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Tart with a Heart
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Don´t know what to make of this; it´s interesting to read as a tennis fan, but the shameless spin put on the story left me a little uncomfortable. What do you guys think?

Source:ESPN <a href="http://espn.go.com/magazine/friend_20011121.html" target="_blank">http://espn.go.com/magazine/friend_20011121.html</a>

Alexandra's nightmare<br />by Tom Friend

What if you showed up for work, and all the Americans were gone? What if it was just you and a bunch of stone-faced women named Chladkova and Dokic? What if it shook you up so much, you were afraid to wear three particular colors: red, white and blue?

Well, this is what war did to a certain tennis player from the United States. Just a few days after Sept. 11, Alexandra Stevenson looked at her tournament schedule, looked at a map, and realized she was in an awful fix. "Oh my God," she said. "I am not going to be far from Afghanistan!"

A little later, Alexandra recalled, she got a phone call from her friend Venus Williams.

"You're not going, are you?" Venus said.

"Yes, I am," Alexandra said.

"You're crazy!" Venus said.

"I gotta go -- I need the points," Alexandra said.

"Oh well, have fun," Venus said. "I'm not going."

Venus told her friend she was concerned and wanted to stay close to her family. She had just won the U.S. Open in New York on Sept. 9, and she'd flown home to Florida on Sept. 11, at 8 in the morning, which means she'd been in the air at the time of the hijackings. It means she was a lucky one, that her plane could've been the one full of madmen. And it was still freaking her out. Her sister, Serena, too.

"You know, it's okay if you don't go," Venus told Alexandra. "You don't have to go.

"I need the points," Alexandra said.

"Okay, but be careful," Venus said. "And tell your mom to zip it."

***

So, off they went to Europe and Russia, this 20-year-old tennis player and her mother. Alexandra Stevenson and her parent, Samantha, were determined to go on with their lives, the way few other American tennis-playing women seemed to be doing.

Alexandra went ahead because President Bush had urged the public to return to normalcy. And she went because she knew a certain fireman would've wanted her to.

The fireman was Manny del Valle, and he had met Alexandra on Aug. 23 at the U.S. Open. He'd taken a side job at the tournament, chauffeuring players to and from hotels, and he and Alexandra struck an instant friendship. She had a crush on him, and he seemed to have a crush on her. But then came Sept. 11. He had just finished an overnight shift that morning, but still jumped on one of the first engines to the World Trade Center. When Alexandra heard about the tragedy, she called Manny's cell phone, but got no answer. She called maybe 25 times, throughout the day, and still no answer. Finally, that night, she spoke with Manny's father. He told her not a soul had heard from him.

Some 10 days later, still no one had heard. So Alexandra climbed on her plane for Europe. Climbed on it because Manny had told her to keep plugging. He knew her story, knew that her father, Julius Erving, had never been a part of her life. And he knew after she'd reached the semifinals at Wimbledon in 1999, her ranking had free-fallen. He knew that she was ranked only 112th in the world, and he knew that she'd had injuries and that the expectations on her were exorbitantly high. So he told her about his life as a fireman, how he had to stay focused or people would lose their lives. He told her she had to stay focused, too, that she had to flick the critics off her shoulder like fleas.

And so she remembered all that, and decided to go play tennis where no one wanted to go play tennis: overseas.

LEIPZIG, GERMANY; SEPT. 23-30

This was her first stop in Europe, and in tennis terms, she seemed anxious to be there. The week before she'd left, she reached the quarterfinals in Quebec City -- losing a taut 7-6, 6-7, 7-6 (7-4) match to Meghann Shaughnessy -- and her hope was to advance further in Leipzig. Only four Americans had played in the Quebec City tournament, which began Sept. 17. Only Alexandra flew on to Germany.

On a personal level, she had no interest in being there. Manny was still missing, and she felt some guilt for detaching herself from the tragedy. What's more, she couldn't find The WB or Fox on German TV. That meant no Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, no Roswell, no Ally McBeal. For a 20-year-old, that's a titanic letdown.

