Fernandez's pledge of service Tennis: After trying ordeals, the No. 11 women's player and Monica Seles are giving back to the game they love. They will play in Pam Shriver's charity tournament here on Tuesday.

November 21, 1996|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Three years ago, neither Monica Seles nor Mary Joe Fernandez was sure she'd find her way back to professional tennis.

Seles' ordeal was a public one: She was stabbed in the back during a changeover at a tournament in Hamburg, Germany, in April 1993.

Fernandez's struggle was a private one: In August 1993, she underwent surgery to find out what had been causing searing abdominal pain for six years.

Fernandez remembers her last thought on the way to the operating room as, "This could be it. I may never play tennis again."

For Seles, there were months of nightmares and fear that she could be attacked again.

"I used to wish that life was like a fairy tale," Seles writes in her new book, "Monica, From Fear to Victory." "In fairy tales, evil is always defeated and spells are broken with a solitary kiss. But the real world is not a fairy tale. And happily ever after isn't preordained. That's life. "

Both women have emerged recommitted to tennis and to helping others in need. Seles works for Special Olympics in her free time; Fernandez has become a national spokeswoman on endometriosis, a disorder in which the cells in the lining of the uterus grow abnormally.

That's why both have committed to play in Pam Shriver's 11th Signet Bank Tennis Challenge on Tuesday, a tournament whose proceeds help children's charities in the Baltimore area.

"It's nice to give back something," said Seles, who withdrew from the WTA Championships in New York this week, but is still hoping to play here, providing her nagging shoulder problems improve.

"In my life, I've been pretty lucky, getting to do something I love. And after the stabbing, I look at things differently. I'm happy to do anything to help out others who need help. And Mary Joe and I both know the charities Pam's tournament supports are very worthy."

Both have played here before, but that was before 1993.

"I can't compare what I went through to what Monica experienced," said Fernandez. "I was really scared, but it was nothing like the horror Monica faced. If I got stabbed in the back, if that happened to me, no chance I'd come back.

"I don't think people realize how lucky we are to have Monica back and what a treat it is to watch her play. As for me, I enjoy tremendously having another opportunity to play against her and help Pam."

Seles, co-ranked No. 2, and Fernandez, No. 11, will be meeting for the 16th time in Tuesday's match at the Baltimore Arena. Seles holds a 14-1 advantage. Fernandez, who has had problems with her wrist, is playing doubles this week in the WTA Championships.

After Fernandez's lone victory, in October 1989, Seles went on to be the world's No. 1 player. Since rejoining the pro tour in 1995, Seles has worked to get her game back to its previous peak.

Fernandez was ranked as high as No. 4 and was in the midst of a breakthrough year in 1993, when she pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in women's tennis history during the French Open quarterfinals, defeating Gabriela Sabatini, 1-6, 7-6 (7-4), 10-8, after being down 1-5 in the second set and fighting off five match points. She followed that with an upset of Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and finally reached her first Grand Slam final before losing to Steffi Graf.

But in August of that year, a doctor associated with the University of Miami School of Medicine suspected the debilitating pain Fernandez was struggling with was endometriosis and suggested a laparoscopy, a surgical procedure in which a lighted tube is inserted through a tiny incision to look inside the abdomen.

"The pain had gotten so bad that sometimes, in the middle of the night, it felt like a knife cutting through me," said Fernandez. "I was really so scared. But it was a relief, too, to finally have someone find a reason for it. Doctors had been telling me I was just having bad cramps and that I would just have to tough it out."

In endometriosis, the cells from the lining of the uterus, the endometrium, migrate to other areas, attach themselves and begin growing. The growths become nodules, tumors or lesions and can attach themselves to ovaries, fallopian tubes, intestines and other surfaces in the abdomen. During the laparoscopy, the doctor saw the stray tissue and removed it.

This spring, Fernandez agreed to become the official national spokeswoman for the disorder that she says affects one in six women and can affect a woman's ability to have children.

"I love children and want to have lots of kids, so that was a big concern," said Fernandez, who continues to take medication to control the problem. "Women can go three to 20 years without knowing what they're suffering from. I went six years without knowing. Now, I'm out there trying to increase awareness. If I can help one person, one woman, get through what I've been through faster, I'll be very happy."

Mary Lou Ballweg, the executive director of the International Endometriosis Association, said her group has tried for years to get someone in the entertainment world to serve as spokeswoman, but met resistance from business managers of celebrities who suffered from the disease. They didn't want their clients to go public, feeling such participation would interfere with their sex appeal.

Fernandez, 25, has no such reservations.

"People do look up to you as a role model," she said, "and it's important that they see that once the problem is diagnosed, you can get back to your normal life very quickly."

Pub Date: 11/21/96

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