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The following excerpt was reprinted with permission from the book LIVING THROUGH THE RACKET: How I Survived Leukemia …and Rediscovered My Self by Corina Morariu. It is published by Hay House (February 2010) and is available at all bookstores or online at: www.hayhouse.com.  

Chapter 2   The News    

I came home to Florida after my short vacation in Park City in 2001 with a terrible cold, one that would take me weeks to recover from. I had also experienced a few nosebleeds in the weeks following my return, something that struck me as odd, if not alarming. My maternal grandmother in Romania had died of a virulent form of leukemia four years before, and I had the vivid recollection that some of her first symptoms were severe nosebleeds.

I went online to research nosebleeds and found that while they can be a symptom of leukemia, they can also accompany a common cold. I chastised myself for being a hypochondriac and never told anyone what was happening for fear of looking neurotic. Having both parents and a brother who were physicians, I’d learned over time not to complain about my health unless something major was wrong. A nasty cold and a couple of nosebleeds did not qualify as major, so I kept my mouth shut.

The cold lingered, but I recovered enough to put in some much-needed training and play my next scheduled tournament at Amelia Island, Florida, which is just north of Jacksonville. Again, I got my butt kicked in the opening round. This time my opponent was Rosanna de Los Rios, and the score was a lopsided 6-3, 6-1. I wasn’t plagued by the absentmindedness I had felt at Indian Wells, but I did feel totally outclassed on the court. This didn’t bother me as much, since I’d tried hard and just lost to a better opponent on that day. Unlike the apathy I felt before, I was now determined to redouble my efforts and break this new first-round losing streak.

I played doubles with Mary Pierce, and the outcome was the same: another match, another loss. I used the time before the next tournament to practice even harder and spend more time in the gym, but I couldn’t seem to get back into playing shape. My endurance was especially weak: I remember running on the treadmill one afternoon at six miles an hour, what should have been an easy pace, but I could barely keep myself upright. After 20 minutes, I was doubled over and heaving, unable to catch my breath and completely exhausted. I knew then that something was wrong. I called my dad, and we agreed that I should see a doctor when I got home. But neither of us thought it was anything more serious than the lingering effects of a persistent cold.

The next week took me to Charleston, South Carolina, and the lethargy I felt at Indian Wells returned. My husband, Andrew, wasn’t with me that week, and with no one to push me to practice or work out, I had little desire to do either. I kept my practices to a minimum and concentrated more on enjoying the city with my friend Kim Po rather than trying to play world-class tennis.

There are incredible perks to being a professional tennis player, but the usual benefits of traveling rarely apply. You arrive at an event, and if you aren’t practicing, playing, or working out, you’re waiting to practice, play, or work out. There is a lot of waiting involved, and any time you might have away from the courts is usually spent resting in your hotel room.

Because I had so little energy for tennis, Kim and I decided to do some things we rarely did at tournaments: we took tours; had long, leisurely dinners; and just strolled around Charleston. We had a wonderful time together and came away from that trip with many fond memories. My memories of playing that week, however, are not so fond. I drew Meghann Shaugnessy, a young player quickly climbing up the rankings, in the first round. She was ranked well ahead of me and was having a great year, so I knew the match would be tough. But since I’d never lost to her before, I thought I had a good chance. I got smoked, 6-3, 6-2, and continued my streak of not winning more than three games a set, let alone winning a first-round match.  

The most staggering part of that match was my inability to concentrate. There are times in every match where concentration lapses, but an experienced player can recognize those lapses and stop them from spiraling out of control. I could do no such thing. I felt like I was in a vacuum. My physical energy was depleted, and to compound that, I couldn’t get my mind to focus clearly. Tired and frustrated, I was ready to go home. (Home, for a nomadic professional athlete, usually cures all.) I had an appointment with a doctor and would hopefully get some help for the exhaustion that was now enveloping me. I was also going to have a week at home to reenergize, refocus, and prepare for the next leg of the Tour, which was a trip to Europe for a series of tournaments leading up to the French Open.

