As a doubles specialist, Liezel Huber has not played a sanctioned singles match since 2003. Born in Durban, South Africa, she first traveled the country's junior circuit in her family's Humvee before enrolling in a South Carolina tennis academy at age 15. Since then, the 5-foot-11 right-hander has paired with Zimbabwe's Cara Black to win four Grand Slam doubles titles. The duo has stood atop the Sony Ericcson WTA Tour's doubles rankings since November 2007.
In a recent interview with SI.com, the 32-year-old Huber discussed her fiery family competitions as a child, how she came to play with Black and her adventures in becoming an American citizen.
SI.com: What drove you to the doubles side?
Huber: It's a combination of two things. Every time I got done with a singles match, I was crying. It was frustrating because I knew what I had to do but just couldn't do it. I felt I wasn't disciplined enough. I didn't enjoy that. One day in 2003, I played in Madrid and I played really hard. The day before I won 7-6 in the third, then the next day I came back and lost in such a bad way. Here we went again, crying, talking to my husband and then we'd get in an argument. I decided that it's not worth it. He said I can walk away and focus on doubles.
The tough thing was that I didn't want to regret not getting [singles] right. In 2004, when I just played doubles, I felt kind of self-conscious and not worthy: "Geez, I'm just a doubles player. I better have better results because this is all I am doing. I better earn more money and my ranking can't just be No. 18 or 20. I'd go to a tournament and they'd ask, "You're just doubles?" You couldn't get your credentials because, "Oh, you're just doubles." People didn't want to practice with you. They'd say, "Oh, you're just practicing doubles." All these things were really rough that first year.
My husband was traveling with me full-time. I couldn't just follow a bad doubles result by doing better in singles or the other way around. There were some weeks when I would lose early, and the question was, What do I do the rest of the week? Now I can try to be an expert at doubles. I can talk to somebody during the match and I have a partner who is encouraging back. If we're tired one week and don't want to play the next, we can do our schedules easily. It's pain-free now.
SI.com: By birth, you have a natural doubles partner. Did you play with your twin sister, Monita, when you were younger?
Huber: We limited it to school tennis and also in our province. I was definitely too hard on her, to the point that she didn't want to play anymore. That was for the best. She's a bit shorter than me at 5-foot-8. We're not similar at all. I think I was just too dominating, telling her what to do and when to do it. I have a brother who plays, too. We all had to be separated, yes. Normally the arguments just lasted for a day and then we're back out there. If one of us didn't hit the ball the way other one wanted it, there were problems. Then we'd wind up only having the wall to hit on. Things are different now. My brother came to our Miami tournament a few weeks back and hit a little bit. We laugh now, but at the time I think it was a crisis. The only other option is to take lessons and that was too expensive. All a part of growing pains.
SI.com: How prevalent was tennis when you were growing up in South Africa?
Huber: I think I grew up in a great time. Tennis wasn't such a luxury yet. You didn't have to pay for court time. You could jump on courts when adults were done, play until dark and then play with adults in weekend tournaments. We were pretty well-mannered and people appreciated that. I got to travel throughout South Africa playing the junior tournaments. My family and I would load up the Humvee and stay with family or friends. I was talking with my mother about it this week. We have such great memories.
SI.com: What did you think when you first met Cara Black?
Huber: She's small! She was 12 years old. She's 5-4, but she's a gutsy player. I always thought she was so lucky because she grew up in a family where all of them were really good at tennis. They had grass courts at their house. Nobody in Africa had anything like that. I always thought that was pretty cool. She was on the junior team. I wasn't on any team but I was playing the international junior tournaments also.
SI.com: How did you two become doubles partners?
Huber: The first time we played was in 2001. It was kind of what happens with doubles teams every week. We didn't have partners at the Toyota Princess Cup, a Tier II tournament in Tokyo. It was very memorable because we wound up winning and the tourney loved doubles. The organizers wanted to give free cars, but they didn't give them to singles winners, just us. I still have my silver, fully loaded Lexus, by the way.
SI.com: For the next four years, you did not play together. Why the split and how long before you felt in sync with her again?
