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LIVING THROUGH THE RACKETHow I Survived Leukemia ... and Rediscovered My Self
By Corina Morariu Allen Rucker
HAY HOUSE, INC.Copyright © 2010 Corina Morariu
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOUT OF BODY
A tennis player's life is measured in tour dates on a yearly schedule beginning in January-leading up to the Australian Open-and ending sometime in November, depending on which tournaments you choose to play after the U.S. Open finishes in mid-September. The six or so weeks you have off after that are usually devoted to a rigorous training schedule spent preparing for the next season, which begins after New Year's. In the prime of a professional career, there is little time to do anything else. You're either playing, practicing, training, or traveling.
At the beginning of the WTA Tour season in 2001, I was in excellent shape, eager to begin the year. I was coming off several tough months, though. After being ranked #1 in women's doubles in April 2000, I literally stumbled and took a big fall. In my opening singles round at Wimbledon, I had the misfortune of being pitted against my good friend Lindsay, who also happened to be the defending champion and the #1 ranked singles player in the world. In the second game of the second set, already down one set, I made an abrupt change of direction, slipped on the dampgrass court, and broke my left arm at the elbow. I let out a bloodcurdling scream when I hit the surface, and Lindsay came running to help. A picture of her leaning over my crumpled body made newspapers around the world. It was a painful moment in many ways.
I walked off Centre Court with this lifeless arm, and it would be four months before I could compete again. Lindsay and I couldn't defend our Wimbledon doubles title, and I ended up missing the U.S. Open as well. I finally returned to competition in October at a tournament in Tokyo, right near the end of the Tour season. Half of the year 2000, in other words, was a washout.
I trained especially hard in the off-season, got into the best shape possible, found my rhythm again, and was set for a mini-comeback. I started the season at a tournament in Sydney, a traditional warm-up to the Australian Open, and made the quarterfinals of the singles. I beat Anna Kournikova, ranked 8th in the world at the time, and did it decisively (6-2, 6-1) in a quick 46-minute match. I went on to the Australian Open, full of hope and bolstered by confidence ... and completely choked in my first round in singles. Losing in tennis is a constant-no one wins every tournament-but this loss particularly hurt because my expectations were so high.
But all was not lost, since I was back playing doubles with Lindsay at the Australian. We'd both had our share of injuries over the years, which prevented us from playing together as much as we wanted. But here we were, back to our winning form and making it to the finals, my first Grand Slam final since winning Wimbledon in 1999. On my 23rd birthday, after being up 3-1, we lost to the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, 6-4 in the third set. It was heartbreaking to be so close to another Grand Slam title.
Fortunately, my tournament wasn't finished. I had teamed up with South African-born Ellis Ferreira at the Australian to play mixed doubles. Two days after losing the women's doubles title, Ellis and I won the mixed-doubles title, beating Joshua Eagle and Barbara Schett, 6-1, 6-3. I told the press that it was "a belated birthday present." It was the only mixed-doubles title of my career. Ellis and I had planned to play, and hopefully win, many more, but other things got in the way.
I was off to an excellent start: one Grand Slam title, one Grand Slam final, and a strong singles statement in beating Anna Kournikova in Sydney. In March, I went to California to play at Indian Wells, one of my favorite stops on the Tour. I had just come off a good week in Acapulco, and I was really looking forward to going to the desert, especially since I'd played well there in years past. In my last match at Indian Wells the year before, I'd won the doubles title with Lindsay. Feeling confident after my performances early in the year, I thought I was in for a good week.
I was ranked around 30 in singles at the time, and my first-round opponent was Nicole Pratt, who was ranked considerably lower. She was a scrappy, tenacious player, but I had never lost to her, so I thought this was a good opening-round matchup for me. We were scheduled to play first on stadium court, but the match was over before it began. I lost badly, 6-3, 6-1.
I still have trouble describing the strange feeling I had on the court that day. I felt like I was watching myself from outside the stadium, as if I were having an out-of-body experience (but not in a good way). I couldn't concentrate, my mind was foggy and unfocused, and I felt apathetic about the outcome of the match.
I blamed fatigue, along with something I often tried to ignore, especially when I was winning: my on-again, off-again dissatisfaction with my career choice.
