Commentary

Hard work, drive pay off after accident

Updated: May 28, 2009, 8:47 AM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

Alexa GlatchLionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty ImagesAlexa Glatch faced a long road back to tennis after a scooter accident.

PARIS -- She was bloodied and in shock, with a broken left elbow and a broken right wrist, but being an athlete, all Alexa Glatch could think about was getting up and getting on with life.

Glatch, then 16, had decided to take her motor scooter to a nearby gym to work out that day in November 2005. She was literally riding high: A top U.S. prospect who had made the singles and doubles finals at the junior U.S. Open and won a first-round match in the main draw, Glatch had just turned pro and the oyster that was her world looked as if it were about to start producing pearls.

She was just a quarter-mile from home in the gated community where her family lives in Newport Beach, Calif., when a penned-up dog burst through a gate and charged at her. Glatch braked, hurtled over the handlebars and bounced off concrete. She hit her jaw, but her arms absorbed most of the impact.

Glatch is a stoic person anyway, so when a neighbor asked if she was OK and fetched a paper towel to stanch the bleeding, she nodded and got back on the scooter. Her father, Trey, heard her pull into the driveway and came out to find her crumpled on the ground. He rushed her to the emergency room, leaving his cell phone at home in his haste; Glatch's mother, Lisa, still unaware of what had happened, arrived home to the horrifying sight of Alexa's bloody white baseball cap lying upside down in the driveway in mute testimony.

That was only the beginning of a very long road back that found Glatch this week at Roland Garros, where she upended 14th seed Flavia Pennetta of Italy but had her forward progress halted by Spain's Lourdes Dominguez Lino, 7-6 (0), 7-5 of Spain in the second round Thursday. Glatch, who said she spaced out during the tiebreaker, came roaring back to take a 5-2 lead in the second set but was unable to close it out.

"It's very tough to play her on clay,'' said Glatch, who is looking forward to getting on the grass where her big serve and other weapons will be more effective. "I was kind of in between whether to play aggressive or be patient. I wasn't exactly sure what to do, I think, at times … that little bit of doubt cost me.''

Glatch's win here, and a bravura performance in the Fed Cup last month that helped earn the U.S. team a berth in the finals, indicate that Glatch might be one of the few older teens in the U.S. ranks capable of bridging the talent gap between the Williams sisters and a group of promising juniors.

"It's taken me a long time to recover," Glatch said of the freak accident that jolted her world. "I think I'm finally back, and I'm a much better player than I was before, even. My results are starting to show it, I think. It was just a matter of time before I started to believe in myself again and be back to playing at this level."

That calm summary -- typical Glatch -- compresses a time that once seemed endless for Glatch and her family.

With her elbow in a sling, her wrist in a cast and 20 stitches in her chin, Glatch refused to take pain medication because she hated the way it made her feel. She blamed herself for the accident and replayed it over and over in her head but resisted seeing a counselor to deal with the trauma. Hardest of all was being forced to regress overnight from an insistently independent teen who traveled the world playing tennis to a helpless kid again.

Her parents had to mash up her food and help her dress and go to the bathroom. Glatch had to do her homework on audio because she couldn't write papers and fell behind in school. (She has since completed her high school degree and was accepted on academic merit at UCLA, although she does not plan to attend.)

"She went from this intense level of self-driven activity to being totally dependent, and it just about killed her," her mother, an executive for an engineering company, said by telephone from California.

Lisa Glatch admitted she wasn't sure her daughter would be able to pick up where she left off.

"I had some doubts along the way," she said. "It just seemed so hard. We wanted her to make whatever choices were best for her, and at times I felt as if she was making herself so miserable with this pursuit. But she just doesn't waver in her passion to excel in this sport."

When she resumed playing the following spring, Glatch was physically healed but struggled against players she once beat handily. Her traveling coach Kevin O'Neill worked as much on her mentality as on her tactics.

"She tested me a lot the first six or seven or eight months," O'Neill said. "I just tried to be patient and positive. I told her, 'You had a lot of good things going for you, and they're still going.'

"This is the first time she had to deal with adversity. She was always consistently ascending to the top. Now she's a tougher young lady, and she'll adapt to the difficulties on tour better because of it," he said.

Glatch won a lower-level pro tournament in Southern California earlier this season, defeated a top-30 player (Carla Suarez Navarro) at Indian Wells and broke Serena Williams' serve twice in Miami even though she lost the match decisively.

It's tempting to compare Glatch, who will turn 20 in September, with fellow Southern Californian Lindsay Davenport. Both have a certain personal reserve, and both are tall, clean ball strikers. When Glatch is home, she works with Davenport's former coach Robert Van't Hof. They've never hit together, but Davenport, who's expecting her second child this summer, sent Glatch a congratulatory text message after the Fed Cup wins.

But Van't Hof said Glatch's varied game is "more based on her serve." When it works, he said, she's capable of taking control of a match quickly, and her ability to serve and volley is a useful option.

"She's gained a lot of confidence, and she's starting to figure out where she belongs," he said.

Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez praised Glatch's "high-class" backhand and slice and said she generates good topspin on her forehand but was most impressed by Glatch's focus and composure before a hostile audience in the Czech Republic.

The blonde, brown-eyed Glatch sounded laid-back in a transatlantic phone interview afterward, and in person her face betrays little of the drive that took her to the top in juniors and helped pick her up after her unlucky wreck.

"Her standards are so high that when she does well, she feels like it's what she's supposed to do," her mother said.

And although Glatch has discovered she can't control everything with hard work and a good attitude, her recent successes are anything but an accident.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford

Enterprise and Olympic Sports
Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.