The return of the kings

For every sporting comeback that brings an awe-inspiring triumph there is another that ends in disappointment.

Michael Schumacher's comeback to Formula One began yesterday with a solid sixth place in Bahrain, while David Beckham's return to Old Trafford in the colours of AC Milan ended in bitter disappointment. For every tale of success involving a sporting hero coming back, there is a conflicting story of failure. Take Muhammad Ali, who spent 43 months out of the ring between 1967-70 after refusing to join the US Army during the Vietnam War but, against all the odds, regained the world heavyweight title by felling the unfellable George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire in 1974. Six years on, Ali unwisely came out of a two-year retirement to suffer a dreadful pummelling at the fists of Larry Holmes.

Bjorn Borg was another who had that uncanny ability to turn seemingly inevitable defeat into an unlikely victory, routinely coming from behind while winning 14 successive five-set matches at the height of his powers. After spending the best part of nine years pursuing other interests, the Swede stunned everyone when he came out of retirement in 1991. Re-emerging at the Monte Carlo Open like a time traveller with his old wooden racket, he was unceremoniously thrashed 6-2, 6-3 by the Spanish journeyman Jordi Arrese. The Swede failed to get the message that he and his racket were things of the past, playing and losing a further 11 first-round matches before packing away his headband for good.

Tennis, however, has provided us with more legendary comebacks than most sports: Goran Ivanisevic, in the twilight of his career, winning Wimbledon in 2001 as a wild-card entry; Andre Agassi, who went from world No 1 to 141st and back again; Manuel Santana's epic 2-6, 1-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-4 Centre Court victory over Mexico's Rafael Osuna at the 1963 Wimbledon Championships, a match considered by many to have been the finest of all time.

To me, the greatest Centre Court comeback was staged by Jimmy Connors, then 34, in 1987 when he trailed Sweden's Mikael Pernfors -10 years his junior - 1-6, 1-6, 1-4 in fading light and nursing an injured leg. Such was the one-sidedness of the slaughter that, with the first edition deadline fast approaching, The Times revealed to its readers the following morning that four Swedes - Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, Anders Jarryd and Pernfors - had reached the quarter-finals.

Connors was clearly a reader of another newspaper; snarling in defiance, punching the air with each point clawed back, he proceeded to make nonsense of the newspaper pronouncement by ripping through 18 of the next 25 games to take the last three sets 7-5, 6-4, 6-2. "My ego was hurt," explained Connors, who went on to the semi-finals before losing to the eventual champion Pat Cash . In That's Life, Frank Sinatra crooned "Each time I find myself flat on my face, I pick myself up and get back in the race", the anthem of those such as Connors who refuse to lie down and roll over in the face adversity.

Nobody sang those words louder than Lasse Viren in the 10,000m final at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, where he fell flat on his face on the track after a collision with the Tunisian Mohamed Gammoudi shortly before the halfway stage. The then little-known Finnish policeman not only picked himself up and got back in the race but gradually closed the gap on the pack in front before overhauling long-time leader David Bedford of Britain to win the gold medal in a world record time.

Ten days later, Viren completed the long-distance double when he won the 5,000m, a feat he repeated in Montreal four years later. And what of Lance Armstrong? He recovered from testicular cancer to amass a record seven successive Tour de France victories; Dennis Taylor, who lost the first seven frames of the 1985 World Snooker Championship to Steve Davis yet went on to win 18-17; or Nick Faldo, who entered the final round of the 1996 Masters a disheartening six strokes behind Greg Norman but went on win his sixth major.

But the comeback king of golf is surely Scotland's Paul Lawrie, a whopping 10 strokes adrift of tournament leader Jean van de Velde at the start of the fourth round of the 1999 British Open championship at Carnoustie. While all around him found ways to lose we never thought existed - none more so than the hapless Monsieur van de Velde - Lawrie stole off with the Claret Jug to become the tournament's most unlikely champion.

Team sports have also provided many an inspiring example: England's now legendary Ashes victory in the Botham Test at Headingley in 1981, and France's remarkable 43-31 victory over the mighty All Blacks in the 1999 Rugby World Cup at Twickenham after trailing 24-10 with 36 minutes remaining are just two examples. If Schumacher is seeking inspiration, he may wish to recall the deeds of Niki Lauda, who suffered horrific burns and various other life-threatening injuries during the German Grand Prix at Nurburgring in 1976.

Despite falling into a coma and being given the last rites by a priest, the Austrian was back behind the wheel of his Ferrari just six weeks later, finishing fourth in the Italian Grand Prix. By the time of the final race of the season in Japan, Lauda's lead over James Hunt in the world championship had been reduced to just three points. Feeling it was unsafe to race in the torrential rain, Lauda retired on the third lap, conceding the title to Hunt by a single point. To complete a fairy tale comeback, however, he won the second of his three drivers' championships the following season.