For, you see, so many out-of-the-way things had happened lately, that Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible.
—Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
"Alice and I," Bonnie Gadusek singsongs. "Alice and I are a lot alike. We're both really, really lucky; neither of us can tolerate lateness, and both of us survived our falls." Alice fell down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. Gadusek rebounded from an even more horrendous fall to become one of the top-ranked players in women's tennis.
Down, down, down. In 1976 Bonnie was a 12-year-old gymnast with Olympic hopes when she climbed onto the uneven bars one February afternoon at the Eva Gymnastics Club in Pittsburgh. While looping through a backseat circle, she missed the high bar. Gadusek fell eight feet, landing on her neck. She dislocated two vertebrae and spent two weeks in traction, her head immobilized by sandbags, her thin body strapped to a hospital bed. The unrelenting pressure on her jaw caused her to lose most of her back teeth.
For the next six months she had to wear a Milwaukee brace, a steel-reinforced corset as unyielding as a linesman at Wimbledon. "If Bonnie hadn't been a gymnast she would have been killed," says her mother, Sylvia, a nurse. "Most people with an injury like Bonnie's either die or become paraplegics."
February 11, 1985
Gadusek's Olympic dream was over. Her doctors said a second fall might be fatal. "It was almost as if I had lost a best friend," she says. Her parents and her older sisters, Annette and Darlene, visited her every day in the hospital. Three years earlier Darlene, then with the National Ballet of Canada, had broken several bones in one of her feet while dancing in Sleeping Beauty. Her ballet career was ended, but she came back to perform modern dance.
"Your arms and legs are free," Darlene told Bonnie. "Why can't you do something? You can't sit around and cry all day."
Darlene bought Bonnie a $5 tennis racket from K mart and took her out to hit balls against a backboard near their home. Bonnie would pretend she was beating Chris Evert, something she has yet to accomplish. "If I can't be the best gymnast," Bonnie said to her mother, "I'll be the best tennis player."
In the nine years since her accident, Gadusek has come remarkably close to her goal. Last year she was ranked eighth in the world before a virus forced her off the tour for more than three months. In 3½ years on the circuit, she has won $326,483. In 1982, only one year after turning pro, she reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. And last February she won her first title of importance, beating Kathy Horvath in the final of the Avon Cup at Marco Island, Fla.
You wouldn't expect someone who calls herself The Animal to be a frail sparrow, and indeed she isn't. Now 21, Gadusek is assertive, with an odd kind of knowing naiveté. "I'm like Alice," she repeats. "We're both cute and have blonde hair."
And they're both easily awed. "The ocean is so large, it overwhelms you," she says. "If there's anything I'd rather be than a human, it's one of those little birds with the tiny feet that run in and out of the waves and soar up into the sky out of danger. What better kind of life could there be than walking on the beach every day and seeing every sunrise and sunset? That has to be the fun-nest thing there could be."
On court, Gadusek moves more like a sandblaster than a sandpiper. She attacks the ball with the vigor of a lumberjack. Most of her strokes are accompanied by a grunt that shatters the silence of center court.
At home in Largo, Fla., Gadusek is no less intense. Her three-bedroom house is decorated in looking-glass modern. The furniture is shiny chrome, and mirrors adorn the wall of the fern-filled room in which she works out every morning to Eye of the Tiger from Rocky Ill. "Sometimes I look in the mirror to see if I have the hungry look," she says. "That eye, that eagerness, that want."
Eye of the Tiger is Gadusek's theme song. The Animal doesn't go for modern art any more than she goes for classical music. "I don't like splotches," she says. "It has to be clear to me." She does understand a framed photograph of shrimp and a glass of champagne in her living room. "My favorite food and my favorite drink," she says. Over her bed is a print of two ominous-looking black panthers scowling at each other.
The tennis-playing Animal wears custom-made artificial leopard and tiger-skin belts and visors. Her shoelaces are emblazoned with little versions of panthers, tigers and lions. Slinking around the house is a cat named Scooter. "She's like me," Gadusek says, "sweet and mean."
Gadusek picked up the name The Animal on the practice court. She was running a demanding series of side-to-side drills. "God," a friend exclaimed. "She's an animal!" It stuck. "I'm not trying to be punk or anything," says Gadusek. "It's just that I want to be king of the jungle."
Women's Tennis Association consultant Ted Tinling doesn't like to think of the tour as a jungle, and he's not so sure he likes to think of Gadusek as The Animal. "The word has become associated with muggers," Tinling says. "I cannot believe it has a positive connotation. Certainly not in a sport where we're trying to reintroduce feminine grace and a certain amount of charm."
Tinling suggests Gadusek call herself Jaguar or Tigress. He rules out Leopard. "Nobody makes those coats anymore," says Tinling, the 74-year-old Briton with a polished pate and a diamond stud in his left lobe, who has outfitted so many female tennis stars.
Gadusek shrugs off Tinling's complaints. "I don't especially care for guys who wear earrings," she says.
She has become a formidable player through practice, practice, practice. She's not especially gifted. "Bonnie is a manufactured player," says Tinling. "She's a wonderful product of a problem."
Gadusek identifies with Alice, although she hasn't read the Alice stories. "I could never sit still long enough," she says. As a little girl, Gadusek lived her own fantasy life in her basement. Her father, Frank, was a packer at the Heinz plant in Pittsburgh, and her basement was lined with outsized bottles of ketchup, pickles and baby food. She remembers the room as being about as big as the Red Queen's chessboard. It had a hanging swing, a bumper-pool table and her brother Frank's barbells. "I was always curling," she says. "I loved to see my biceps grow." Today the 130-pound Gadusek bench-presses 100 pounds.
