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Steve Flink: Corina Morariu; "Living Through the Racket"

2/16/2010 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Know this about Corina Morariu’s brand new book (“Living Through The Racket”, How I Survived Leukemia and Rediscovered My Self”, with Allen Rucker): it is considerably more than just another sports autobiography. It is the gut wrenching account of a woman who confronted cancer and fought back with quiet ferocity to beat the disease, a portrait of an extraordinary woman who happened to be a tennis player revealing immense courage and character, a story of an individual who spent her twenties taking on one substantial challenge after another. Above and beyond anything else, this book is about the inspirational journey of a human being looking at her life with remarkable integrity, examining everything forthrightly, allowing the reader to understand fully who she is and why she was able to turn a potential tragedy into a substantial triumph.

Although Morariu was never a household name in the tennis world, the fact remains that she enjoyed a career that was, to say the least, distinguished. She grew up in Florida, and as a junior secured four Grand Slam doubles championships in 1994 and 1995. In singles, she reached a career peak of No. 29 in August of 1998, when she was 20. She concluded 1999 at No. 37 in the world, and ended the following season still stationed at No. 52. On her own, she was a fine player. But on the doubles court, with the opportunity to showcase her innate skills and sharp instincts at the net, she was outstanding. In that forum, she joined forces with a wide range of partners across the years, and was not found wanting. She won Wimbledon in 1999 and reached the final of the 2005 Australian Open alongside Lindsay Davenport, and captured the Australian Open mixed doubles crown in 2001 with Ellis Ferreira. In 2000, Morariu celebrated a milestone career achievement, reaching No. 1 in the world on the official Sony Ericsson WTA computer.

When Morariu found out that she had climbed to the top of that mountain on April 3, 2000, she was enormously proud of what she had done. As she writes in the book, she went online that day to check her ranking, and discovered that she had moved to No. 1 in doubles. “I didn’t start jumping up and down or become outwardly excited. I didn’t plan a huge party or break open a bottle of Cristal…. But everything was different. I was the No. 1 doubles player in the world, and even though my singles was my priority at the time, I still felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment. I let myself thoroughly enjoy the moment, fully cognizant of the years and years of hard work, sacrifice and emotional trauma that it had taken to reach this benchmark.”

Little more than 13 months after that uplifting moment, Morariu was diagnosed with an advanced form of acute myelogenous leukemia. She would endure four debilitating rounds of chemotherapy to treat the disease, and her descriptions of that harrowing stretch in her life are vivid, filled with candor, and admirably devoid of self pity. She writes of the period leading up to the diagnosis, tells the reader about her gums bleeding, and bruises appearing inexplicably all over her body. As a reader, you are drawn in completely by her internal strength and her capacity to submerge whatever sorrow she felt and simply get on with the battle at hand, a battle much larger and more daunting that anything she had ever faced on a tennis court.

“Once the diagnosis was confirmed,” she writes, “the athlete in me took over. I now knew my opponent, and I had a strategy and a support team in place to defeat it. In an odd way, this was a familiar scenario. It was going to take will, conviction, perseverance, discipline and a desire to win—skills I’d been honing since I was six years old.”

That, of course, was putting it mildly. She needed all of those qualities, and many more. She needed a reservoir of resilience, and somehow she found it. She had to overcome her initial violent reactions to the chemo, a dangerous buildup of fluid in her lungs, and an assortment of other daunting problems. But with the unflagging support of her mother, father, husband and friends, Morariu never wavered. She competed to a degree she probably never had before, and ultimately Morariu was the victor. Through it all, her morale was not simply boosted by those who were closest in her inner circle, but by colleagues in women’s tennis who wanted her to know exactly how they felt.

A prime example of that camaraderie is a story she recounts in the book. While she sat in a hospital bed at Jackson Memorial in Miami during the early stages of her fight with cancer, the players were at Roland Garros for the 2001 French Open. Jennifer Capriati met Serena Williams in the quarterfinals on the red clay in Paris. Morariu was sleeping while her countrywomen played each other, but when she woke up her brother showed her a tape of the match. When the players joined the umpire on court for the coin toss, Capriati held up a large sign which said, “Get Well Soon, Corina.”

As Morariu writes, “The crowd broke into applause, and I broke into tears. It was such a wonderful surprise. I later found out that all of the players had gotten together, wanting to do something special for me, and Jennifer had volunteered to hold up the sign on behalf of everyone on the Tour. I didn’t know Jennifer that well at the time, but I was touched that she had offered to make the gesture public. It was accompanied by a more private gesture: a poster signed by every one of the players, which the Tour staff had framed and sent me in the hospital.”

As she proceeds with her touching manuscript, Morariu takes us through her long and draining illness, across the four rounds of chemo and the excruciating pain she experienced, into the center of her psyche, along to her comeback as a player and the sense of renewal she felt to be back among her peers. But she moves on to another life altering experience that in many ways was as taxing, perplexing and jarring as the fight with cancer—the dissolution of her marriage.

She had known her husband—Andrew Turcinovich-- since he started as her tennis coach when she was 15. They had married when she was 21. But after some soul searching following her recovery from cancer, Morariu realized that too much of their union revolved around tennis. Although she deeply appreciated his steadfastness during her ordeal with cancer, Morariu came to understand that there were something fundamentally wrong with the relationship that made her highly skeptical about their future as a couple.

