OK, I translated the story, mostly because it is a wonderful one, and because I have a lot of free time in my hands lately
Almost a year ago, we told Andrea Benitez's story, about an argentinian player who was looking to get back on the professional circuit after suffering from unexpected tennistic setbacks. By that October of 2010, Andrea had no ranking, could barely gather the necessary money needed to travel, and only dreamed of the possibility of competing regularly again.
Today, Benítez is the number 339 of the WTA, has won 5 ITF Women's Circuits in 2011 and is longing for much more. However, her story is still catching: it includes gun fights, trainings with a transexual player and doubles competitions...with a 54yo partner!
For all of this, Andrea Benítez's tennis life deserves a second chapter, and this is it:
Q: When you arrived to México a couple of days ago, did you remember that this is where you started your comeback, a year ago?
A: Yeah, totally. To think that a year ago I had almost nothing, and now look where I am. It's a pretty nice feeling.
Says Andrea Benítez. And she won't stop smiling. Right here, in San Luis Potosí, is where the formosian arrived to retake her pro career. Now, 12 months after, she's the number 6 argentinian player on the WTA rankings. And hopes to be selected for Argentina's Fed Cup team. Not too shabby for a 25yo girl who, for a moment, thought she'd lost it all.
"I did not expect to get back so quickly" says Andrea, with a cup of tea in her hands. "This year I even had a streak of 22 consecutive wins (she won titles in Córdoba, San Pablo, Itaparica I and Itaparica II). I faced good players, girls who play Fed Cup. I would just get on the court, play and eventually win. 'Hey, stop there, Djokovic' people would say."
If it's inside the courts that Andrea's career took a spectacular turn, it is outside of them that she wrote several chapters of a life of adventures. And the first one was in Monterrey, México.
Nuevo Leon's state capital is a pushing, rich, industrially active city, with the advantage of being about 200km away from the US border. That's where Benítez set her camp, last year, for her comeback to proffesional tennis. And that's also where the damned violence of organize crime set its camp to harass mexican ground.
Andrea lived and trained in the Monterrey Olympic Village, that sits next to the Fourth Militar Region, head base of the Mexican Army in the regiomontana city, and main target for potential cartel attacks. "The tennis courts were surrounded by armed soldiers" says Andrea. "Sometimes, the soldiers would dress up as tennis players to pass as civilians.But you could see the points of their rifles and machine guns coming out of their tennis bags".
Benítez still has a picture taken with the 4th region Commandant. But she doesn't forget the daily fear she felt towards the possibility of getting stuck in the middle of a gun fight between armed forces and cartel members. Until one day she had to live that situation, and say goodbye to Monterrey.
"We where downtown -recalls Andrea-, getting out of a shopping mall with a friend. And right when we where about to cross the street, we saw a van approaching us at maximum speed. They were shooting from the inside of it. And behind it, the Police, also shooting. We were saved miraculously."
Benítez changed México for Brazil. She got support from the Hebraica Club in San Pablo, and reset her camp in paulista lands. But Chile would be the place of her next adventure, when she got a work proposal from Andrea Paredes, the transexual who has played in two ITF Women's Circuits this year thanks to a couple of Wild Cards received in exchange of publicity.
"I had just reached the final of a tournament, and had the next week off. Andrea Paredes contacted me so that I would train her during those days I'd be in Santiago de Chile. I got together with her, designed a practice schedule and the next day we hit the courts".
Benítez had heard about Paredes, but had never seen her play. When they were on the court, she was surprised. And not for good. "It was impossible for her to just get the ball back", she remembers. The rest of the week was, then, all served balls for the chilean to hit. But the curious thing happened later: Paredes asked the argentinian to get back to training in Buenos Aires, during the tournament disputed in the Tenis Club Argentino, and Benítez couldn't do it. The same situation showed up in Itaparica, Brazil, in May. Andrea (the good one) was fresh off her winning streak, and wouldn't step on a tennis court unless it was for a match. "And since I said no, she seems to have gotten mad. From then on, she would be on the stands for every match I played. But she would cheer for every point my opponents made, screaming" remembers Benítez. And won't stop smiling.
Paredes' was not the only unusual proposition given to her this year. What happened to her at the chilean city of Concepción would be bigger than anything else so far: Margaret Lumia, a 54yo american, hired her to play doubles with her in proffessional tournaments. Ticket planes, hotels and the rest of expenses would be payed by the veteran tennis player. Andrea was supposed to provide the talent in order for the couple to win a match.
"Never in my life had I heard such a proposal. But I always say yes to everything, everything is good for me" says Andrea, wearing a black Adidas jacket, her lower lip pierced and hair covering her right eye. In that case, the story had a more than happy ending, that is still being written. "I met Marge and her husband David last year in Mazatlan. She was playing doubles with a czech player, Hubnerova. After that, Mr. Lumia saw me playing in Rancagua, this year. And in Concepción, they offered me a contract to play together. It was a verbal agreement. And we arranged that they would call me back."
And they did, three days later. The stepped on the courts by the end of March in Ribeirao Preto, Brazil, and got to the semifinals. They got to the same result in San Pablo, a few weeks later. Until by the end of June, in La Habana, they got to their first final, something Lumia hadn't achieved with any of her previous partners."
"Margaret is the oldest player in the Circuit. She started playing at an advanced age. Considering her age, she's a very good player. They have a lot of money, own a house bigger than this hotel, with a grass tennis court. When I told them I was available to go to Brazil, they had already sent the plane tickets 20 minutes later. And David is the one in charge of the managing: he studies which are the convenient tournaments to go, has a track of our rival's records, looks at every single detail. Margaret's dream is to be a top 500 doubles player."
And with Andrea as a partner, the dream is not far from being achieved: Lumia is ranked 762 in the doubles ranking. And together, they are already in the finals of the San Luis Potosí future, being played this week in the Libanese Potosí Club. The friendship between the american couple and the argentinian player has grown. Beyond contracts, they are joined by affection. "Despite all the money they have, they are very simple people. That's why we get along" says Benítez.
"And what is your goal right now regarding your ranking?" I ask Andrea, while the Westin Bar in San Luis Potosí starts to close and the story of an incredible year starts to reach its ending.
"Right now I'm not concerned about my ranking. I'm playing. I'm enjoying and doing what I like. Whenever I tell my dad how well I've been doing, he just can't believe it. Now I'm going on a trip to play $25K, $50K and $75K tournaments. I'm traveling with Margaret and her husband. I'm doing it thanks to them. A couple of days ago, in Bolivia, a player approached me and asked me: "Why do you laugh every time you miss a shot?" "She thought I was making fun of something, and I apologized to her, told her I didn't really notice it. I'm just happy".
Q: In 2006, you got to be the number 251 in the world, what if you improve that ranking now?
A: I didn't even know what I was doing back then, didn't have a notion of it. Today is different. I remember how anxious I was a year ago when my first ranking points kicked in. And now, even though I say I don't care about it, I have that number 251 in mind. I want it. I'm looking for it. And when I reach it, I'm going to celebrate like crazy".
Says Andrea. And she won't stop smiling.