Friday, December 26
Morariu loses early but still comes away a winner

ESPN The Magazine

NEW YORK -- You'd never know just by looking at her.

Corina Morariu
Corina Morariu lost in the first round again at the U.S. Open.

Corina Morariu is 5-foot-8, 130 pounds, with the sinewy, muscled body of a professional athlete. She wears head-to-toe adidas and dances along the baseline in the late-August sun on Court 9 at the U.S. Open. She dropped her first set to Slovenian Maja Matevzic, but she certainly isn't going to go quietly in the second. A few well-placed forehands and a nifty drop shot have rattled Matevzic sufficiently, and Morariu knots the set at five games each. She falters, though, and Matevzic closes out the match, 6-3, 7-5.

Morariu shakes hands graciously at the net. She waves to the rows of fans in the bleachers that supported her with "Come on, C!" chants throughout the match. Of course, she's disappointed. Everyone courtside can see that. But she's not devastated because tennis is not a matter of life and death. Only one thing can devastate Corina Morariu.

Cancer.

"It's an unbelievably scary time fighting for your life," Morariu said upon her return to tennis.

In May 2001, Morariu went to the doctor with a sprained ankle, complaining also of nosebleeds and severe, inexplicable fatigue. She pulled out of the Rome tournament the next week, and before the balls could drop in that one, she was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia -- a rare and potentially lethal form of cancer of the white blood cells.

Over the course of nine months, the Boca Raton, Fla., resident underwent four courses of chemotherapy treatment at a hospital in Miami. Her muscles atrophied. She lost weight. She lost all of her hair. She could hardly walk, let alone think of playing tennis, even when Jennifer Capriati held up a "Get well soon, Corina" sign at Roland Garros, and dedicated her subsequent victory there to her friend back home. All Corina was concerned with were the words she couldn't understand, the medical jargon thrown at her by doctor after doctor, disguising the answer to the only real question she had.

"I just wanted to hear the part that tells me I'm going to live," she said. "The rest I really don't care about."

But in the end, she wanted to do more than live. She visited the 2001 U.S. Open with a light blue bandana covering her hairless head and a courageous game face to hide her fear. She was just 24 years old, and she knew she wanted to play tennis again.

When Morariu left the hospital the day after Thanksgiving in 2001, she couldn't walk ten yards without being exhausted. For over a month, She did little other than rest on the sofa. But, that changed. In January of 2002, she decided to hit a few balls with friends. She was amazingly weak, but it was a start. By the end of February, she could run half a mile. "I was so excited," she said. When Morariu felt ready, the WTA Tour gave her a special ranking that enabled her to enter eight tournaments. In July of 2002, just eight months after leaving the hospital, she made her return at the Acura Classic in San Diego.

She lost her doubles match, but just being there was victory enough, and Morariu wanted more. A month later, the USTA gave her a wild card for the 2002 U.S. Open. In just her second match back, her first in singles, she faced Serena Williams and played a gutsy 69-minute match against overwhelming odds and the best player in the world. But those kind of odds mean nothing when you've already overcome the kind that mean everything.

Morariu still takes oral chemotherapy drugs every day. She has monthly blood test and bone marrow screenings every three months. She has only to make it to next June and she officially will be in remission, with an 80 percent chance of a complete recovery. She is stronger now than she has ever been, and is looking to regain the form she had before her leukemia.

"Physically, I feel great. I'm in better shape now than I was before I got sick," she says. "I've really worked hard, and it's paid off."

There have been setbacks, though. She is going through a divorce from her husband and former coach Andrew Turcinovich, whom she married in 1999 with tour players Mary Joe Fernandez, Lisa Raymond and Kristine Kunce as bridesmaids. She is still strengthening the surgically-repaired shoulder that forced her to miss the first five months of the 2003 season. She played little between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open due to trouble with her knees. But, she has pushed her world ranking back up to No. 228. Yes, it's 200 places lower than her best, but it's a start. She may have lost her first-round singles match, but she'll be playing doubles with Jelena Dokic -- the pair won the doubles title at Wimbledon in 1999. And if doubles doesn't work out either, Morariu will be OK. From now on, she'll always be OK with her tennis because simply playing is a luxury.

"I don't think anyone could have confronted leukemia and not come out a stronger person," said Morariu, who moved to Newport Beach, Calif., this summer to get a new start and a new perspective. "I don't have any real numerical goals. I'm happy as long as I'm out there working hard, working on my game and giving one hundred percent all the time. If I do that, the rewards will come."

Morariu, whose high profile as a professional athlete gives her even more opportunity to help her cause, dedicates much of her free time to raising money for blood cancer research. In 2002, she was named the Leukemia and Lymphoma society's first International Sports Ambassador. At this year's U.S. Open, Morariu has teamed up with Roche labs. For every ace Corina serves up during the tournament, Roche will donate $1,000 to cancer research.

"I really feel like I owe my life to companies like Roche and to the people that do cancer research," Morariu said. "I've been given a second chance, and I want to make the best of it."

Both on and off the court.

Lindsay Berra is a writer for ESPN The Magazine.