Wimbledon 2003 is etched in my mind like it happened yesterday. Martina and I were determined to get her the 21st Wimbledon title. There was no way I was going to let her down. I had spells of dizziness through that week and then there were those excruciating headaches when I felt that my head was about to explode. At that time I didn’t know that it was a neural cyst playing havoc in my head.
The constant lack of sleep and the pain had seen me develop a fever that touched 104 Celsius by the time we were in the quarters. Martina kept telling me to give up. But I knew how special it was for her, so there was no backing out from my side. We won Wimbledon and after that I went to Orlando, Florida, to get my headaches looked into, after I had nearly collapsed in the middle of a conversation.
I was admitted in the MD Anderson Cancer Center for the next three-four weeks and after that followed months of treatment. I was cured only by September. It was during that period that I had learnt how special Martina is. Each day I was in hospital, she called me at 9 pm sharp. She called me everyday to motivate, bully and cajole me and keep my spirits high. Martina refused to let me dwell on the negatives and told me that she would not partner anybody else but would wait for me to come back. That was incredibly touching gesture from a professional athlete earning a living from a sport.
She was true to her word. She skipped the US Open in a year when she would’ve won easily, no matter with whom she partnered. I came out of my three-month treatment with 100 pounds overweight. Then, she became a mentor. She told me up front that we were going to play the Australian Open the coming January. I kept telling that I was in no shape. She kept insisting that I get going. Even when we had reached Australia, I was still 50 pounds heavier than that I should have been. But we reached the finals of the Mixed Doubles and I knew my career was back on track.
Martina has been a teacher, a confidante, a partner and a great friend. It’s not very often that in life there’s one unconditional relationship that is so all encompassing. Martina and I have that special bond. To me, she epitomises what not only an athlete can be, but also what a human being can be. What really moves me and makes Martina special to me is her humanness.
She keeps reinventing herself. She has played through many generations. The game has evolved manifold and she has kept adapting to be the best over three decades. She was a pioneering serve-and-volley player when the courts were fast. She learnt the slice serve to tame players with big forehand shots but extreme grips that close the racquet face. Then she learnt to roll her backhand and got more powerful when Monica Seles and Steffi Graf came around. Martina has kept improving her game and with it her personality. After all each different style of play requires a different mental makeup and that adds so many dimensions to her. That’s what makes her great.
Her longevity comes from tremendous self-discipline, continuous renewal of training techniques, constant learning and staying open to new ideas and surrounding herself with good people. She cross-trains like crazy. Swimming, horse riding, cross-country, skiing and athletics were all part of her training regime. It’s important to keep adding things to stay fresh and move on from the monotonous training aids. I have learnt all this and more from her.
The interesting bit is that it was she who chose me as a partner. Martina barged into the men’s locker room at the 2002 US Open - and only Martina can barge into the men’s locker like that - jabbed me in the chest and said: “You are playing this mixed doubles with me.” That was after she had learnt that my partner from the previous year had dumped me. What’s more special, of course, is that she never wavered from her commitment even when I was in hospital wondering if I would live for too long, forget playing tennis.
For the fighter that she is and the discipline with which she lives her life, I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever that she will overcome the breast cancer. With the grace of God, all will be well. Needless to say, I’ll be with her throughout.
Leander partnered Martina to win two Grand Slam mixed doubles titles