In early April, Dr. Ryan Thacher’s life as a first-year orthopedic surgery resident changed as he knew it.
The 30-year-old works at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan, New York, where he now is as comfortable in the operating room as he once was belting groundstrokes on his way to three All-American honours at Stanford University. Thacher sacrificed a tennis career to pursue medicine, and the California native now works with attending surgeons and higher-ranking residents to treat patients as he hones his craft.
“I feel like I had a very successful career as a tennis player and I have a lot of moments and tournaments that I can look back on fondly and feel good about what I was able to accomplish,” Thacher told ATPTour.com. “I feel fulfilled in the job that I do and excited for the future. I think that’s about as much as anyone can ask for.”
The majority of the work at HSS is elective surgery, and because of that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, roles have changed. Thacher, who once left behind tennis for the bigger picture, temporarily put his surgical training on hold to help combat the spread of coronavirus, the biggest health crisis the world has faced in 100 years. The hospital began repurposing its space into Intensive Care Units in order to accommodate COVID-19 patients. Instead of helping perform surgeries, Thacher is working 12-hour days in the ICU.
“As an orthopedic surgery resident, when all of the coronavirus stuff hit, we were a little bit unsure as to what role we’d be playing… I think a lot of us, myself included, were actually happy to be put in a position where we could be as useful as possible to the other members of the medical team,” Thacher said. “We go through a lot of schooling and take a lot of time to get to where we want to be and I think you have to have that type of perspective to stick with it.”
Thacher is grateful that he and his family have remained healthy, saying, “I almost feel guilty about it, it’s kind of weird.” Every day, he takes his temperature using a thermometer provided by the hospital. Thacher hasn’t spoken to many people outside his family about his experiences.
“We’re obviously in the midst of a time in our lives that nobody’s really ever seen before, and we may never see again. I think it is important just to understand and appreciate the impact of every single lost life as a result of the pandemic,” Thacher said. “It’s easy to get caught up in the statistics of it and often sort of forget the humanistic part of it and having been in the hospital and having helped take care of patients who have suffered through this and seeing firsthand the impact that has on families, I just think it’s an important perspective for everyone to keep.”
There are plenty of people who are thankful for the work Thacher has been doing, and he certainly has support in the tennis world, having been a world-class junior who earned a FedEx ATP Ranking.
Thacher chuckles thinking back to it, but nearly 13 years ago, he played his first tour-level tournament when he was only 17. The lefty competed at the Los Angeles ATP Tour event, where he received a qualifying wild card. He won his first-round match, and then got to play another 17-year-old: Kei Nishikori.
“There were some rumblings I recall that he was a really promising up and coming, young player from Japan. I didn’t know much more about him than that, I hadn’t seen him play… I had some fans in the crowd and I remember I came out and I think the first couple of games were pretty close… I actually thought I was playing really well. I was like, ‘Gosh, this guy is so solid,’” Thacher recalled. “I had a pretty good serve and I was serving and volleying a little bit and I felt like I was playing really well, and I was having a really hard time winning points.”
Nishikori won 6-1, 6-4, and less than a year later he would win his first ATP Tour title in Delray Beach. But for Thacher, Nishikori’s on-court presence was not the only memorable aspect of the match.
“He was incredibly polite and really friendly and I actually saw him a few times after that match,” Thacher said. “He remembered me and we would just say, ‘Hello’. That was very meaningful and very telling of what kind of guy he is.”
Less than two months later, Thacher reached the third round of the US Open boys’ singles draw, losing to current World No. 28 Daniel Evans. Thacher got to practise with former World No. 1 John McEnroe in Flushing Meadows.
“That was a pretty cool experience. That was different. He’s not one of the contemporary guys, but he still hit the ball so clean. He was still really good,” Thacher said. “He was trying to tune his game up and stay sharp. That was obviously, for a younger kid, such an incredible experience.”
The Los Angeles Times earlier that year touted him as a future hope for American tennis. Thacher certainly had the respect of his peers, including future college teammate and current ATP Tour pro Bradley Klahn.
“I remember many players used to make the running joke that he hadn’t made an error since a year earlier in the 2000s,” Klahn said. “I can remember numerous players who were very much doubting [their chances] before stepping on court with Ryan just knowing what he could do to them.”