She started doing gymnastics in the basement on a balance beam her father made for her. At seven, she practiced five hours a day, every day. She made up a baseball game, bouncing a Super Ball off the cellar steps. Sweaty with fatigue, she'd pretend she was a superstar and interview herself in the mirror. If she didn't have enough sweat on her face, she'd throw water on it. "In tennis you have to go on and endure the bad days and the booing," she says. "That's why games and fantasy are so much better. You can stop the action and boo them back."
Tennis was a kind of therapy for her after the accident, perhaps mental as well as physical. "Gymnastics had been her whole life," says her mother. "If it hadn't been for tennis, I think we might have had a psycho on our hands."
Young Bonnie was still wearing a neck brace when she entered her first tournament. She couldn't even serve overhead or bend down to pick up balls. She didn't know how to score, so Darlene held up fingers after each point. But she reached the finals, losing only to the top seed.
Gadusek took lessons at a local YMCA and in 1977, despite the encumbrance of the brace, became the No. 11-ranked 14-and-under girl in the Middle States just months after she had taken up the game. "I didn't like people staring at me as if I was a freak," she says. "The first time I looked in a mirror with my brace on, I scared myself."
"The poor little thing would run and run," recalls Dutch Hoffman, her first coach. "She'd hold her brace away from her body with her hand so she could breathe better. You couldn't hold her back."
One day Sylvia Gadusek picked up her daughter at the courts and saw the brace hanging from a chain link fence. "I was shocked," says Sylvia.
"I took it off," Bonnie told her, "and I'm never putting it on again."
Although Gadusek was getting out of school early to work on tennis, she couldn't find enough good competition in Pittsburgh. So at 13, she wrote letters to 50 top coaches across the country: "My coach is Dutch Hoffman who works with me every day at the YMCA. He teaches me for free because my daddy is retired and can't afford lessons. When it is cold here, Dutch goes to a faraway racket club, and I cannot go with him. So I need someone to coach me because I want to be a professional tennis player. Could one of your pro's [sic] teach me every day-and find people to hit with me? I am sending you a story about me in the paper when I got hurt. My brace is off and I'm playing much better."
She got only a few answers and just, one person offered to take her for free. But that one was a giant, Harry Hopman, who had coached the great Australian Davis Cup teams of the '50s and '60s. "I saw the picture," says Hopman, "and said, 'Hell's bells, what a gutty kid.' " So in May 1977, the Gaduseks sold their house, bought a mobile home and drove to Largo, where Hopman has a tennis camp.
Sylvia Gadusek has been a nurse at Hopman's since the move to Florida. "Bonnie is very determined," she says. "She didn't get it from me or my husband. We're very laid-back." Sylvia lives in a house half the size of Bonnie's, about a mile away. Bonnie's father died of cancer more than three years ago.
"I've gotten a million letters from kids who are dedicated," says Hopman. "They all say how willing they are to work, but when they arrive, they usually drift away from the hard part of it." But Bonnie had already learned the rigors of training as a gymnast. "When other youngsters would be eating lunch," says Hopman, "she'd be out serving shopping baskets full of balls."
Gadusek hit so many serves that she developed tendinitis and a bone chip in her right elbow. She had to wear a cast for eight weeks and play lefthanded. She says her stint as a southpaw helped her with her two-handed backhand. While her arm was in a cast, she ran cross-country for Pinellas Park (Fla.) High in 1978. She still holds the school's two-mile record for girls. She even had a contingency plan if her arm didn't return to tennis form. "I think I'll take up golf," she told Sylvia. "If I can't be the best tennis player, I'll be the best golfer."
Gadusek's life has continued to be plagued by injuries. Three and a half years ago she played the round of 16 of the national junior championships with a stress fracture in her left foot. Afterward, she was in a cast for six weeks. At another junior tournament, in Caracas, she tore ligaments in her right ankle. Another six weeks in a cast. She now plays with a knee brace. Her right knee is the only visible part of her that isn't suntanned.
Most top players have their private tennis gurus—Martina Navratilova's is Mike Estep, for instance—and two summers ago Jim Rosenthal joined Gadusek. Though Gadusek dropped Rosenthal as road coach last November, she still calls him for advice and follows the grueling exercise program he designed for her. "Jim pushed me to my limit and sometimes more," says Gadusek. Rosenthal, 41, used to sit at her matches, charting where each shot landed, like the choreographer of a difficult ballet. This function is now performed by Joe Brandi, a Hopman apostle. Hopman doesn't think much of charts, however; he says you can't beat an opponent with statistics.
She has a strong ground game, but as one insider says, "She plays like her mind's in a plaster cast." Her major drawbacks are lack of speed and her inconsistent serve.
Chris Evert Lloyd doesn't think Gadusek will progress much further. She says Gadusek is too injury-prone and loses too often to lower-ranked players. "To be in the top five you have to have something dangerous," says Evert Lloyd. "With Pam Shriver, it's her serve and size. With Martina, it's her strength and aggressiveness. With me, it's my mental makeup and my steadiness. With Bonnie, I don't see any weapon like that. If she did break in, it would be on desire, not talent."
And Gadusek, too, worries about how long she'll survive in the mad tea party of women's tennis. "I don't want to come through the looking glass," she says. "I want to stay in the fantasy world. You're always O.K. there; when you come back into the room, it's boring. There's nothing to dodge and overcome. When Alice came back, she wasn't the special person everyone had their eyes on anymore. She was Alice in her room, not Alice in Wonderland."