So, it was tennis only. But she was ranked so low, she had to play the qualifying tournament, and because she'd played late into the week in Quebec City, she arrived into Leipzig a day late. This meant she had to play two qualifying matches in one day, on barely any sleep, and she lost her second one. But what bothered her was not so much the loss; it was the chilly reception she received.

Considering she was the only American player present, she thought she might receive at least a condolence or two, or perhaps an acknowledgment of support. But there was zero. Not from one player. Or one citizen. She felt truly alone.

MOSCOW; SEPT. 30-OCT. 6

By the time they hit Russia, Alexandra's traveling party was three -- herself, her mother and her regular European hitting partner, James Trotman of Great Britain. Actually, they had flown into Moscow a few days early, and the way it works in Russia is they needed a consulate's invitation into the country, plus a visa. But the invitation had been for a later date, and as they deplaned in Moscow, they feared a confrontation.

That said, Alexandra reminded her mother about Venus's admonition: Zip it. Samantha can be loud if she feels someone has been wronged, and Alexandra and others warned her this was not the time to be the "ugly American." The State Department had put a message out to all Americans traveling abroad to keep a low profile, but Samantha forgot about that as soon as they confronted customs at the dilapidated Moscow airport.

The female customs officer let Alexandra and Samantha slide through -- even though they were arriving early -- but, for some reason, this officer detained their British hitting partner.

"How dare you?" an agitated Samantha said. "Get your hands off him right now."

[Russian for, "What?"]

"Does he look like a criminal? Let's call Putin," Samantha said, "He's said he's a friend of Americans. Let's call him."

"You can call Mr. Putin," the officer said. "Come. Use my phone."

[The officer had no phone.]

"I will call him. And I'm sure the American Embassy will want to hear this, too."

By this time, Alexandra and her mother figured the officers would only let James through if they paid them off. But they'd already paid approximately $400 combined for their visas and so forth and didn't intend to be gouged.

"I'm not going to give you one more red cent," Samantha told a male officer.

"Well, actually, it's the American dollar I want," he said.

"I want your supervisor," she said.

"You've already asked for him," he said. "It's Mr. Putin. Let's call him."

[He had no phone either.]

Eventually, they had no choice but to pay $200 more to free James. So this is how the Moscow trip started, and by the time the tournament began, Alexandra realized she was still the only American woman playing -- two weeks in a row. Serena Williams was supposed to have played in Leipzig, and Venus was supposed to compete in Moscow, but neither had shown up, and it was getting ugly in the locker room. Alexandra's CD player was stolen -- even though there were men in black suits serving as extra security -- and Alexandra said a Czech player named Denisa Chladkova kept giving her icy stares and mumbling, "Stupid American" at her.

"It was so immature," Alexandra said. "I was like, 'Why are you wasting all that energy on me?' Also, I was the only one in that city that I saw with brown skin. I mean, not only was I the only American, but being tall and brown skinned, it felt weird there. In Moscow and in Leipzig, my mom and my hitter were in the stands, but I felt like I was so alone on the court. Like everyone was different. Like we'd been invaded by aliens and taken to their country. On the court, that's how I felt."

Fortunately, there was an adjoining men's tournament in Moscow that week, and Alexandra was glad to be joined by Jeff Tarango, Jared Palmer, Don Johnson and Mike and Bob Bryan. She and Tarango shared a USA Today that she would print out from the Internet, to stay up on current events, and the Bryans let her borrow their CD player after hers was stolen.

It was just a putrid week to begin with, and it only got worse when a plane exploded over the Black Sea. Russian airports were closed, and she remembered Afghanistan wasn't geographically too far away, and she and her mother worried about being stranded in Moscow. Before one of her matches, a tournament official approached her to say, "You don't have to worry -- we have armed guards lining the court, and undercover security in the crowd." That only frightened her more.

She wanted to wear a red, white and blue pin during her matches but was afraid to draw attention to her American self. The embassy had warned all U.S. players to remove American tags from their bags, and, for this reason, she tried to remain discreet. That being said, it was amazing that she still managed to win three qualifying matches to reach the main draw and then two more rounds before losing to Russian Elena Dementieva in three sets.

In fact, the silver lining came right before the Dementieva loss. A Russian player named Anastasia Myskina was the first player to actually approach her and say, "I feel sorry for what happened to America ... Were you touched by it?"

