If optimism cured all, Taylor Dent would have been back on the tennis court a long time ago. He remains upbeat despite the pain in his lower back that has kept him out of competition for nearly a full year.
"It's slow progress -- three steps forward and two steps back," Dent said from his Florida home this week. "I'm definitely in a training mode, lifting weights, playing baseline games with some of the kids down here. I just have to be careful not to overdo it with arching and twisting my back."
Dent's huge serve helped carry him to No. 21 in the world in late 2005, but that big pop came at a big price. The exaggerated lean and torque in his motion, repeated endlessly over the years, led to two stress fractures in his vertebrae and accompanying nerve damage.
After struggling through a few matches early this year, Dent elected to rest, tried alternative therapies like acupuncture and Reiki, and underwent a minor surgery called a rhizotomy, in which the problem nerve endings are essentially cauterized with a hot electric needle. The procedure didn't provide any lasting relief, though, and Dent found himself back where he started -- a serve-and-volley specialist minus the first half of that combination.
Dent has tinkered with his motion to try to ease the strain without sacrificing too much power. But he said he still isn't quite ready to test it under match conditions, although he did knock the ball around at Chris Evert's charity event in Delray Beach, Fla., earlier this month.
"I can get on a court and hit a lot of balls, but as soon as I start hitting a lot of serves, it flares up," Dent said.
He's not working with anyone regularly now and said he has no near-term plans to hire a full-time coach. His boyhood friend Tommy Lloyd, who filled that role last season, took a job as assistant coach at the University of Arizona in August.
Lloyd said he's confident Dent will make a full comeback even if his serve loses a few miles per hour.
"He can't afford not to have a big serve with his game and how well guys are returning," said Lloyd, who has known Dent since they were 10 years old and refers to him, like many of Dent's friends, as "Tails."
"It doesn't necessarily have to be as big, but it has to be on the money, dead accurate," Lloyd said. "When he puts the ball in his spots and sets up his first volley, his precision and athleticism at the net are deadly."
Lloyd said Dent is fully aware of how long it might take him to get back to his former level.
"It's a long sticky road, and having to start with Challengers [lower-level pro events] and getting wild cards is a different look from what he's used to," the coach said. "But he's so good at looking at the bright side. And he's seen his good friend James Blake come back from a lot more physical hardship than he's had. I'm sure that's inspiring for Tails."
Still, the 25-year-old Dent is booked to play six weeks from now with Venus Williams (who herself is nursing a left wrist injury) in the Hopman Cup, the international mixed doubles event held annually in Perth, Australia. "I hope to do a lot of damage on those indoor courts," he said.
Dent jokingly grumbled that his layoff has forced him to spend more time doing dishes, laundry, gardening and plumbing repairs around the Sarasota home he shares with fiancée Jenny Hopkins, but quickly added that "we have an awesome house -- I don't want to move anytime soon."
He and Hopkins, a WTA player who retired last year and is now studying fashion design, will be married on Dec. 8 on nearby Longboat Key after a six-year courtship.
Dent, the son of Australian Open finalist Phil Dent and former top-10 U.S. player Betty Ann (Grubb) Stuart, said he enjoyed his stint as a commentator with The Tennis Channel at this year's U.S. Open. But he's far from contemplating another career -- especially since he no longer takes this one for granted.
"I got good feedback, but I prefer playing tenfold," Dent said.
"When I was first experiencing these back problems, I said, 'Oh, this'll be a nice little break,'" he said. "The little break turned into a big long one. I'm watching the Masters Cup in Shanghai, and it's frustrating. I still believe I can compete with and beat most of the guys out there.
"My goal now is to go to bed every night knowing I've done all I can to get back."
WTA announces stopgap measures
As promised, the women's tour is trying to stop its now-chronic brawn drain, cutting down on tournament obligations for top-ranked and veteran players in an effort to reduce late withdrawals by its stars.
The number of events on the calendar remains the same and probably won't vary much until 2009 because of sponsor commitments, but the mandatory minimum for top players will be cut by one, to 12. ("Top" players refers to a list of 13 women determined each fall under a formula that factors in ranking and "marquee value.")
Players over 30 years old or who have been on the tour for 12 years or more (a nod to the precocious), regardless of ranking, will get more breaks. The over-30s will be required to play in just four of the high-profile, high-payoff Tier I events; the 12-pluses get another event lopped off their minimum.
WTA spokesman Andrew Walker said the over-30 and more-than-12 rules would apply to about two dozen players currently ranked in the top 300. Of the older players, the two most recognizable names are Lindsay Davenport and Mary Pierce, although Pierce's recent knee injury could keep her out of action for many months.
Fines will double for three or more late withdrawals, to $40,000. The WTA also will require that the same ball and surface be used during the fall indoor season after a study showed that changing conditions increased the risk of injury. This season's fall indoor events featured four different surfaces and three different types of balls, Walker said.
The measures announced Wednesday are almost certain to be well-received by players, although they are admittedly incremental steps. More controversially, the tour will continue to test on-court coaching in tournaments during the first half of the season, and will propose easing restrictions on coaching from the stands -- essentially conceding the futility of regulating it.
For one night only, though. The just-turned-50-year-old legend will reunite with Bob Bryan, her mixed doubles partner in her final Grand Slam championship at the U.S. Open, to play at Pam Shriver's annual Mercantile Tennis Challenge in Baltimore on Dec. 6. This marks the 20th anniversary of the event, which has raised $4 million since its inception for children's charities supported by the Baltimore Community Foundation. Although Navratilova just wrapped up a hectic swirl of commitments around her retirement, Shriver said, "I don't ever remember her saying no" (the two are close friends and former doubles partners). A native of Baltimore, Shriver isn't in playing mode right now herself, owing to a dodgy shoulder, a sore back and three kids under 3 years old. Other headliners include Lindsay Davenport, Mardy Fish, Robby Ginepri and the Bryan twins, who will convene their rock 'n' roll band for a concert and auction the night before the exhibition matches. Go to www.tennischallenge.org for details.
Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who contributes frequently to ESPN.com.