The spotlight was not invented for Petr Korda. He is a tall man,
a thin man, 6'3", only 160 pounds, all angles and elbows, arms
and legs. He's the 30-year-old ugly duckling of tennis, "the
human toothbrush" in some accounts, a subject for
anthropologists of the sport rather than a poster boy for the
bedroom walls of teenage girls.
That was what made the scissors kicks and the cartwheels
wonderful. They were ungainly and beautiful, maybe 3.5 on a
gymnast's scale of 10 but as eloquent as a Shakespearean
monologue. This was body language spoken straight from the
happiest of hearts.
"That was the way to celebrate," said Korda, a lefthander from
Prague, who won the Australian Open championship with a 6-2,
6-2, 6-2 pounding of Chile's Marcelo Rios on Sunday in
Melbourne. "Probably I am still living in a dream, and that was
my way to express, you know, to the whole world how happy I am
in the moment."
The Australian was Korda's first Grand Slam singles title.
Coming six years after his only other appearance in a Slam
final--as a nervous loser in straight sets to Jim Courier at the
1992 French Open--this was redemption for time spent, time lost,
injuries that had to be overcome, work piled upon work. Where
were the more famous names and the prettier faces now? This was
his time at last.
Every stop along the way had been a moment. The choppy scissors
kicks--part Moe, part Larry and more than a small part
Curly--were Korda's celebration after he outlasted Jonas
Bjorkman of Sweden in five sets in the quarterfinals. The creaky
cartwheels were the addition after he beat Karol Kucera of
Slovakia in four in the semis. The final? The first move Korda
made after his victory was to drop to the court and think about
his life, his career, "the mosaic," as he described it, of all
the people who had helped him along the way.
"It's been a such a long ride, and I'm just happy with myself,"
he said. "I just did it. It's fantastic."
While 17-year-old Martina Hingis was cutting through the women's
field for her second straight Australian title--thumping
Conchita Martinez 6-3, 6-3 in the final last Saturday--Korda was
carrying the weights of age and disappointment. Thirty? Hingis
and 15-year-old Mirjana Lucic of Croatia won the women's
doubles; Korda was almost the same age as the two of them put
together. Thirty? Andre Agassi, who lost in the fourth round,
was making a comeback at 27.
The one secret Korda had going for him was that he didn't feel
like 30. He felt great. As one of the last products of the cold
war Czechoslovakian tennis machine that punched out Ivan Lendl
and Miloslav Mecir, Martina Navratilova and Hana Mandlikova, he
hadn't been allowed to go on tour until he was 20. The
government, wary of defections, had kept him close to home, even
cutting off his food allowance for six months when he returned
48 hours late from a junior tournament abroad in the mid-1980s.
He wasn't like Bjorn Borg or some other teenage phenom, burned
out at 25. Strangely enough, the old government might have saved
some years for Korda at the end.
Plus, he was healthy at last. The pulled groin muscles that had
restricted him during what should have been the prime of his
career had been corrected by a pair of operations, in 1995 and
1996. A sinus condition, which began at last year's U.S. Open
and forced him to withdraw after he upset Pete Sampras in five
sets in the fourth round, also had been eased by an operation.
Already this year he had won a tournament, in Qatar. Hey, he is
unbeaten for 1998.
"I know the time for me now is five until midnight," he said,
"but sometimes those five minutes can last a long time."
The one change in his game was his serve. Never an overpowering
server, he worked with a new coach, Tomas Petera, to change the
position of his left elbow. He also worked on tossing the ball
lower, to reduce the effect of the wind. The serve was better.
The whole game was solid and graceful. The man was solid, too,
no longer inconsistent under Grand Slam pressure. Thirty?
Korda's idea was to push through the Australian as far as he
could. He was seeded sixth.
The breakthrough match was against the fourth-seeded Bjorkman in
the quarters. After dropping the first two sets, Korda won the
third and simply outlasted Bjorkman over the final two sets.
This was one of those three-hour broilers with the Australian
sun cutting through the hole in the center court roof, a test of
perseverance as much as of tennis. The scissors kicks were the
appropriate finish. "I have seen him do those before," Petr's
wife, Regina, said, holding their four-year-old daughter,
Jessica, in her arms. "The cartwheels...I think he can do
anything, but, no, I had not seen those."
The cartwheels, after Korda's four-set semifinal win over
Kucera, the conqueror of top-seeded Sampras, were more in
celebration of his arrival in the final than of the struggle to
get there. The final? This was more than even Korda had
expected. He had to wait almost 48 hours to play the Sunday
afternoon match, which gave him time to worry and wonder. There
didn't seem to be much time to sleep or eat. He was that nervous.
His opponent, Rios, seemed to be everything Korda was not. Young
(22), small (5'9"), athletic-looking, Rios has long black hair
pulled back into a ponytail and the look of a disco dancer on a
day off. He talked about his nights at the blackjack tables at
Melbourne's Crown Casino. He had an earring and a snarl that
made women take notice. It was a matchup of a bouncing rubber
ball and a stick. The stick had a plan.
First, he was going to relax. He even called John McEnroe, in
Melbourne to broadcast for Australian television, to tell him
that was the plan: to relax and enjoy himself. McEnroe said that
sounded fine. Second, he was going to make the rubber ball move
around the court, to show the rubber ball how hard this day was
going to be. The stick was going to stay in the heat for as long
as the proceedings took. "I knew I'm a bigger fighter than he
was," Korda said after his victory. "I knew, once I give him
pressure, he can give up. I was ready, you know, to spend five
hours on the court."
This was not necessary. Three sets, 85 minutes, and the work was
done. As Korda kneeled on the court at the end, head down, the
fans cheering him, he thought about his first coach (his father,
Petr, back in Prague), about all his coaches, even the ones he
no longer counts as friends, about tennis and life. It had
happened. He had landed where he had always wanted to go.
"No," Regina said, "I have never seen him drop to his knees like
that, either. That was his moment."
Then the ungainly man stood up and began his ungainly dance.
The stick had a plan.