A few months ago, Lee Duck-Hee became the youngest player ever to enter the ATP ranking at just 15 years old. An even more impressive achievement when you consider that he is deaf and dumb from birth! However, the South Korean teen is not the first person in the history of tennis to have overcome a disability or illness to play on the court…
1 / Roger Crawford: stumps where his hands should be
Now, devout tennis fans, does the name of Roger Crawford ring a bell? No? Well, that’s understandable: the American has never participated in an ATP tournament, only competing for a while on the NCAA university circuit in the mid-80s. This was already a huge feat for a man with severe deformities to the extremities of his limbs, including stumps instead of hands. Thanks to a specially adapted racket and astounding mental strength, he managed to overcome it all. Today, Crawford is in his fifties and has become a motivational speaker and a darling of the American media. The kind of guy who says things such as: "Challenges are inevitable, the defeat is optional." It’s all in your head!
2 / Alexandr Dolgopolov: jaundice
A piece of advice: avoid making fun of Alexandr Dolgopolov’s skin. First, because it's never very nice to target somebody because of their appearance; and second, because it's the consequence of a relatively rare inherited disease called "Gilbert's syndrome". When over-tired, it causes a deregulation of the liver in sufferers, which leads to jaundice. "Even though I'm taking action, such as paying attention to my diet, it happens from time to time", explained the Ukrainian recently. He has to undergo treatment every 15 days in the hospital to combat the stresses of playing and travelling. Another famous tennis champion also struggled throughout his career against Gilbert and his syndrome: the English Bunny Austin remained famous in history for being the first tennis player to play a game in shorts. That was in 1933.
3 / Gaston Gaudio: depression
"I always thought I was my own worst enemy. So in a match, it's like if I had to fight against two people." Gaston Gaudio has likely accumulated more titles in his life than you in yours, but it is not necessarily better. Despite the success and the prize-money, the Argentine has struggled throughout his career against the evil within, forcing him to see a psychiatrist regularly. Even when he was at the top of his fame after winning Roland Garros in 2004, his two weeks in Paris were just suffering. Gaudio was "happier to finish the tournament, to end the mental suffering of all the matches played" than to actually win the trophy. Taking another route, the great hope of Belgian tennis in the 80s, Bernard Boileau, shot down a promising career because of a heroin addiction. Mentally fragile and ill-at-ease, he was never able to have the lifestyle required to exploit his talent with a racket.
4 / Arthur Ashe: heart problems
A great career illuminated by three Grand Slam titles, a fierce struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and the defence of multiple causes... The life of Arthur Ashe was busy, but if it hadn’t been cut short by a dark destiny, it could have been even more beautiful. Forced to zip his racket bag for the last time in 1980 due to heart problems, the American contracted AIDS three years later from an infected blood transfusion. He died on the 6th of February 1993, having been as faithful as possible to his favourite maxim: "The good fight is the one that leads you to the end." It was also AIDS that killed the German Michael Westphal, once member of the German Davis Cup team in 1991, at just 26 years old.
5 / Nicole Vaidisova: hyperactivity
What do Paris Hilton, Jim Carrey, Justin Timberlake and Nicole Vaidisova have in common? All have been diagnosed as hyperactive. This disorder attention deficit may have some advantages for a tennis player. The Czech champion was a real go-getter on a court, able to start each tournament and each match full on, as if it was her last. But the problem with such a strong character is the tendency to lack clarity and forget to keep training physically and mentally to be able to "last" in a game. Result: in 2010, at only 20 years old, Nicole Vaidisova decided to put a premature end to a career that had already became boring to her.
6 / Samantha Stosur: Lyme disease
Samantha Stosur has come back a long way. Back from Lyme disease to be precise: a bacterial infection transmitted by a tick bite in 2007, which almost forced the Australian to put an end to her career. "I wasn't thinking about tennis anymore" she admitted in many interviews, detailing recurrent headaches, joint pain, fatigue, and lymph nodes. The player, drained of all energy, could no longer play and needed 15 months to come back to tennis: "From what the doctors have told me I am lucky to have made it, I've heard many terrifying stories."
7 / Beals Wright: the amputee
A member of the International Hall of Fame since 1956, the American Beals Wright was one of the first serve-and-volley players in tennis history. A rare style in his time, he used it to snatch two gold medals at the Olympic Games in St. Louis in 1904, in singles and doubles. Unfortunately for him, on June 27th 1906, Beals cut his index finger with a bottle of soda two weeks before a crucial Davis Cup by BNP Paribas match against England. In tatters, his finger was immediately amputated. And the editor of the Pittsburgh Press said ironically: "Since the accident, Beals Coleman Wright has tried everything but hasn't won any trophy, save for his finger preserved in a jar over his fireplace. And this one, nobody will take it away from him." What a gentleman…
8 / Richard Norris Williams: survivor of the Titanic
14th of April 1912. Somewhere in the North Atlantic between Southampton and New York, an iceberg upset the world and the Titanic sank. Amidst the chaos, bobbing in freezing water for hours, Richard Norris Williams, a 21 year-old tennis player, managed to reach a boat. But the prognosis was devastating: amputation of both legs - an operation that the American immediately refused. So, after a lot of training and rehabilitation, but also some stinging setbacks, Williams recovered the sensation in his lower limbs, got back on the courts and shone in the doubles at the Paris Olympics in 1924. Successful Comeback: "They told me that I would never walk again, that I was crazy. I've also been told that I would become homeless, sleeping under bridges, two hours a night, sad and unhappy. But ultimately, it was worth it."
9 / Kelly Evernden: running on one lung
One can be a Maori, from an Aboriginal Polynesian community in New Zealand and be born with a milk-bottle complexion. This is the strange case of Kelly Evernden, a very good doubles player in the late eighties and mainstay in the New Zealand Davis Cup by BNP Paribas team. His greatest achievement? To have competed his whole career with just a single lung; the left one having been removed after a car accident in adolescence. Moreover, his Maori name 'Te Rangai" means "young warrior." You couldn’t make it up...
10 / Venus Williams: Sjogren's syndrome
Is the health of the Williams sisters fragile? After the pulmonary embolism of her younger sister Serena, it was Venus Williams’ turn to put her career on hold in August 2011. The reason: the former world number one is suffering from Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune disorder affecting her energy, concentration, with severe joint pain as a bonus. It is an illness that she has had since her teens, but discovered only two years ago, after a defeat at the U.S. Open. "That day, I could not lift my arm above my head, my racket felt like concrete. My hands swelled and itched. It was miserable."
By Victor and Regis Grand Delanoë