Junior Ole Miss men’s tennis player Ricardo Jorge grew up playing tennis in Portugal and always envisioned playing professionally one day. He was a national champion twice already at the age of 14 when suddenly his life changed.
Ranked No. 1 in Portugal at the time, Jorge was training in Lisbon, nearly three hours away from his hometown of Tavira. He kept having nagging issues with his hip, hamstring, muscles and his back. Jorge experienced trouble rotating to his left. Never fully 100 percent on the court, he went to see an orthopedic doctor in Lisbon.
“The doctor told me to bend over and touch my toes,” Jorge said. “My right side was a little bit higher than the left side. Everyone thought it would be because I play tennis and my right side was a little bit stronger than my left side anyways.”
Unfortunately, the doctor informed Jorge he had scoliosis. Scoliosis is a three dimensional deformity of the spine with a curve greater than 10 degrees. It affects between one percent and three percent of the population.
At the time, Jorge’s curve was just 11 degrees, which is hardly noticeable by the average person; even his parents didn’t notice anything. Immediately, Jorge started getting treatment three times a week, mostly involving stretching.
By the time he reached 16, the curve had worsened to 45 degrees, and Jorge got the news no athlete ever wants to hear.
“I visited a doctor in Portugal who does all the scoliosis surgeries, and he told me to stop playing tennis,” Jorge said. “He basically said ‘it’s your choice, but it’s going to get bad for you if you keep playing tennis.’”
Jorge stopped playing competitively for three months and feared his tennis career was over.
“When I initially heard that I couldn’t play tennis anymore, I was like what I am I going to do with my life now? I had spent eight years playing tennis then to hear I can’t play anymore. I was living in Lisbon at the time and that meant I had to go back to live with my parents. I was in shock and didn’t know what to do. It changed all my plans. Fortunately, I found a solution and I kept playing tennis.”
His parents did a lot of research and learned that former world No. 4 James Blake has scoliosis as well. They contacted his foundation and received an email back saying they should go to a clinic in Seville, Spain which specializes in SpineCor brace treatment.
SpineCor treatment is much different than the conventional non-surgical rigid braces that a lot of patients wear. It’s used in 20 countries around the world and over 10,000 patients have been successfully treated. SpineCor works to rebalance and strengthen the abnormal muscles and improve posture.
The doctor told Jorge he could wear this type of brace for two years and continue playing tennis. It wouldn’t make it better, but it wouldn’t get worse. The only other option was surgery, which would have ended his tennis career for sure.
“I had to wear the [SpinCor] brace 20 out of 24 hours. It was really tough, especially during the summer when it’s over 100 degrees. I had to wear a special shirt underneath the brace. The brace was uncomfortable. It went all around my waist. It was hard to play tennis in it.
“It was really hard for me to breath during matches. I would play a long point and take the brace off to breath and then put it back. It still bothers me sometimes, when I hit the ball. With scoliosis everything changes. Sometimes when I hit a few balls I feel like my ribs go into my stomach. I have some problems here and there but nothing really significant.”
Being uncomfortable for 20 hours a day is one thing, but teen years are some of the hardest when you are dealing with something that’s not normal.
“That was one of the toughest periods of my life. Most people wouldn’t understand and would make a lot of bad jokes about it. The first six months were tough, and then I got used to it. I just embraced that this is something I have to wear to prevent surgery.”
Every four to six months during that two-year period, Jorge would travel to Seville to get x-rays to make sure his curve wasn’t getting worse.
After two years of wearing the brace, doctors told Jorge that since his growth spurt had stopped, he could discontinue wearing the brace. They also told him he could continue to play tennis, but that the curve would worsen one to two degrees every year.
At present, Jorge says his curve is 51 degrees, but it hasn’t stopped him from doing what he loves. Knowing that a professional career was likely going to be more difficult, Jorge chose a different path.
“When I was 17 I went back to Tavira and worked really hard on my game. I got really good again. I was a finalist in the national championship and I won some ITF events. That’s when I decided going to college might be a good option for me. I could continue playing tennis at a high level and get an education.”
The Davis Cup coach for Portugal had a connection with someone familiar with Ole Miss and asked Jorge if he would be interested.
“I was like sure are they good?” Jorge recalled. “I heard a lot of good things about the school not just tennis-wise, but about football, the business school, etc. I was looking at some other schools too, but then coach (Billy) Chadwick (former head coach) asked me to come on a visit. Ole Miss was very welcoming and said they would work with me regarding my scoliosis. They made me feel wanted, so I decided to come here. It’s been great.”
Jorge has helped the Rebels to consecutive NCAA appearances in his first two years and a top-25 ranking. Off the court, he is an ITA Scholar-Athlete and a regular on the Dean’s list majoring in business.
Surgery is in Jorge’s future, but the exact time he is not quite sure yet. He has one more year after this to play for the Rebels and then the prospect of furthering his education or trying to play professionally is still on the table.
“Depends on my tennis,” Jorge said. “If I’m playing really good tennis and I feel like I have a shot and I am healthy and my back doesn’t hurt, I’d maybe give it a shot. I am looking into internships right now for the summer and I plan to pursue an MBA somewhere, maybe here. I want to work in finance.”
If he decides to quit competitive tennis after graduation, Jorge says he will opt for surgery right away, because the recovery time is nine months.
“It’s not a requirement, but the doctors said when I’m 40 or 50 I will be in a lot of pain if I don’t have surgery. I don’t want to be like that. I don’t want to be that dad that can’t do anything with their kids. I want to be able to play with my kids and be a healthy dad. I love all sports, not just tennis. When I am back home I play soccer once or twice a week, and I want to be able to do that until I’m much older.”
Courtesy of Ole Miss Sports