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Doubles standout readies for comeback from leukemia

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 24, 2002

Step aside, Andre, Anna, Lleyton and Serena.

This week's headliner is 24-year-old Corina Morariu, and rightfully so. Morariu, the former No. 1 doubles player diagnosed with leukemia 14 months ago, is in full remission and returns to the WTA Tour on Monday at the Acura Classic in Carlsbad, Calif. She was featured Tuesday on Good Morning America and CNN Live.

"It's really neat to see the body go from being completely depleted to working back to be able to play tennis," Morariu said.

Morariu teamed with Lindsay Davenport to win the 1999 Wimbledon doubles title and claimed the Australian Open mixed doubles crown with Ellis Ferreira in 2001. She learned of her condition four months later.

"The week leading up to that, I started having very frequent nosebleeds and spontaneous bruising," Morariu said. "By the 17th (of May), I was really quite ill and in a pretty critical state."

Morariu was admitted to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami (she lives in Boca Raton), where doctors diagnosed the problem and gave her a 60-70 percent chance for survival.

"When I found out what the diagnosis was, it was almost a relief," Morariu said. "I knew I'd get the best possible treatment and I knew what my chances were. I was happy to at least get diagnosed and at least know what was going on in my body."

Morariu had intensive chemotherapy treatments that left her weakened and near death. Davenport, Mary Joe Fernandez and Kimberly Po-Messerli visited regularly as Morariu coped with hair loss, respiratory difficulties and infections. She said a typical day consisted of sitting in bed and watching television.

"It was very frustrating at times," Morariu said. "There were days I thought I'd never feel good again or walk for 10 minutes, let alone play tennis. I just tried to keep a positive attitude and make the best of the situation."

Morariu returned to the court this year, starting with short training sessions. "Ten minutes felt like a four-hour match," she said. She still visits doctors once a month and takes chemotherapy medication daily.

Morariu began playing World Team Tennis three weeks ago to prepare for her return to the tour. She was granted a wild card doubles entry to play next week and will team with Po-Messerli. During her previous Acura Classic appearance in 1999, Morariu and Davenport beat Serena and Venus Williams, 6-4, 6-1 in the final.

"Some fights are just starting," said Morariu, a sports ambassador for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. "This is another hurdle to try to overcome, but it's much better than the fight I was in last year. ... It's a huge challenge for me and I'm really looking forward to it."

SPEAKING OUT: Martina Navratilova, a native of Czechoslovakia who became a U.S. citizen in 1981, was critical of President George W. Bush and his administration in recent interviews with a German newspaper and CNN's Connie Chung.

"Obviously, I'm not saying this is a communist system, but ... after (Sept. 11 terrorism), there's a big centralization of power," Navratilova told Chung. "Bush is having more and more power. ... Americans are losing their personal rights left and right. When it comes to personal freedom as a lesbian, I am getting more squished here than I would be in Europe. ...

"I think athletes have a duty to speak out when there is something that's not right, when they feel that perhaps social issues are not being paid attention to. As a woman, as a lesbian, as a woman athlete, there is a whole bunch of barriers that I've had to jump over, and we shouldn't have to be jumping over them any more."

Navratilova said she might run for office someday.

LAST WORD: In a charity match Monday at the Los Angeles Tennis Center, Andre Agassi yelled across the net to Friends star Matthew Perry, rumored to be dating Saddlebrook's Jennifer Capriati: "I bet I serve harder than your girlfriend."

The benefit raised $60,000 for MusiCares, which focuses on health and human services for the music community.

-- Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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