I went to see a pulmonary specialist, and after a series of tests, he concluded that my recent cold had exacerbated the effort-induced asthma I’d been diagnosed with ten years before. I hadn’t had an asthma attack for three years, but he nevertheless prescribed an inhaler and sent me on my way. That was good enough for me. I was ready to resume work and prepare for the upcoming red-clay-court tournaments in Europe.  

The first stop on what I anticipated to be a nine-week European grind was in Bol, Croatia. I fell in love with Bol the first time I played a tournament there in 1997. Tennis players favor certain tournaments for different reasons: It could be the location; the food; the atmosphere; or, most likely, the results they’ve had at that particular event in years past. For me, Bol had all of the above. I reached my first-ever WTA Tour final there in 1997 and went on to make the final again the next year. The third year, I won the title.

Results aside, I fell in love with Bol’s charm, beauty, and tranquility. It’s a small town on the island of Brac, about an hour’s boat ride from the mainland. The hotel we players stayed at was small but on the water, and it was walking distance from the courts. The stadium was intimate, the crowds were enthusiastic, and the tournament director took great care of us. And then there was the food.

As anyone who knows me will tell you, my life revolves around eating. I’m already thinking about lunch before breakfast is done, and I need to eat every three hours or people get hurt. It would only be fitting for me to judge a tournament by the culinary services they provide, and this event passed my test with flying colors. The tournament arranged for a restaurant in the hotel to be used exclusively by the players, their families, and their coaches, and all meals were provided there. I grew up eating Romanian food, and Croatian food is quite similar, so eating there felt like a taste of home.

While I was anxious to get to Bol for both the food and the atmosphere, I wanted to get back to winning, too. It didn’t happen. I drew a feisty, highly ranked Japanese player named Ai Sugiyama in the first round, and I came out stumbling. I managed to get down 0-4 before she even broke a sweat. I recovered slightly, but lost the first set, 6-2. Then, by some miracle of will for which I’m still proud, I won the second set, 6-0. The momentum didn’t last, however, and my concentration waned again. I lost the third set, 6-3. It was a tough loss to handle. I’d just lost in the first round of my favorite tournament, my fourth first-round loss in a row.

Tennis is a constant mental challenge. It is an individual sport in which one player must solely bear the burden and the responsibility of a loss. In fact, when it comes to tournaments, most of the players lose—some in the opening round, some later in the draw. Only 1 out of 32 or 64 or 128 actually walks away from that week without having lost a match. In order to keep playing in the face of such odds and not lose your sanity, you attempt to stay positive and persevere. It doesn’t always work that way. The demons get the best of even the most talented players. In Bol, my positive spin was that I drew an especially tough opponent and won the second set without losing a game. That was progress, however small.  

Losing four first rounds in a row is scary business for any pro, but off the court, things were becoming even scarier. My gums were bleeding, so much so that I woke up one morning with blood on my pillow. I chalked it up to gingivitis and dedicated myself to more brushing and flossing. I was winded when I ran, and my trusty little inhaler didn’t seem to be helping. I developed pain in my right foot and went to see the trainer, who noticed bruises all over my body. I told her I bruise easily—I had an excuse for everything. As a tough professional athlete and the daughter of doctors, I wasn’t about to complain about bleeding gums and bruises. So I headed to the next stop: Berlin.

There, things got worse. My foot pain went from moderate to severe, and after losing the first set of my first round to Marta Marrero, 7-5, I retired from the match. I pulled out of the doubles as well and stayed in Berlin to have my foot checked. Everyone thought I had a stress fracture, but both an MRI and a bone scan came up negative, leaving us all perplexed. It was two weeks before the French Open, and I had to make a decision: either stay in Europe, play through the pain, and hope that my foot improved with treatment; or go home and rest before the French. I decided to go home. That decision, it turned out, may have saved my life.