Wickmayer Motivated by Loss of Mother
By LIZ ROBBINS and LYNN ZINSER
Published: September 9, 2009
A few days after her mother died following a two-year battle with cancer, Yanina Wickmayer, 9, sat her father, Marc, down and told him they were moving from Belgium to Tampa, Fla.
Wickmayer determined that they needed to get away from their grief and that she wanted to go to Saddlebrook Academy to become a tennis player. She had already labeled the furniture she wanted to take with them.
A week later, her father sold his swimming pool construction business and the two were on a plane to Florida, neither able to speak much English. Now, 10 years later, Wickmayer arrived on Arthur Ashe Stadium Court and powered her way into her first Grand Slam semifinals with a 7-5, 6-4 victory Wednesday over Kateryna Bondarenko.
Wickmayer’s near anonymous breakthrough in this tournament was just the latest rich surprise to emerge from the women’s field.
“Yanina,” Marc Wickmayer said, “she has a mission.”
Wickmayer had played tennis for less than six months to cope with her mother Daniella’s illness when she fixated on going to Florida. She knew that other Belgian players, namely Justin Henin, were training at Saddlebrook.
“I guess I decided as a little girl to get away from home and put my memories and thoughts to something else,” she said. “I see now it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, just going there and putting my mind off things.”
Marc and Yanina stayed in Tampa for two and a half years, long enough for them to recuperate and determine it was time to move back to Lier, near Antwerp.
“We were liking our lives and being happy to live, and yeah, being happy to see the next day arrive,” she said.
When she was 11, Wickmayer approached the Belgian tennis federation and decided that she wanted to forge a career. It has not developed overnight.
“Playing in the semis of a Grand Slam, it’s amazing,” she said on-court after the match. “Before that, the best I had done is second round. This is so exciting. It’s been very amazing.”
She is ranked 50th in the world, boosted by her tournament title on clay in Portugal last May. She went on to lose in the second round of the French Open, but ignited her United States Open run with a first-round victory over No. 16 seed Virginie Razzano of France. Then she got an assist when the seeded players in her quarter of the draw, including No. 1 Dinara Safina, exited early in a pile of frayed nerves.
Wickmayer became the second Belgian in the semifinals, joining Kim Clijsters, whose has come back from a two-year retirement.
Wickmayer could face Clijsters in the final. She said that she has been in close contact with Clijsters because they are from the same part of Belgium, even though she admitted she has more in common with Henin, who lost her own mother to cancer. “Justine has dealt with it in a really great way,” she said.
With little pressure but what she places on herself, Wickmayer, 6-foot tall, came out swinging freely, yanking Bondarenko around the court. She earned a break point at 2-2 with a deep driving forehand to set up a drop shot winner, and converted the break when Bondarenko sent a forehand long on the next point.
“I just go for every shot,” Wickmayer said. “I put all my energy into every shot, that’s why they are so hard.”
Bondarenko had no answer. “She just played unbelievably today,” Bondarenko said. “When she would get a break point down, she would hit a winner.”
At times Wickmayer got too anxious and overhit, leading to unforced errors.
“I missed a few opportunities, so I was pretty mad at myself,” she said. “But I just kept fighting.”
Those were the words her mother would tell her during her illness.
“The mama tells always to Yanina,” Marc said, “you need to fight in the life, because it’s not coming very easy.”