Huber: It was all due to timing. When we teamed up in 2005, we reached the finals in Berlin, won Rome, got to the French Open finals and won Wimbledon. Then four days after that I blew out my knee. I was out for the remainder of the season. She continued to play with others. In 2006, I was back playing but she had already committed with somebody else. I had a bunch of partners through that year. At the end of 2006, we spoke about getting back together. We've now had two full seasons and this year so far.
SI.com: What pairing of potential doubles teams would you like to see?
Huber: I definitely would like to see the Williams sisters play more, not just the Slams but regular events, too. It would be nice for all of us. If they can put a beating on us, that is fine, or if we can do it back to them, even better. Either one of the Williams sisters with [Victoria] Azarenka would be a great duo. It would be fun if everyone played every week.
SI.com: How are things on the Huber tennis ranch in Houston?
Huber: Hectic. We have about 200 kids per week. We have the minicourts. We had the smaller courts built because we knew we could have the kids get good early on. The fun thing is to see the 6-year-olds go out there and keep the ball going on their own. They start with the foam balls. A lot of parents say their kids have been taking lessons. We want to keep kids in tennis as long as we can.
SI.com: In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in August 2006, you established Liezel's Cause. What impact has helping others recover had on you?
Huber: It's made me grateful for what I have. We serve the poor, and do food and clothes drives. When I started it was for the immediate need of Hurricane Katrina, but now it's given me appreciation of what I have. If you help somebody, they help somebody. It's like Pay It Forward helping 20 families in the hurricane has turned into helping hundreds of others. My parents are residing in the States for part of the year, and I told them it will be so fun to be involved. My mom said she didn't know there are so many poor people. There are so many ways to volunteer. Fortunately, I have a job and a roof over my head. If we can give back out of our own pocket, that is great. If we can give our prize money or our time, it's most appreciated.
SI.com: Your husband, Tony, was born in America and has been with you for some time. When did you first meet?
Huber: I went to train at Van Der Meer Tennis Academy in Hilton Head, S.C., in 1992. I was 15 and went to train for a few weeks and wound up staying 17 years now. My husband went to teach there. One of the summers I met him and we started dating. He said he was going back to Houston. I had outgrown the academy and was a professional then. I felt a need to settle down. Now we are in a full house with four dogs.
SI.com: Was it a tough decision to become an American?
Huber: I never thought I'd be a citizen while still playing. I was here on a regular visa, but because I was married to an American, it took two years shorter than if I went through a worker's permit. Still, it took five years to be a resident and eight to be a citizen. The wait was the hardest part. There was a lot of paperwork, including travel documents. I stood in line at 4 a.m. on the immigration office line. People would camp out there. The experience makes me appreciate foreigners becoming citizens. I wish them the best also.
When I finally had my interview last year, they said I'd get sworn in in three months. I said that does not work; I was hoping to play in the Olympics. The woman at the office said they had a swearing-in the next day but it was full, but she would check to see what we can do. Lucky enough, I got sworn in the next day. After the ceremony, I ran to the car in my high heels. My husband drove to the airport and I changed in the car. I played an exhibition in Albany, N.Y., then came back to Houston for the the passport agency to pick up my passport.
SI.com: Were the Olympics worth the nationalization hustle?
Huber: Oh, yes. The most fit people I have ever been around. Meeting Lindsay Davenport [her partner, with whom she finished fourth] was awesome, but I also met both President Bushes. I'm hoping to be around for the next one to meet the new president.
SI.com: What has the recent Fed Cup success meant to you?
Huber: I get very emotional. It's really just the four of us and the captain. They depend on me quite a bit, and I put pressure on myself. I think I fell down on the ground when I won the first time. The opponents probably thought I was a little off. I think I'm still on a high. We're in the finals of the Fed Cup, playing for a first-world nation. How fortunate am I that I even got to play? If I get to play in November, I would be honored.
SI.com: How about the loss to Cara Black and India's Leander Paes in the U.S. Open mixed doubles final last September?
Huber: It was irritating because we lost. Irritating! She had a great partner. Cara made an unbelievable get on match point. Before the match, I said I was playing against an opponent, and afterward I knew we'd be together for the doubles final [which the pair won]. The toughest part of playing her is that I know her game and she knows mine. She would beat me with stuff that I knew was coming. Even though people know what she can do, she can still beat them.