At first she doesn't understand a word. Serious men stand in
front of her, mouths moving, but what they say doesn't register.
Then they hold pictures from her CAT scan and point: This is
your brain.... This is what's in it.... Then Helen Kelesi gets
it: I have a brain tumor. She blinks, feels herself go empty,
seems to float above the scene as a crowd presses in on some
other stunned woman. One doctor moves his finger back and forth
before her eyes. Someone asks her to name the prime minister of
Canada. All the while she can't stop thinking about that glowing
blob in the picture; she can't believe what is inside her head.
Later, when asked how big it was, her voice will flatten.
"Tennis ball," she will say.
A doctor will tell her that such a slow-growing tumor takes six
or seven years to reach this size, which means it was there--a
swelling leech lodged behind the top of her nose, gnawing at her
eyesight and sense of smell and willpower--not just for her last
mediocre turn on the WTA tour, in 1994, but for some of the good
years, too. Great years? Kelesi wasn't that kind of player. She
never made it past a Grand Slam quarterfinal, never cracked the
Top 10. But when she rolled out of Vancouver as a 15-year-old in
1985, she had something nearly as eye-catching as talent: a need
to win that surpassed the bounds of decorum. She chewed out ball
boys and linespeople, kicked balls into the stands, earned few
friends and didn't care. Few players liked facing her.
It wasn't because Kelesi never gave up. It was because every
Kelesi match was a display of self-flagellation, galloping
emotion, escalating arguments with the chair umpire; every
Kelesi match had the potential to turn into a circus. She was
infuriating. "I hate losing to Kelesi, and I want revenge," said
then No. 6 Helena Sukova a year after losing to Kelesi in the
1987 Federation Cup quarterfinals.
In November 1993, veteran Pam Shriver, mulling retirement, began
pulling away from Kelesi in the second set of a match in Quebec
City, only to find her concentration fraying as Kelesi kept
stopping play to argue calls. "She was going nuts," Shriver
says. "Delay after delay after delay. She was being so
dramatic." Kelesi saved two match points and forced a
tiebreaker. Shriver snapped. She saw Kelesi's coach talking and
yelled at him to shut up. Kelesi yelled back and began to cry.
Kelesi won the tiebreaker, but with the third set looming,
Shriver simply left the court, walked to the club bar and
ordered a drink. She had no intention of going back out to play.
No one had ever pushed Shriver so far. The tournament director
urged Shriver to come back, saying, "You don't want to end your
career this way." Kelesi beat her 6-3 in the third.
May 18, 1997
"She almost drove me to drink," Shriver says with a laugh. "And
here's the best part: When it was over she was absolutely booed
off the court in her home country."
It wasn't the first time. Kelesi was dubbed Hurricane Helen for
her out-of-nowhere rise to No. 25 as a rookie in 1986, but in
time her flashing temper and muttering demeanor twisted the
label into something darker--"Something wild," says her father,
Milan Kelesi. "Something that can destroy." In 1989, when she
was 19, Helen was ranked 13th in the world, and much later she
would wonder if the tumor had stopped her from rising higher;
if, while she was under the pressure of competition, the growth
had caused her to snap sometimes.
But now, three days after hearing she'll need surgery, Kelesi
isn't thinking of this. Just before dawn on Aug. 11, 1995,
Vancouver neurosurgeon Gary Redekop slices her scalp and eases
it off her skull like the peel of an orange. Then, what Redekop
calls "a fancy kind of bone saw" carves a window into her brow.
"Pretty much the entire forehead gets removed," he says. The
surgeons lift the frontal lobe and spend 15 1/2 hours shaving
the benign tumor away from her optic nerve. A few more weeks and
she would have been blind. She will never be able to smell
again. Every trace of the tumor is removed. Her forehead is
stapled back on.
Kelesi is home within a week, but her recovery doesn't begin
smoothly. Maybe it is withdrawal from the morphine, maybe the
fear she had held off is finally tumbling in--but whatever the
reason, she cannot sleep very long. She lies under covers
shaking from cold, teeth clattering. And something has driven
her back through her 25 years, through the money-grubbing and
the raging and the wins. Over and over, Kelesi has the same
nightmare, long forgotten, that she had as a girl: Something
horrible is chasing her, and she runs faster and faster, but she
can't move; her feet are in mud, and the thing is gaining, and
she is so scared she can't speak. She wrenches herself awake,
the blankets twisted and damp with sweat. She cannot get enough
The ball goes up. Helen Kelesi uncoils, brings the racket down
in a whipping arc and--pock!--sends it off to join the dozens
scattered on the other side of the net. She plucks out another,
bends, tosses--pock! Again. And again. It is a balmy February
day in Gainesville, Fla., and Kelesi is 18 months and 3,200
miles removed from the hospital. She is surrounded by youth and
light; on her left, a pair of University of Florida tennis
players cover the court in furious teenage glee. Downy clouds
hang in a perfect blue sky. Pock! Kelesi notices none of it. A
90-minute workout this morning, coupled with this 2 1/2-hour
session, leaves no time for reflection. "It's hot," she says.
This is progress. After months of flirting with the idea while
she juggled schedules, tended bar and handled patrons'
complaints as the manager of a Vancouver restaurant, Kelesi
finally decided to go back on tour. On March 19 she played her
first event--a satellite tournament in The Woodlands,
Texas--since her first-round loss in the '94 U.S. Open, and she
has entered two other tournaments since then, compiling a
disappointing 1-3 record. "I feel that I am playing well
physically on the court," Kelesi says. "Mentally, it has been a
challenge. I'm about 50 percent there mentally."
