Pam Shriver could have quit.
Her shoulder ached. Her tennis was dreadful. A game that once enchanted her was tormenting her. Nothing was fun. Not the travel. Not the matches. And, most certainly, not the losses.
With $4 million in career earnings, Shriver had the money to retire and live comfortably. Who needed to play some gawky teen-ager armed with an oversized racket and a ubiquitous agent at Hilton Head or Houston, when down the road in Washington, George Bush was inviting her to the nation's most exclusive private court for a few sets of mixed doubles? Hey, wasn't it time to grow up, to put the career back in the closet next to all the beat-up rackets and out-of-fashion shirts and skirts?
"The wheels just fell off the cart," Shriver said. "I didn't know what I wanted to do."
That was last year. Now, 11 days short of her 29th birthday, Shriver is in the midst of a comeback from shoulder surgery. But, this time, she is having fun, vowing to shrug off short-term losses to secure long-term gains. During months of inactivity, Shriver said she rediscovered the joy of tennis. She missed the game. She wanted to play. Most of all, she wanted to win again.
"I haven't wavered from my decision to come back," she said. "Not one day. I'm pleased with my decision and proud of my work ethic."
When the Wimbledon fortnight begins tomorrow at the All England Club, Shriver will be something of an unseeded pest, a three-time semifinalist rattling around in the bottom of the women's draw. Her greatest victory is just getting back into shape and back on to the tour. She is an athlete now safely beyond a crossroads.
"Where do I begin?" Shriver said. "So much has happened."
Once the world's steadiest No. 4 player, Shriver's career began to bottom out after a peak in November 1988 -- a semifinal victory over Steffi Graf at the Virginia Slims Championships in New York. Shriver headed to the Australian Open in January 1989 with renewed purpose, but was discouraged by a third-round loss to Catarina Lindqvist.
"I got home to Baltimore, and I was being pulled in 80 different directions," Shriver said. "I was working on various boards for charities; I was trying to put together my own charity tennis event; the fax machine in my house was running all day. I was also fascinated that I knew the president. I was interested in political issues. Mentally, I just cracked. I thought that I could not do all of this and still be a top 10 player."
Still, she persisted in trying to juggle her interests on and off the court. Once again, her confidence was damaged on the court after a second-round loss to Sara Gomer at Wimbledon. "I said I felt like retiring, and I should have kept my mouth shut," Shriver said. Her 1989 Grand Slam season ended in humiliation when she was ousted in straight sets in the first round of the U.S. Open by Larisa Savchenko.
"That's as close as I've come to tanking a match," she said. "I just didn't care. That night, I went up to Chris Evert's suite. Remember, that was her last U.S. Open. Here I was, so emotional, it was sick."
The slide continued. Finally, in March 1990 at the Virginia Slims of Florida, she kicked a chair during a match against Dinky van Rensburg, broke a toe, and was sidelined for six weeks.
Back home in Baltimore, she prepared to play Wimbledon. But her right shoulder, which has bothered her throughout her career, began acting up. Two days before leaving for England, she decided to have arthroscopic surgery to repair torn shoulder cartilage. The procedure was performed June 7 by Dr. Charles E. Silberstein, the orthopedist for the Baltimore Orioles.
"You serve, serve and serve, it loosens the joint, and then you tear cartilage," Shriver said. "Now, I have to exercise to keep the shoulder strong, sort of like tightening a screw."
Shriver's recovery has been slow. At the Australian Open in January, she reached the third round, losing to Anke Huber. During a break before Wimbledon, she embarked on a rigorous physical fitness program after consulting with sports physiologists in Indianapolis.
"I was so spastic at first," she said. "They did a videotape of me doing some exercises, and it was awful. Believe me, there is no cheating in this program. They have everything on tape. I'm not Steffi Graf-quick yet. But I'm improving. A step here. A step there. If I didn't take another angle at trying to improve something, I'd get frustrated."
Her game remains unchanged. Shriver is a pure serve-and-volley player, lethal at the net, but unable to turn a chip backhand into an offensive weapon.
Off the court, Shriver has rearranged the lineup of her close-knit entourage. Don Candy, her longtime coach, now acts as an adviser, "a coach emeritus," according to Shriver. Eric Riley of Philadelphia is Shriver's day-to-day hitting partner. Robin Serody continues to handle administrative details for Shriver's PHS Ltd. office, which oversees an annual charity tennis event. The mix and match of personalities and responsibilities allows Shriver to concentrate on her tennis career.
"I really believe that I can play another three or four years," she said. "I feel I have one more good streak left in me."
Wimbledon 1991 is probably too early to expect Shriver to rise from the middle of the pack and challenge for a title. Ranked No. 64 before a tuneup tournament at Eastbourne, England, Shriver knocked off Helena Sukova and advanced through three rounds, before being dumped by Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the quarterfinals, 6-0, 6-1.
"In the past, Pam has gotten down on herself," Riley said. "That's not the case now. She is focused, taking each match as it comes."
Shriver said she refuses to look ahead at Wimbledon. She meets fellow Baltimorean Andrea Leand in the first round, and faces a formidable draw, crammed with No. 5 seed Mary Joe Fernandez, No. 10 Sukova, No. 16 Judith Wiesner and No. 4 Sanchez. Shriver also faces the pressure of reuniting with Martina Navratilova in doubles. Together, they have won the Grand Slam doubles three times.
"I'll tell you one thing about my comeback: I'll definitely do better than Bjorn Borg," Shriver said. "People don't want to play me on grass. The only one with more experience on grass than me is Martina. I'm not seeded. I'm a floater. I'm not going to be a good draw for people. If my serve hits stride and I can get my game going, only a handful of people can beat me on grass. But if I don't get my game going, 40 people can beat me."
One loss will not ruin her year. Her shoulder is fine. Her tennis is improving. The game is fun again.
"I went through years in the 1980s that before we tossed a coin in a match, I was up, 2-0, in the first set," she said. "I lost very few matches against players ranked out of the top 15. I don't know if I can get back to that level. But I have to be patient and play this out."