Huber The Humanitarian
"Tennis is our life, but there are many other things that are so much more important."
It was a long, difficult journey to the upper echelon of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour rankings, but for Liezel Huber there was no hesitation when it came to helping her fellow man when disaster struck.
Born and raised in Durban, South Africa, Huber (formerly Horn) began a long love affair with tennis at age five when her mother, Sica, handed her a racquet. With support from her family, fun trips to the tennis courts would become something more serious, and at a young age Huber ascended to the top spot in national Under 18 play. Recognizing there was little opportunity to make something of this talent in her home country, she decided at age 15 to move to the United States, a move that was initially very difficult.
"There were more opportunities, like training at a good academy and satellite tournaments. But I had no sponsor and there was little money coming in at first. The toughest thing was being by myself, being homesick. I was still a kid."
The financial tides began to turn as Huber began playing professionally. She found support from fellow South African pros, as well as her coach, Tony Huber.
"From tournament to tournament I was making more money. Amanda Coetzer, Mariaan de Swardt and Joannette Kruger helped me so much, treating me like family and staying at events with me. I met my husband, he was teaching at the academy, and we began dating. I learned how to live on my own. After initially planning on staying in America for six weeks I found myself here for three months, and now it's been 14 years!"
With her spirits up and game well practiced, Huber began notching her best results on the ITF Women's Circuit, mainly in doubles. Between 1993 and 1999 she played predominantly in those minor leagues of the pro tour, capturing nine titles with a plethora of partners, including de Swardt as well as current Tour force Katarina Srebotnik. Having seemingly maximized her success in that arena, Huber began transitioning to the Tour in 1999, her first blip on the radar coming at Wimbledon that same year, reaching the semifinals with Srebotnik.
Her marriage to Tony Huber in her hometown of Durban on February 19, 2000, marked somewhat of a turning point in her career, in addition to the obvious life transition. On one hand, she began scaling down her singles commitments, citing injuries as one of the main contributors.
"My body couldn't handle it," said Huber on the physical struggles. "I needed foot and shoulder surgery, and I also had two rib fractures. I also didn't enjoy singles as much. I was No.20 in doubles at the time, and I knew I could be Top 10. Doubles is just easier for me to figure out. I knew I could do better in doubles; it's been the right decision for me."
After another minor doubles title in 2000, the South African quickly began tearing it up on the Tour. By the spring of 2004 she had 10 Tour titles to her name with nine partners, including her first Tier I at Miami (with Magdalena Maleeva). Huber also reached her ranking goal, making her Top 10 debut (at No.10) in March.
"Ideally you want one partner for life, but that's not how it's worked out for me. I've taken what's been dealt to me, taken the best of their and my game and made it work. I'm excited by playing with someone new. A lot of my titles are when I play with people the first time."
Playing with fellow African (Zimbabwean) Cara Black in 2005, Huber captured her second Tier I title at Rome, reached the Roland Garros final and had a career-defining moment at Wimbledon, capturing her first Grand Slam championship.
However, five days after returning from the All-England Club, Huber's momentum took a serious hit when she blew out her knee playing a World Team Tennis match. She received four weeks of pre-operation therapy and in early August underwent reconstructive surgery. Times were tough, but managing to sneak in the maiden Grand Slam before the injury was what kept her going.
"People stopped calling, I lost sponsorships and it was very tough at times. But it was okay. At least it didn't happen four days earlier. At least I had the chance to win a Grand Slam."
Her perspective was about to take a dramatic turn. Three weeks post-surgery, a largely immobile Huber witnessed along with the entire world Hurricane Katrina's destructive arrival in the southern United States, an area close to Huber's home in Houston, Texas. That is when "Liezel's Cause" was conceived.
"I saw this awful devastation so close to us, and I had all this time on my hands, and knew that we had to do something."
She and her husband provided food and clothing to hundreds of evacuees being sheltered at their local church, then put a family of eight up in an apartment. That was just the beginning.
"We had food and a roof over our heads, and these people had nothing. I e-mailed everyone I knew for help. Martina [Navratilova] called me right away, and said she would send money the next day. I also got help from Lisa Raymond, Jennifer Capriati and Nathalie Dechy. We raised $40,000 and helped over 20 families. There I was, up to 18 hours a day, working with families. Anywhere they could come and stay, they came."
"Liezel is very efficient, very smart, so I knew that was the best money I could spend," said Navratilova. "She really stretched the dollar a long way. It was amazing. Liezel is on a mission. It's amazing what can be done when people try."
In addition to providing continual financial aid to victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, "Liezel's Cause" also has other ventures, like improving a school in Durban.
"We're adding to a school in the city I grew up in. My husband and I are providing funds, and my father is building classrooms for them. Right now that school has 985 kids, and 80 kids to a classroom. They just don't have the funds. We want the kids to have their schooling."
Huber's efforts were recognized in Miami in March at "Stars for Stars", the Official Awards Party for Professional Tennis, when she joined the likes of Kim Clijsters, Anastasia Myskina and Sania Mirza on the winners' list by receiving the Humanitarian Award (presented by Sir Richard Branson; pictured). But for her, recognition was a small victory compared to her accomplishments on the front lines of charity.
"I got an award I didn't feel I deserved. It's great to be honored, but I just wish more people could help. If "Liezel's Cause" can help 20 families, we can all help somebody. These people made my rehab easy for me; there was no time to feel sorry for myself, it put my problems in perspective, made me realize how grateful we all should be for everyday things."
With her newfound perspective, Huber has already begun compiling exceptional results of old. She won her 13th career Tour doubles title at the new Tier III event in Bangalore, partnering Mirza, and so far this spring has already reached two finals, one in Miami as well as another one with Mirza, at Amelia Island. After Miami, she returned to No.5 in the world, her first Top 5 ranking in six months and one spot off her career-high.
But the biggest personal successes for Huber come from "Liezel's Cause", whether or not she's winning titles or attaining rankings on the tennis circuit.
"We're very fortunate to be athletes. People look up to us. We in turn can reach out to people and help them when they're in need. If that was the reason I was playing tennis, then I'd be happy."
For more information on or to donate to "Liezel's Cause", please visit the charity's official Web site at www.liezelscause.com.
After reading this I'm a new fan. Go Liezel!