She writes, “My husband and I were different in age [he is eleven years older], temperament, outlook and even cultural signposts. We had different tastes in music, film and fashion--- we were of two different generations, really. Tennis was our primary means of contact and communication, the bridge that connected the two of us. After the leukemia completely ruptured my life, I felt that bridge start to crumble. Yet I wasn’t fully conscious of it at the time; I only had a disturbing inkling about the whole arrangement.”

That “disturbing inkling” grew. She would eventually get a divorce, but the burden of that breakup was compounded by the surprisingly negative response from her parents. Her father, Albin, and her mother, Rodica, had come to the U.S. from Romania and had formed the closest possible bond as they raised Morariu. During her bout with cancer, they had been unfailingly supportive. They were indispensable allies, largely exemplary parents, guiding forces in different ways. But they saw Andrew Turcinovich not simply as a son-in-law; they viewed him as if he was their own son. Albin and Rodica were strongly against the divorce, and they openly expressed their disapproval. As they saw it, Andrew was a part of their family and they didn’t want to lose him.

Morariu writes of that distressing time with her parents: “It was as if I were personally attacking them. I had always been the good girl with the good grades and the right appeasing attitude. Even when I became a professional athlete with a practice-until-you-drop mentality, I still lived close to home and called my parents every day. Now it seemed as if I had suddenly turned on them, becoming a dark version of my former self, to make their lives a living hell….. In all of our minds, my decision to step back from my marriage was linked to my bout with leukemia… There was no question that the cancer had changed me, but in my mind I was finally discovering myself. I was learning about my needs and wants, learning to make decisions for myself, and learning how to stand on my own two feet. Through the trauma of cancer, I became stronger, more introspective, more fixed in my views, and more confident in my own judgment.”

And yet, her growing independence and sense of self was tested to the hilt. Along with her husband, she had sought counsel from a priest, who was sympathetic to Morariu and her point of view. She summoned the courage to proceed with a divorce. In that period, her mother asked her, “How can you be happy when you are making everyone else unhappy”. Her father put it even more bluntly and devastatingly when he told her on the phone one night, “You know your having leukemia was better than this.” As Morariu writes, “I was crushed. What he was saying that he would rather have me be close to dying than shatter his illusion of family unity. I hung up the phone, crumpled to the ground, and sobbed uncontrollably.”

It took a while, but over time the deep wounds were healed and Morariu’s relationship with her parents was not only reawakened but strengthened. Meanwhile, Morariu was reestablishing herself as a top flight tennis player after her 2002 comeback. She writes, “When I first returned to playing after the cancer, it was thrilling. I was enamored by both the physical challenge and the enormous outpouring of support and encouragement I was getting from the tennis world. But that was in July 2002. By the fall of 2003, no one remembered that I’d had leukemia, “beat” it, and made it back to the Tour.  By this time, I was just another player in the draw… I didn’t need constant validation, but all that enthusiasm did add to the excitement of being out there, an excitement that I clearly wasn’t feeling anymore. I appreciated my comeback but tennis suddenly felt insignificant. As a professional player, the game is an all-important, all-consuming, activity, demanding that one be completely egocentric and focused on winning. In my circumstance, having left the sport and then returning with a whole new mind-set about my life, I had one foot in both worlds--- the tennis world and the real world.”

Morariu had serious shoulder problems after she reemerged on the Tour, and that impediment was one of the reasons she considered retirement by the end of 2003. But her close friend Lindsay Davenport suggested that Morariu should stop playing singles and put all of her energy into doubles, placing less strain on her shoulder. Morariu took that recommendation straight to heart, and played on. In 2005, Davenport joined Morariu to reach the Australian Open final. They lost to Alicia Molik and Svetlana Kuznetsova in the championship match, but to Morariu it did not feel the least bit like a setback.

She writes, “Despite the outcome, I felt as victorious as I would have if we’d actually won. In a very emotional speech during the trophy ceremony, I spoke from the heart. ‘Four years ago, I told the crowd, “I didn’t know if I would live, let alone live to play well enough to play another Grand Slam final.’ I was crying, and Lindsay was crying… It was easily the most thrilling and satisfying moment in my entire post-cancer career.”

She would play on until 2007, when she knew whole-heartedly at the age of 29 that the time had come to leave. She competed in her last event at the U.S. Open that year with Meghan Shaughnessy. They lost in the quarterfinals. Afterwards, Morariu met in the courtyard with a small group of friends, and they opened a bottle of champagne. She had much to celebrate after departing in her own way on her own terms.  She writes,  “I was incredibly grateful for all that the game had given me—the opportunity to travel the world, make lasting friendships and challenge myself in ways I never could have otherwise….. I knew I had reached a new equilibrium, and a new appreciation for all I had been given. I had a whole new rapport with my family; dear and loyal friends; my health; and probably the greatest gift of all, a new relationship with myself. I knew that I would never again abuse that relationship or take it for granted. It was, and is, the most important one of all.”

Morariu has made a smooth transition to the broadcast booth, lending her keen insights to Tennis Channel as a color commentator. But those who followed her playing career—and people who have come to value her television work-- would do well to read her book. Come to think of it, it should be mandatory that tennis fans add “Living Through The Racket” to their libraries.

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Congratulations to Steve Flink who is being inducted into the USTA Eastern Tennis Hall of Fame.

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