Corina's courageous comeback

ROHIT BRIJNATH

LAST week was just another seven days in sport, and then it wasn't. It was a week of everyday heroes, like Ian Thorpe and Anil Kumble, and it was also a week of an extraordinary one. It was a week when a young woman won nothing in conventional sporting terms yet won a battle of epic proportions; it was a week when she broke no record but every watcher's heart; it was a week when she produced no sporting feat of breathtaking brilliance yet composed a moment that diminished every other achievement.

In a manner of speaking, Corina Morariu did nothing much, for she played Serena Williams in the first round of the US Open, and she lost 6-2, 6-3, and she was quickly reduced to a statistic that even the Williams family will find difficult to recollect in time.

But in truth, Corina Morariu did something so incredible that she makes us re-look the very nature of what we call heroism. She didn't win the match; she merely won her life back. Twenty months ago, Corina Morariu, once ranked No. 1 in women's doubles, won the mixed open doubles title at the 2001 Australian Open (with Ellis Ferreira) and you couldn't keep the smile off her face. Five months later, in May, her father was given the responsibility of wiping it off.

For a while Corina had been suffering nose bleeds and spontaneous bruising, and she went in for routine tests, and then her father, Dr. Albin Morariu, walked in one day to tell her she was faced with an opponent she'd never heard of: acute promyeloctic leukemia.

So there was the good news: she was young and she was fit, and there was a 75-80 per cent chance she'd live, better odds than she'd get for beating Serena Williams. It was good news, except for this: there would be no comebacks if she lost.

So Corina Morariu, whose life had been spent outdoors, belting balls under the sun, whose physical well-being was the very foundation of what she did for living, lay in bed, and watched her hair fall out, and side effects arrive from every bout of chemotherapy, and the pain twist her body, and her muscle fall away, and there were days when she thought to herself: "I'm never going to feel good again, I'm not going to be able to walk for 10 minutes let alone play tennis."

When she flew to the US Open last year, for a two-day visit, people looked at her, and she didn't look good, and they wondered if they'd see her again.

But people do make it. Ana Quirot, the Cuban runner, suffered third degree burns in 1993 between 38 and 60 per cent of her body, and lost the baby she was carrying, and wept through skin grafts and returned to win the 800m at the 1995 world championships.

In 1986, Cliff Meidl, a plumber, struck an electric cable with his jackhammer and was hit by 30,000 volts and his heart stopped, a hole was blown in his skull, but he had his knees reconstructed, started kayaking, and represented America at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics.

Everywhere you look there are stories of an improbable defiance. Gail Devers suffered loss of vision and her weight dropped from 57 kilos to 40, and doctors once considered amputating her leg because of an auto-immune disorder but she fought back and returned to win the 100m at the 1992 Olympics. A tackle in a rugby match left Murray Halberg with ruptured veins, blood clots, a paralysed left arm and a withered shoulder, yet he soldiered on to win the 5000 metres at the 1960 Olympics.

Morariu didn't quit either. When she finished her chemo in November last year she couldn't walk 20 yards without having to sit down and here she was 10 months later chasing down Serena's forehands. When she picked up a racket last year, she'd hit for 10 minutes and feel like she'd just played a three-and-a-half-hour match, and yet here she was breaking Serena in the second set. When she'd finish practice, she'd feel defeated and say to herself, "This is difficult to go through", but here she was back at work at a Grand Slam tournament.

Corina Morariu may not win a match for some time, but she's manufactured a comeback that would leave Jimmy Connors weak at the knees. She's taught us a lesson too.

It has become acceptable to infuse sport with a greater importance and weightiness than it deserves, and every time someone saves a match point he becomes the bravest thing on two legs. So what does that make Corina Morariu?

As Leander Paes, who has played against Morariu, admitted from New York: "There's a lot of hype around athletes, everyone's pretty liberal with the English vocabulary. I mean serving 5-6 down in the fifth-set is not exactly a life and death struggle. What she did is. That's real courage. That's true grit and true heart. It's amazing, just mind-boggling".

For a while, even brief, it puts a fantasy world of private-jet owning stars moaning about giving interviews, and Safin whining about his courtesy car being late, into a sharper perspective.

Corina Morariu is a reminder of the real world, a reminder of what truly is a triumph of the human spirit, and it's not surprising when she says: "If I ever get upset about something or get nervous to go play, I can go back to that place where I was last year and reflect on that, and that makes everything else pale in comparison". Match points will never look the same to her any more.And so the US Open goes on, and someone will win, and show nerve and spirit, and will rightfully be delighted when they stand on the podium and are recognised for their fine skills.

But surely it's not half as good as what Corina Morariu felt when she got another call from her father before the Open began. This time the news was good. He said, "Your cancer's in remission."

Funny thing about sport: you can lose in the first round of a tournament and you're still the biggest winner in town.