Commentary

A bond that transcends tennis

Updated: May 31, 2010, 8:13 AM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

PARIS -- Martina Navratilova reported to the television compound on the grounds of Roland Garros promptly at 10 a.m. Saturday to have her hair done and makeup applied. Her fellow Tennis Channel analyst, Corina Morariu, was being powdered and fluffed in the chair next to her. The two chatted easily, although the subject wasn't exactly your usual girl talk.

"Do you get regular checkups?'' Navratilova asked.

"Every, probably, six months or so,'' Morariu said.

"And how do you feel when you go in for it?''

"Fine, now. For three years afterwards, not so much.''

"Petrified, right?'' Navratilova said.

"Yeah, for the first couple of years, I had to have bone marrow aspiration,'' said Morariu, who was diagnosed with leukemia nine years ago on May 17, a day she refers to as her "re-birthday.''

"Ouch,'' Navratilova said, wincing. "That hurts like hell, right?''

These two former players have a new bond that transcends the fact that they both won major doubles titles on the world's grandest tennis courts. Morariu, 32, has been cancer-free for years now; Navratilova, 53, is just starting her journey. When Navratilova told the world in April that she had ductal carcinoma in situ, a breast cancer that had been detected in its very earliest stage, Morariu reached out to her immediately.

"I know, unfortunately, what that feeling is like,'' said Morariu. "Everyone's experience is different, but the fundamental feelings are the same. It's scary and it's eye-opening and I just wanted her to know I was here to talk. I didn't have anyone who had been through it. The only person I knew [who'd had cancer] was Tim Gullikson, and he passed away, although I had him as a model for how to handle it as far as attitude.''

Morariu's life-threatening illness erupted suddenly and, fortunately, was contained quickly, although she was completely debilitated for weeks and had to take oral chemotherapy for two years afterward. Navratilova's prognosis is excellent, and hasn't forced her to make major changes in her lifestyle. She underwent a lumpectomy in March, three days after playing in the Hit for Haiti charity exhibition at Indian Wells.

Knowing work would be the best possible therapy, Navratilova looked at her schedule and decided she would undergo her prescribed six-week course of follow-up radiation at a Paris hospital before and during the French Open.

She arrived a week before the tournament so doctors could do measurements and mark her skin with indelible blue ink to indicate precisely where the targeted radiation would be aimed. Each weekday morning for the last three weeks, she lies down on a table at a Paris hospital and waits for the telltale buzz. "They zap you from two different angles, about a minute at a time,'' Navratilova said. "You only know you're getting zapped from the sound.''

[+] EnlargeCorina Morariu
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesCorina Morariu knows all too well what Navratilova's going through.

The 18-time Grand Slam singles champion said she feels slightly more fatigued than usual, and last week her skin became sensitive to the touch, almost as if she'd gotten sunburned. But as anyone familiar with her life story might expect, she hasn't slowed down and she hasn't lost her sense of humor.

Off-air during a changeover in one of Venus Williams' matches, Navratilova asked for one shot to be replayed several times so she could break down Williams' technique in changing grips at the last second to hit a drop-shot winner -- and marveled over what looked like a near-wardrobe malfunction involving Williams' attention-grabbing dress. "Risque outfit, but she's gotten away with it so far,'' she said when the broadcast resumed.

Navratilova has stuck to her standard workout regimen, which includes running, tennis, ice hockey and yoga at her Aspen, Colo., home, and plans to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro later this year. Still, the barrier-breaker who has inspired so many with her uncommon talent, courage and intelligence found herself swimming in a couple of very common emotions after her diagnosis: anger and shock.

"I could barely move for a week, and there was nothing physically wrong with me,'' Navratilova said. "I just didn't expect it yet. I feel like I'm too young for this. But this is when this particular kind of cancer happens to women, usually, in their 40s and 50s.

"First you're scared, then I went to see the doctor and she said exactly what it is and I felt better because it could have been a lot worse. But it still is something that raises the possibility of cancer later, or more aggressive cancer. So it's kind of looming, you're not quite free of it.

"That's when you realize how much it helps to be in good shape when you're going through this stuff -- you have the physical and mental support to stay strong. And tennis training comes in very handy. Corina was a doubles champion at Wimbledon. She's a winner. You stay on the court until you get it right. That positive frame of mind helps with this a lot.''

Morariu chimed in over the whirring of blow dryers. "You're used to enduring pain for a goal, and your goal in this case is staying alive,'' she said. "And you're like, 'OK, I can do this.'''

Navratilova has always taken pride in her physical discipline, and she admitted that it's been hard to adjust to the concept that there's something going on in her body that she can't control. "The whole thing is surreal,'' she said. But she added that the experience has deepened her already keen appreciation for daily wonders.

"I was always thankful,'' Navratilova said, "I always counted my blessings, whether it was being able to pick a cherry off a tree, or drive my really nice car, or being able to go on a vacation, or see my friends and not have to work a normal 9 to 5. I still go to the grocery store and I'm amazed at everything that's there, coming from an Eastern European background.''

The women rose from their chairs one at a time, primped and ready to punch in, not only alive but very much living.

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

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.