Ryan Thacher (left) and Bradley Klahn played doubles together at Stanford University. Photo Credit: Stanford Athletics
Thacher never seriously considered bypassing college. He attended Stanford, where he played doubles with Klahn for three and a half years. The duo made the final of the 2011 NCAA Doubles Championships and earned three All-American doubles honours.
“He was a guy who was insanely athletic, big, strong, moved exceptionally well. It was very hard to get a ball by him and he was able to use that athleticism. He had a big serve that was always going to put you under pressure and then he wasn’t going to give you anything,” Klahn said. “He had a great backhand, he could hit the open stance sliding defensive backhand when he needed to, and he could step up and crunch one when he needed to as well. He had a lot of variety that would throw people off and the biggest thing was that he won a lot of matches.”
By his junior year, Thacher became fairly set on his future plans: he wanted to become a doctor. After college, the lefty would give life on the ATP Tour a shot to get his taste of life as a pro. But eventually, he was going to go to medical school. That wasn’t a surprise to his peers, including countryman Steve Johnson.
“Growing up Ryan was always the most athletic kid out there and probably the smartest as well, no doubt about it,” Johnson said. “When it all came to it and he went to Stanford, me personally, I really felt like tennis probably wasn’t his main goal in life and there was something driving him beyond and to bigger and better things.”
Thacher graduated from Stanford and in July 2012 began playing professionally. By that December, Thacher competed in his final event, and he was ready to move on to his next chapter. Perhaps he had the potential to push higher than his career-highs of No. 974 in singles and No. 528 in doubles.
Could he have joined Klahn in achieving success on Tour?
“I believe he had the game. He had the athleticism. I think the keys were in place. But he knew what he wanted out of his life and I have a huge amount of respect for him knowing what he wanted to do and making that decision and giving it a try, getting to travel a little bit and then going back and pursuing medicine,” Klahn said. “He’s one of those guys who you knew was going to be successful in whatever he did. I have no doubts that he’ll be hugely successful as an orthopedic surgeon.”
Thacher first moved to New York to take a position as a research assistant, and then he attended Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Although he was no longer on Tour, he had the support of the players he grew up with.
“Lo and behold he’s a doctor out in New York. Couldn’t ask for a better guy, a better human. He’s always someone who would be there for you and someone who would always help if he could,” Johnson said. “He’s always been a standup guy and couldn’t be happier for him and couldn’t think of a better person out in New York fighting this thing and giving it his best shot.”
Thacher spent four years in medical school preparing himself for life as a doctor before beginning his residency in June 2019. He believes his tennis background is helping him as a doctor.
“I think every match that you play, you deal with certain adversity. Nothing ever feels perfect. Your forehand might feel really good one day but you can’t hit a serve and you’ve got a nagging ankle injury and you still have to persevere and do your best to figure out the best way to win,” Thacher said. “I think the learning that I got from playing so many matches, just in terms of how to deal with those situations, has served me the best moving forward in my current career. I think there are lots of instances when you never really know what you’re going to get when you walk into a patient’s room. You have to try to figure out the best way to connect with them and get them to trust you and at the same time try to find the best way to help them with whatever condition they have.”
Whether it’s working on the frontlines combatting coronavirus or performing orthopedic surgery, there is always significant pressure on Thacher.
“As a former athlete now working in the medical field, now you feel pressure to do the best you can for your patient. You feel pressure to perform. As a future surgeon, you feel pressure to perform specifically in the operating room,” Thacher said. “Having experienced those things so frequently in the past, I do think that you’re well prepared to handle those emotions and those feelings that you have when you’re in that operating room.”
Thacher says that his hospital has begun transitioning back to doing urgent orthopedic cases, which means he’ll soon be back in the operating room. Yet the long-term effects of this pandemic remain unknown in the medical field and beyond.
“I think it puts tennis in perspective,” Klahn said. “Seeing what he goes through and hearing the small snippets that I get from him from time to time, tennis is great, I love what we do. But you realise that it is just a game and it could help put things in perspective and also help you play with a broader significance.”