Although I'd just turned 23, I'd been playing tennis almost constantly for much of my life. I started at the age of 6, beginning with local tournaments in Florida, progressing to international Junior tournaments, and eventually turning pro at 18. I never felt that tennis was the be-all and end-all of my existence, and I never had an innate love for the game. My father pushed me to play when I was very young, and there were times growing up when I felt that I was living his dream, not mine. However, with his urging, I worked exceedingly hard to improve my game. I ended up being better than I expected, and probably even better than he expected. By the time I realized I might want to do something else with my life, I'd already invested so much time and effort in tennis that I figured I owed it to myself to see how far I could go.
There were definitely parts of playing the game that I loved, but there were also parts I hated, and ironically, the two were often intertwined. I loved the lifestyle, I loved being my own boss and making my own schedule, and I loved the financial rewards. Most of all, I loved seeing my hard work pay off. Tennis, unlike most things in life, is very black-and-white. You win or you lose. You have a number next to your name (your ranking) that clearly defines where you stand in relation to everyone else. If you want to gauge your results, the rewards for all of your efforts, there is nothing more tangible than that. Yes, sometimes luck doesn't go your way, or you just end up losing to a better player. Even so, I knew that if I worked hard and put forth my best effort on the court, the results would eventually pay off. And they did.
At the same time, I hated the pressure, as well as the person I became when dealing with it. Before or during tournaments, the stress and tension of being measured so definitively by results would weigh on me, and I'd become edgy or downright cranky. After a tough loss, I'd often get depressed or withdrawn, spending sleepless nights replaying costly mistakes in my mind. Part of the beauty of tennis-the one-on-one aspect-is also what makes the sport so agonizing. I struggled with the idea that two people could take the court on any given day, one wins and one loses, and they each go home feeling good or bad about themselves accordingly. I was constantly trying to weather the emotional highs and lows.
Because of this love-hate relationship with the game, I always said that I didn't want to play professionally for an extended period of time. On the Tour, a player has to play a certain number of tournaments at a certain level for five years to acquire a financial pension. My plan was to fulfill my five-year obligation and then reevaluate things. Considering that at the time of Indian Wells, I was about four and a half years in, I was in the process of reevaluating already. Looking back, my retirement plan was also a way for me to alleviate the pressure, especially when things weren't going well.
My poor play and apathy at Indian Wells had nothing to do with my general health, at least in my own mind. It simply struck me as a sign that maybe my tennis days were numbered, and I was ready to move on and try something else. I had no other explanation. It was unlike me not to give 100 percent. I worked exceedingly hard, and I took pride in playing professional tennis-I was always determined to do it to the best of my ability. My performance at Indian Wells was out of character, but I figured I was losing my edge. I decided to play out the season (that is, fulfill my pension requirement) and then change course.
I lost in the quarterfinals of the doubles at Indian Wells, playing with Lindsay, and decided to take the next week off and skip one of the biggest tournaments of the year in Miami. I'd never played well there, and even though it was close to my home in Boca Raton, I chose instead to go to Park City, Utah, to decompress and regroup for the rest of the season.
Professional tennis, like most pro sports, is physically and mentally grueling. In a touring season of more than 40 weeks, you can play in excess of 22 tournaments, including the 4 major Grand Slams (the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open), while traveling to all parts of the world and racking up the frequent-flier miles. Even in peak condition and the best possible mind-set, it can at times sap both your energy and enthusiasm for the game. You may even start to wonder why you play.
I came to tennis through my father, Albin. My dad emigrated to America from his native Romania and built a rich, productive life as a neurologist through an indomitable will and an unwavering desire to succeed. My mother, Rodica, who was also a physician in Romania, possesses the same fortitude and courage.
I see myself very much as the child of immigrants, the product of two distinctly different cultures. Although I was born in America, my parents saw the world through their upbringing in Eastern Europe. My success in professional tennis, and my brother's success in amateur tennis, then academics, and ultimately in medicine, is the direct result of our parents instilling us with a strong work ethic and the mandate to succeed.
When my father was 33, Romania was being ruled by the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Although he was a successful doctor, my dad made the decision to leave his native country. Smuggling some of his scientific research to America, he landed a job in Minneapolis, but the Romanian government refused to issue him a passport. His opportunity finally came when he successfully treated a Communist official, who returned the favor by granting him a passport. However, the government would not issue one to my mom or my brother, Mircea, who was four at the time. They wanted to keep my father's wife and child in the country as insurance that he would come back.
