Tributes, triumph mark Open's emotional start

Sept. 11 ceremony, return of Morariu show recovery

August 27, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Once, you could see the World Trade Center's twin towers from the top of Arthur Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Tennis Center. In a beautiful, emotional ceremony last night, the crowd that filled the place could picture them.

Almost a year after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, during the opening ceremonies on the first night of the U.S. Open, the tournament officially honored the city's uniformed and civilian heroes who helped New York through its greatest challenge.

"The U.S. Open is a special one this year," said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "It indicates our city is well on the way to recovery from the tragedy of Sept. 11."

It was also a special night for the tennis community as Corina Morariu, 24, the well-liked women's tour player who was stricken with acute promyelocytic leukemia in May 2001, returned to her first major tournament since leaving the tour to undergo chemotherapy.

On this emotional night, the reputedly stoic New York crowd felt the pull on its heartstrings and rooted unabashedly for Morariu, who was taking on Serena Williams, the world's No. 1 player.

Williams won, 6-2, 6-3, but Morariu played surprisingly well for a woman who had played just one other match since her cancer diagnosis 16 months ago.

"I was a little nervous, with the ceremonies and I felt really bad to have to play Corina Morariu," said Williams, who wowed the crowd with an skin-like black bodysuit.

The outfit was in stark contrast to the seriousness of the preliminaries, but it made people smile. And, certainly, that's something everyone needs, too.

"You never know what tomorrow is going to bring," Williams said. "No one is guaranteed a date the next day anymore."

Williams and her sister, Venus, called Morariu several times during her illness and Williams continued to be supportive last night, on a night Morariu could not hold back her emotions.

"There were a lot of feelings," Morariu said. "I was uncertain about what to expect. But if I feel the butterflies, I just think back to what I was doing a year ago and that puts everything in check.

"I went through a pretty difficult time when I got out of the hospital the last time . . . It's been a great feeling to have something to aim for, to have something to do that I was passionate about. When you have a tough time walking up the stairs in your house, you have a difficult time imagining yourself ever competing against Serena Williams. ... I didn't think I'd ever be back here."

Morariu brushed away heavy tears.

"I'm sorry, I get very emotional," she said, wiping at her eyes. "To be honest, I didn't think I'd ever be able to do anything I used to do."

Her friend, No. 4 seed Lindsay Davenport, recalled the last time she saw Morariu before a chemotherapy treatment last September.

"If you look at her body now, she looks just as strong as before she left," said Davenport. "That really surprises me. I mean, that must have taken her so long to recover from. I remember ... she had no muscle, obviously had no hair, was very frail. You see her now, it almost seems like that didn't really happen to her last year. It's really amazing."

The crowd was loud in its support, which didn't faze Williams, who understands Morariu's appeal.

"It's definitely a very courageous story, to come back after all she's been through," Williams said. "It's a lesson."

That's what much of last night's celebration was about, remembering how the world has changed and how those of us left in it have been changed.

"It was an emotional night all around," Morariu said. "The memories from where I was, I was in the hospital on Sept. 11 for two weeks. I watched every minute of television coverage on it. So, you know, that was hard for me. It was just there didn't seem like there was anything good in the world.

"So, a year later, to reflect on how strong this country is and how strong we are as people and what we can overcome, just my personal experience then the experiences of so many that were affected by that tragedy. I think we all have reason to celebrate."

But even on such a serious evening, there was room for Williams' Esther Williams-style tennis suit.

"Venus loved it," said Williams about her sister's reaction to the Lycra suit with the leather look. "She said it was fun and really exciting and very sexy. I mean, she just basically described me!"

It was the lighter side to an evening that began with honor guards from the New York Police Department, New York Fire Department, Port Authority Police Department and U.S. Marine Corps entering to cheers. The New York Police Academy cadets, led by four-time U.S. Open champions and New Yorkers Billy Jean King and John McEnroe, carried the U.S. colors plus the flags of the 60 countries representing Open competitors.

But the flag that caused tears to well in many eyes, was the Ground Zero Flag, the flag recovered from Manhattan's World Trade Center and subsequently raised by U.S. Marines in Afghanistan after capturing Kandahar Airport.

When the flag was raised above the stadium, the largest applause of the night erupted.

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