"Yes," Alexandra said, "I lost two friends."

She was referring to Manny, of course, as well as a high school friend from San Diego, who happened to be on the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania. And the mention of Manny got her wishing for news of him. But none came.

FILDERSTADT, GERMANY; OCT. 7-13

Finally, they were out of Russia, and onto the next tournament in Germany, just outside of Stuttgart. And lo and behold, there were American players there. This was the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix, and the lure of it was that any of the top eight women who arrived would receive a free Porsche. So two of the top eight showed -- Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati -- and Shaughnessy, Lilia Osterloh and Lisa Raymond also trickled in. Alexandra still was ranked too low and needed to qualify. She lost in the first qualifying round while trying to play with a bad cold.

But what seemed to bother her more was something she overheard from a player who has a Muslim boyfriend. This woman said out loud in the locker room, "Americans got what they deserved." By that point, Alexandra was almost inconsolable. She had just been contacted by Manny's family, telling her that Manny's body had finally been found on the 35th floor of the first World Trade Center tower. He and seven other firefighters had been crushed under a stairwell, and she made arrangements to have elaborate roses sent to his burial. She wanted out of Europe.

ZURICH; OCT. 14-20

Serena Williams was supposed to join them in Switzerland, but Serena never surfaced. And because of this, Alexandra was able to take Serena's spot into the main draw. She lost a nail-biter to Raymond, and seemed to be only a hair away from winning big. In the meantime, as the icy stares continued, Alexandra finally heard through the grapevine why most Eastern European players were distant to Americans. It was because they still disagreed with the way the United States dealt with the situation in Kosovo, and this new war in Afghanistan seemed to trigger that resentment. It seemed vague to Alexandra, but at least she knew she wasn't being paranoid.

LINZ, AUSTRIA; OCT. 21-27

It was her final tournament, and she nearly broke through on the court. She upset Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, and reached the quarterfinals, where she fell to Jelena Dokic. The Dokic loss hurt. Dokic had stared her down at the hotel for supposedly monopolizing a hotel computer, even though, the truth was, Alexandra's computer wasn't working, and she needed to take an on-line college course from the University of Colorado. She had a midterm creative writing project to complete, and yet here was Dokic making petulant faces at her. Oh well. She didn't beat Dokic, but at least she got an A.

SAN DIEGO; OCT. 27

So, it was finally over, six weeks on the road, and several weeks of feeling like the only American player on Earth. She had left San Diego for Quebec City on Sept. 16 and returned Oct. 27th, and as she arrived, jet-lagged, she couldn't help but take a quick glance at the rankings.

Alexandra Stevenson -- 57th.

It was true. She had left home ranked 112th and returned in a new stratosphere. She had gone halfway around the world -- all alone -- to move halfway up the ladder.

"I had gone there to play for Manny," she says, "and I realized tennis didn't mean anything. And I actually played better that way. There was just less pressure. After my big Wimbledon, everyone expected me to be No. 1 in the world maybe, and I had no clue how to play. But now I'm learning. And I know that tennis, compared to life, is a small thing. So many people in tennis need a reality check. They think it's life, but it's not."

And, naturally, her first congratulatory phone call came from a friend named Venus.

"I guess you're glad you went," Venus said.

"I guess," said Alexandra. "I guess."

Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at [email protected]
 

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Oh God not again! Is this the third time? <img src="wink.gif" border="0">
 

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Tart with a Heart
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Discussion Starter #3
D´oh! Sorry, have I missed it? Give me a break, I´ve been on holiday!
 

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LOL, that's ok. It's just there was alot of arguments about it. <img src="redface.gif" border="0">
 

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Tart with a Heart
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Discussion Starter #5
(sheepish smiley thing) I´d better go have a look then...
 

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Fingon started the thread entitled Alexandra's nightmare.

BTW, welcome back from holiday. <img src="smile.gif" border="0">

[ December 01, 2001: Message edited by: The Pea ]</p>
 

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Tart with a Heart
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Discussion Starter #7
Found it! (Thanks, Pea) How depressing - there´s me getting all interested only to find there´s already been a heated debate. Oh well, maybe next time..!
 
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