Dad took off for America on his own without telling a soul-not his parents, not his colleagues, not his wife-that he never intended to come back. He didn't even take his medical diploma for fear that a customs official would find it and not let him leave. He left Romania with the equivalent of ten U.S. dollars in his pocket and the hope of a better life.
My father lived alone in Minneapolis for three years, walking to work at the hospital every day from a bare-bones studio apartment. During that time, he couldn't communicate openly with his family in Romania because the Communist government liked to tap phone lines and open mail. He eventually made enough money to bribe the government to let my mother and brother leave. They finally made it to the U.S. in 1975.
Life in the States was a terrible struggle for my mom. Barely speaking English, she couldn't practice medicine, and she was extremely attached to her family and a culture that she would likely never see again. She might as well have been on another planet, and every day brought tears. She learned English by watching soap operas, and finding her way around a grocery store was a major ordeal. Mircea, now seven, was forced to make adjustments to his new life as well, although not all of them were painful. In Romania, bananas were rare and only available once a year. My brother tried to prolong the supply as long as he could and ate them in any color-green, yellow, or brown. In the States, bananas were plentiful, and Mircea, in heaven, ate a bunch daily. He "overdosed" after nearly a year of banana engorgement. To this day, he'll jokingly tell you that he can't get near a banana.
Eventually, my father landed a better job as a staff neurologist at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, so he moved the family there. My dad was doing everything in his power to create a better life, but my mother was lonely and plagued by homesickness. At one point, things became so strained that my mom nearly left my dad to return to Romania. Then, at age 39, she unexpectedly became pregnant with me and things changed. My father always says that she was completely cured of her depression the minute she found out she was pregnant. I grounded her in this new world, and in a way, we learned how to adjust to life together.
My athletic genes come from my father's father. Fiercely patriotic, my grandfather was devastated when his son left his family and his beloved country to pursue his dream in America. My grandfather died in 1974, while my father was in Minneapolis. My dad couldn't even go back for his own father's funeral; if he returned, he would never get out again. My grandfather was an engineer by trade, but his greatest accomplishment was having been a champion gymnast. For at least five years in his youth, he was one of the best gymnasts in Romania, a country that later produced the legendary Nadia Comaneci and Bela Karolyi. He had the opportunity to represent Romania at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles in 1932, but couldn't raise enough money to make the trip. He later competed against, and defeated, the Olympic champion.
In Romania, the father is the final arbiter of all things. My grandfather told my father that he was to do two things: go into medicine and learn to play either tennis or volleyball. My grandfather didn't want his son to go into gymnastics because of possible injury, and soccer was also deemed too dangerous. My dad chose tennis because it was an individual sport and, in his words, "I had my destiny in my own hands."
It's funny: My dad did exactly what his father told him, without question, until he reached his 30s. Then he turned his back on everything his father cherished-family, country, and culture-to set out on his own. Nevertheless, Dad never seemed to question the role of parent as the ultimate authority when it came to his own kids. That was the legacy of his immigrant past and the engine for my tennis career.
My father continued to play tennis after coming to America. He played with and taught my older brother, and then he started me in the sport when I was two. Playing regularly at a local club in Detroit, he'd always take me along. I loved the social aspect of those outings. The women at the front desk would prop me up on the counter, and I would talk to everyone. Social butterfly that I was, I enjoyed being the center of attention. After my dad had finished playing, he'd give me a racquetball racket and hit balls with me. One day, so the story goes, he came home from work and decided not to play tennis. Apparently, I went ballistic, and my father took this to mean that I loved tennis and wanted to play more. Looking back, however, I see that I was probably more disappointed at missing out on my social hour. Regardless, my tantrum more or less sealed my fate at age two-and-a-half. My dad didn't decide to be a doctor (his dad did), and I didn't really decide to be a tennis player-it was decided for me. Soon after that, we moved to Florida, and I played my first tournament there when I was six.
I know my dad always had my best interests at heart. He never thought he was too pushy or too pressuring like many obsessed tennis parents are, but I felt differently. He has a very forceful, mercurial personality; and memories of my early tennis life are stressful.
Excerpted from LIVING THROUGH THE RACKET by Corina Morariu Allen Rucker Copyright © 2010 by Corina Morariu . Excerpted by permission.
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