Huber, Doubles Champion, Rebuilds Her Career and Others’ Lives
By JOHN BRANCH
Published: September 11, 2009
On the mantel of a brick home in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans is a picture of Liezel Huber, alongside her husband, Tony.
“I can never live long enough to tell you everything she did for me,” Alonia Riggelton, 63, said in a phone conversation Thursday. “I love her, I miss her, and not a day goes by where her name doesn’t pass my lips.”
Huber had just won her first Grand Slam doubles title at Wimbledon in 2005 when a knee injury four days later threatened to chase her from the game. She was feeling sorry for herself at home in Houston when real devastation headed toward her, refugees from Hurricane Katrina carrying little but perspective.
Riggelton and seven family members were among them. Huber, volunteering at a church turned shelter, drove Riggelton to the insurance company to check on Riggelton’s claim. Her house had been flooded by eight feet of water.
“A tennis match is not the end of the world, right?” Huber said Wednesday.
Soon, Huber found and paid for a three-bedroom apartment for Riggelton and her family. Her knee wrapped in bandages, Huber helped carry furniture and mattresses. She brought food, and paid the electric bills and water bills.
And then Huber kept going, adopting about 20 other families, helping place them into apartments and onto the path toward normal.
Huber is 33 now, part of the No. 1 women’s doubles team in the world. But she seems destined to ultimately be better known for charity work than her tennis ability.
“You know how Billie Jean King made a difference?” Huber said. “I would just like to really make a difference. I don’t know how. I’m starting so little. But she’s my absolute idol. It’s not that I need to be well known or people have to remember that’s what I did. I just want to make a difference.”
Last year, she and Tony opened the 11-court Huber Tennis Ranch on 10 acres outside their suburban home. Liezel Huber talks about the underprivileged children she has sponsored, animal shelters she helps, playgrounds she has had built in her native South Africa (she became an American citizen in 2007). Her next project after the Open is raising money for an expensive ear operation for the 2-year-old daughter of the tennis player Eric Nunez, whose ranking is deep into triple digits.
“She sees the big picture in life, not just tennis,” King said. “And she is one of my all-time favorite players to watch. She is brilliant, so good at strategy, and I don’t think she is appreciated enough.”
Huber and Cara Black are defending their title at Flushing Meadows, with Huber fighting through personal pain of her own in the wake of her father-in-law’s unexpected death last week. The top-seeded team plays No. 3 Samantha Stosur and Rannae Stubbs on Friday. The winner will face Venus and Serena Williams in the final, scheduled for Sunday.
It was the partnership between Huber and Black about five years ago that altered Huber’s life. Black was already well known, part of a tennis-mad family from Zimbabwe. Her father, Don, coached and played Wimbledon before he died. Her older brothers, Byron and Wayne, were longtime tour players. (Cara and Wayne won the mixed doubles title at the 2002 French Open.) Black climbed as high as No. 31 in the singles rankings, and won several doubles titles with Stubbs, now a rival, including Wimbledon in 2004.
That was the year that Huber moved exclusively to doubles, unable to budge her singles ranking higher than No. 131. She and Black soon formed a partnership and won Wimbledon. But when Huber’s anterior cruciate ligament needed to be reconstructed in 2005, Black went back to Stubbs.
Things looked grim for Huber. But at an age when many tennis players retire, Huber was just starting, buoyed by finding another purpose.
The night she met Riggelton, Huber sent an e-mail message to everyone she knew, saying how moved she was by those displaced. Martina Navratilova was among those who called the next day, saying they would donate. The former player Gigi Fernandez said she would send a truck full of stuff to help “Liezel’s cause.”
That became the name of the charity: Liezel’s Cause. Huber, not the type to simply send a check, trolled church parking lots, introducing herself and saying she would like to help. She took Riggelton with her to explain that her motives were pure.
“Who am I?” Huber said Wednesday. “Just a weirdo showing up here?”
She went apartment hunting and met with real estate agents, looking for “decent and clean” places to put families for a few months. She footed the bills. She bought clothes, furniture, gas cards. She delivered groceries and learned to weave through red tape and Section 8 housing vouchers.
“I think I got injured for a reason, so that I could be there and help them,” Huber said. “I had the resources to help one family, and that turned into many.”
Her career was simultaneously rebuilt, too. Healthy again, she reunited with Black, who has some of the quickest hands on tour and dominates the net like no other, a perfect complement to Huber’s powerful strokes that anchor the backcourt.
In 2007, Huber and Black partnered to win both the Australian Open and Wimbledon, earning a No. 1 ranking that they have not relinquished. Last year, they won the Open title over Stosur and Lisa Raymond.
But the more lasting accomplishments can be found in people like Riggelton, a retired police officer who spent 18 months in Houston before moving into a trailer plopped in front of her ruined house. Huber arranged and paid for the moving truck. She continued to pay the bills.
Riggelton, who moved from the trailer to her refurbished house last year, had no idea how to repay her. So she went to a trophy store and picked out one with a tennis player on it. And she had it inscribed: “I will never forget you.”
It would seem the perfect gift for a mantel.