn’t be able to get off the crutches I’d have to get another operation.
“So at that stage of course I wasn’t thinking anymore about tennis, it was about getting back on my feet.”
Bubka doesn’t remember much from the night of the accident, but he says he was conscious for a few moments after he hit the ground.
There had been much speculation of what exactly happened, with some reporting that he jumped and others that he slipped, but Bubka is keen to set the record straight.
“From such a shock, the doctor said that parts of memory goes because it’s very painful for the brain, they’re erased,” he explains.
“But the main things I remember.
“I was locked inside the bedroom, I tried to get out of the bedroom, the door was locked, I couldn’t open it, couldn’t break it, and I found a window… it’s difficult to explain.
“Basically in the window, there was a very long window sill which was a metal plate covering the air conditioning unit. So it looked like a floor because it was very wide and it was made of metal. So I leaned on it and it collapsed. I’m afraid of heights, so it’s ironic I think.”
The months following the accident were an uphill battle, but he says his family and friends made all the difference.
Players like Sergiy Stakhovsky, Ivan Sergeyev, Malek Jaziri, Ricardas Berankis and Jean- Rene Lisnard were amongst those who visited him in the hospital.
He started his rehab while he was still on crutches and gave credit to his physio for getting him back to where he is right now.
“The guy who I did rehab with in Kiev, he managed to… I don’t know how, but I went to the gym every day on crutches, trying to activate my leg again, because I couldn’t even lift it from the ground.
“It was very difficult and every day it was the same thing but he made it seem for me like if I miss a practice it would be so bad that even when I didn’t want to I still made myself go there and do those things. I’m very happy because he had such a positive influence and really kept me going.”
Bubka hit his first balls back in June last year, but it was only for 10 minutes. By August he was hitting three times a week, alternating between rehab and playing tennis.
He only started playing daily in December, when he hired Jack Reader – the former coach of the now-suspended Viktor Troicki. The Ukrainian was targeting a return at last month’s Australian Open and Reader was worried it would be too soon.
But Bubka got the all-clear from his physio and he played his first match in 14 months at the Australian Open qualifying. He lost in straight sets to Valery Rudnev but earned the respect of his peers for the speedy comeback.
“It’s admirable isn’t it?” said Reader. “When he came to Australia in the first week of December, we started out doing a lot of water work, he was walking with a limp. The things we did was just remarkable to get back on the court. I’m very proud for him.”
Russian world No29 Dmitry Tursunov was jokingly taking photos of Bubka while being interviewed at the Aviation Club and he said he was also stunned by the turnaround.
“When it happened the question was whether he’ll survive or not, secondly if he’ll be able to walk, and now that he’s playing, it’s surprising,” said Tursunov.
For Bubka now, it’s all about accepting that the road back needs to be taken step by step. His career- high ranking was 145 in 2011 and while he wishes to exceed his former level, he will have to start from zero, playing Futures events and getting back in shape.
He says he still can’t bend his knee 100 per cent and has other limitations in terms of his movement, but feels he’s hitting the ball better.
“It’s already a success that I’m here. But I’m coming with expectations. I want to go further than before. I’m 27. This is really my last chance to reach the goals I dreamed about as a young kid. I’m definitely not doing this just for fun,” he said.
Birthplace: Donetsk, Ukraine
Residence: Monte Carlo, Monaco
Career-high ranking: 145
► Father is world recordsetting pole vaulter Sergei Bubka; mother, Liliya, was a rhythmic gymnast; brother, Vitaly is a businessman
► Grew up training in Monaco and San Remo, Italy
► Favourite surface is indoor hard courts
► Favourite tournament is the US Open
► Idols growing up were Michael Jordan, Andrei Medvedev and Marat Safin