She is excited, nervous. But mostly Kelesi is wary of the player
she once was. "I'm focused, but I'm real cautious that I don't
let it overtake me like it did. I think I'm emotionally
stronger," she says. "Before, if things weren't going right,
insecurity crept in. Emotion crept in."
No. They were already there. In 1968, 17-year-old Milan Kelesi
and his wife-to-be, Mersi, saw the Soviet tanks advancing on
Prague, Czechoslovakia, looked to the future and saw nothing.
They bolted from their hometown of Bratislava, with fake
passports, for Vienna; months later, the Canadian embassy
shuffled them through to Victoria, B.C.
They spoke no English. They had no money. They moved often.
Milan worked any odd job--logging, cleaning, fixing cars--and
eventually landed a coaching job at a tennis club. Mersi had
been a nationally ranked player in Czechoslovakia, and the two
played tournaments, taking Helen along. She began playing at age
seven--the year before her parents divorced--and won a women's
club championship at age 11. "We were scraping," she says. "Both
my parents were fighting for survival. That fight has always
been inside me."
At the end of her first year on tour, in 1985, she battled
through qualifying of a tournament in Monticello, N.Y.; upset
Sukova and Katerina Maleeva in the main draw; and lost in the
final. She spent seven of the next eight years in the top 50,
earning a total of $904,167, sometimes beating a big name,
sometimes just giving her opponent fits. In 1990, two years
after becoming Monica Seles's first victim in a pro tournament,
Kelesi found a kindred soul in another immigrant kid who
wouldn't accept losing. Two weeks after pairing with Seles to
win the Italian Open doubles, Kelesi pushed her to three sets in
an epic gruntfest at the French Open. "Both of us were fighting
for every single point," Seles says. "Both of us would've died
to win that match."
But Seles's admiration was unique. Many players wanted nothing
to do with Kelesi, especially because she wasn't above showing
her opponents up. "If you hit a good shot she'd look at you
like, 'Give me a break. Let me see you do that again,'" says
fellow Canadian pro Rene Simpson. One of Kelesi's favorite
stunts was to mimic her opponents' mistakes. "That's why they'd
lose to her," says Shaun Beckish, a former tour pro who played
Kelesi twice and won both times. "Me, I got so fired up: I
thought, I am not losing. No one is going to treat me like an
None of this was lost on fans. At the 1991 French Open, Kelesi
yelled at her father in the stands. When she bawled out a ball
boy at the 1991 Canadian closed women's final in Toronto, the
crowd booed Kelesi, a four-time champ and arguably the best
player Canada has ever produced, until she began to weep. "I
always thought it didn't really matter," Kelesi says, "just as
long as you won."
That seemed to be her legacy when a severe hamstring tear forced
her to retire at the end of 1994. But during a trip at
Christmas, she was leveled by a crushing migraine, and in the
months ahead the pain came more and more frequently. By March,
Kelesi was blacking out. For months no doctor could tell her
what was wrong; finally, in August, an optometrist noticed
swelling in her optic nerve. Three days later, Kelesi's head was
laid open. For weeks after the tumor was removed, Kelesi
suffered nightmares. Just when they began to ease, she noticed
something dripping from her nose. Pink. "I stopped dead in my
tracks," she says. "I was so scared." The tumor had rubbed a
hole behind her nose. Kelesi needed to go in for more surgery.
This operation lasted five hours.
Kelesi spent 1995 recovering, did some broadcasting and began
working at the restaurant. By the summer she was thriving on
three hours' sleep. She began to hit with her father. She had
more energy than ever. "I feel superstrong and healthy, and I
don't remember ever feeling powerful," Kelesi says. "I feel, not
invincible...but...I guess I do. I honestly believe that tumor
hindered me in a lot of ways. Now that it's out, I feel
refreshed. Maybe this is my natural state that I hadn't felt in
Kelesi also says she's not as moody as before. In December she
played some intense practice sets with Simpson; every time Rene
hit a winner, Kelesi would say, "Nice shot." When they finished,
Kelesi complimented a shocked Simpson on her play. "You're so
much nicer now," Simpson said.
"I'm definitely different," Kelesi says. "I'm calmer, I'm
kinder. I play tennis because I love it, not because I have to
or I don't know anything else. Just practicing, I feel it. It's
not a big deal that I lose a point. I live more in the present
right now than I ever have. I don't take anything too much to
Her opponents aren't buying this. Yet. After all, when she lost
the fourth match of her comeback, Kelesi left the court in
tears. Simpson wants to see how Kelesi reacts a year from now,
when they're competing head-to-head, or next week, when she
returns to her beloved French Open for the first time since
surgery. "I'm in the qualifying tournament, but I'm hoping for a
wild card," Kelesi says. "The French is my favorite tournament,
so whether I'm in the qualifying or the main draw, I'll be happy
to be there."
But for today, anyway, calmness reigns. Pock! Kelesi is serving
ball after ball on the Gainesville court when a huge voice comes
screaming from over the fence: "Psyche up, Gators! How bad do
you want the ring?" The Florida men's team is playing a minor
tournament on the adjacent courts to the accompaniment of one
fan's unending apocalyptic bellow. "This is the biggest match!
Kelesi stops, cocks an eyebrow, shakes her head. How could
anyone care so much?