Sunday Special : Corina Morariu (Long Article)
Sunday Special: Corina Morariu
By HAL BOCK
AP Sports Writer
August 31, 2002
NEW YORK (AP) -- They toss words around at the U.S. Open, words such as courage for conquering punishing conditions, resolve for pressing on against the odds, dedication for refusing to give up.
Corina Morariu smiles at each of them. That's because she knows what they really mean.
For Morariu, the return to the Open this year was an emotional triumph, a dramatic example of courage, resolve and dedication. There was just one match, two sets and a quick first-round loss. And yet, she was the emotional exclamation point of the first week at the season's final Grand Slam.
Morariu's story is well-known. A ranked player, winner of 11 doubles titles, her career and her life suddenly hit a frightening detour in May 2001.
She sprained her right foot in the German Open and withdrew from the next tournament at Rome. She was ailing, struggling with frequent nosebleeds and spontaneous bruises -- conditions that sent her to see a doctor. Then came a diagnosis that turned her world upside down:
Acute promyelocitic leukemia.
Suddenly, wins and losses no longer mattered. Suddenly, all that mattered was survival.
Morariu was hospitalized, placed on a regimen of chemotherapy to attack the cancer. Her hair fell out. Dark rings appeared under her eyes. She lost weight, down to 125 pounds.
The tennis community rallied around her with messages of support. She heard from all her friends, players dedicating their wins to their pal who was in a life and death battle with leukemia.
She visited last year's Open briefly as a guest of the USTA. She wore a bandanna to mask the loss of hair. There was a sad, empty look in her eyes.
``I was starting my third round of chemo,'' she said. ``It was so special for me to be back here and to see everybody. And everybody was so supportive. But it was also one of the most difficult things I had to do, coming up here, seeing the girls I used to compete against, seeing everybody healthy and fit and tan.
``I had no hair. I was pale and thin. It was a difficult time. I didn't think I'd ever be back here.''
Slowly but surely, the medicine worked its magic. The cancer faded into remission. In November, she left the hospital, barely able to walk 20 yards. Walking up a staircase was a major mission.
Regaining her strength would be a slow, painful process.
``It started with walking for 10 minutes or five minutes or whatever I could do,'' she said. ``I just slowly tried to do more and more.''
By January, she began thinking again about playing tennis, returning to the sport that had been such a passion for her.
She started hitting, trying to build some strength, find some stamina.
``There were days when I hit 10 minutes and felt like I played a 3 1/2 -hour match,'' she said.
But she stuck with it, refusing to give in to her illness, urging her body on through the recovery. ``I just slowly tried to do more and more and built myself up from there,'' she said.
Her treatment, then and now, included daily oral chemotherapy, blood tests every month and bone marrow every three months. It is not a pleasant regimen, but it is a whole lot better than what she was going through a year ago.
By August, Morariu was back, entered in the Open warmup at Los Angeles. She won her first set against Marie-Galane Mikaelian, a moment that had to feel like the greatest triumph in her life.
She was granted a wild card entry to the U.S. Open and through the luck of the draw got to play top-seeded Serena Williams on center court on the first night of the tournament.
She knew what that meant.
``I probably would have liked a better draw in my first Grand Slam back,'' she said. ``I'm not going to lie to you about that. If that meant playing on an outside court, meant that I could win a couple of matches, then it would have been great.''
The match went about the way everybody expected it would. Williams, struggling with her own game, won in straight sets, although there had been small triumphs for Morariu.
She took five games, broke Williams a couple of times, and made a statement.
Better than that, however, was the call she got from her father a couple of hours before going on the court. The results of her latest test were back. The cancer remains in remission.
``That was the best reason to celebrate,'' Morariu said.