He can't move the big toe on his left foot, which is held in place by two screws and a metal plate. Four surgeons told him he would never play tennis again if he had surgery.
But Lleyton Hewitt went ahead anyway. And now he is not only playing, but playing well enough to oust 15th-seed John Isner from the second round of the BNP Paribas Open, winning 6-7, 6-3, 6-4 on Saturday.
Having reached the final here last year, Isner could lose his position as the top-ranked American on the ATP computer if Sam Querrey advances. Isner was never in control of the match after winning a tight, first-set tiebreak; losing serve early in the second set and struggling to penetrate the Australian's famously water-tight defenses.
"He's one of the greatest competitors the game has ever seen," Isner said of the 32-year-old who was once No. 1 in the world after winning the US Open in 2001 and Wimbledon in 2002. "You know, he was better than me. I feel the margins were thin. I needed to play very well today and I don't feel I did that. I believe things will get better. I do believe that they will. I just gotta keep plugging away."
The year has been tough so far for the American. He missed the Australian Open with a knee injury, which he insists is no longer a factor, and after reaching the semifinal of San Jose last month, has struggled with confidence.
Ironically, when Hewitt was asked in Australia at the start of the year which shot he would like to steal from another player, he answered, "Isner's serve."
"Yeah, he gets through so many cheap service games that he can have a lash at your own service games sort of free will," said Hewitt after today's match. "With balls bouncing around everywhere, the second serve is just as tough as his first most of the time. I just had to hang in there and wait my turn and try and get as many balls back as possible."
Hewitt, of course, has been a master at that for years. He is much too experienced to be phased by missing out on a tiebreak he might have won after Isner made three forehand errors, and then losing two match-point opportunities in the final game.
Isner hit a searing forehand winner to save the first, then forced Hewitt to miss a shot down the line by a couple of inches when he advanced to the net. But the Aussie quickly had a third and closed it out with a forehand that left Isner stranded.
The next tournament -- another big ATP Masters 1000 event in Miami -- will determine what kind of crisis Isner's game is in. With his weapons, he could snap out of it at any moment but, worryingly for a player who has big aspirations, he does not seem to relish the limelight.
The giant University of Georgia grad is a shy, quiet soul away from his circle of friends and admitted that he was a little nervous out there on the big Stadium Court.
"Honestly, I prefer to work my way through a tournament not necessarily on the Stadium," he said. "I have always felt like I sort of played better that way, especially in the early rounds."
It is not a concept that Roger Federer understands. The only surprise would be for Federer not to be playing on the main court, which happens sometimes but not often, and today the defending champion looked as much at home as ever while defeating Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan 6-2, 6-3.
After teenager Madison Keys found herself outplayed by the former US Open champion Sam Stosur 6-3, 6-4 and another emerging junior Taylor Townsend could make little headway against Ana Ivanovic, a former title holder here, going down 6-1, 6-2, the unsung Jamie Hampton provided the bright spot of the day for American tennis.
Hampton, who trains at the USTA headquarters at Boca Raton, Fla., dominated Taipei's Su-Wei Hsieh from start to finish, winning 6-3, 6-3. Hampton, who said that her chronic back condition has been giving her no trouble, credited her good form to a strong offseason.
"There is no secret," she said. "We just work really hard at Boca. We work together, myself, Madison Keys, Taylor Townsend, Grace Min, Shelby Rogers and the coaches work with us as a team. We have a lot of pros coming in and out so we get to hit with a lot of players."