Tennis: Marathon woman makes return to Grand Slam stage

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Chanda Rubin made her breakthrough in Melbourne last year. John Roberts tracks her comeback
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The Independent Online
Devotees will be aware that the venue of next week's Australian Open, Flinders Park, has been renamed Melbourne Park, and that if Chanda Rubin is allowed to park she is not readily removed.

Having built a reputation as the marathon woman of tennis, the petite American had the misfortune to miss the last three Grand Slam tournaments, the French, Wimbledon and United States championships, because of injury.

The problem appears to have been cured by surgery to remove the hook of the hamate bone from Rubin's right hand, and the delightful 20-year- old is preparing to outstay her opponents, though not her welcome.

Australia is her favourite place to visit, not only for the usual reasons ("its beauty and friendly people'') but also because her debut in Melbourne a year ago coincided with her first Grand Slam title as a senior player, albeit the women's doubles, with Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.

It was the first tournament the pair had played together, and the wonder of their triumph was that the Spaniard could bear the sight of her partner after what occurred in the singles quarter-finals.

The organisers might have considered asking Rubin and Sanchez Vicario if they were willing to take out a mortgage on the court. Their singles duel, as enthralling as it was lengthy, ate into the night for three hours and 33 minutes - the concluding set taking two hours and 22 minutes - until Sanchez Vicario, the great retriever, was able to retrieve no more.

Rubin, the No 13 seed, hit a winning volley on her sixth match point to defeat the third-seeded Sanchez Vicario, 6-4, 2-6, 16-14, and advance to her first Grand Slam semi-final and to No 10 in the world rankings. While digesting that, Rubin was informed that she had won the longest women's match ever played at the Australian Open.

Big deal. Rubin's second round victory at Wimbledon in 1995 against the Canadian Patricia Hy-Boulais, 7-6, 6-7, 17-15, stands as the longest women's singles match in Grand Slam history in terms of time (three hours and 45 minutes), the total number of games (58), and the number of games in a set (32). "In the last set I knew I still wanted to win, but I couldn't remember why," Rubin said. She added, "You push yourself and it allows you to find out where your limits are, if there are limits."

Three weeks prior to that, Rubin had lured the Czech Jana Novotna into a classic capitulation in the third round of the French Open by fighting off nine match points and a third set deficit of 0-5, 0-40.

Last January, in addition to sharing the Australian Open doubles prize with Sanchez Vicario, Rubin had the distinction of being the only player to take a set off Monica Seles during the singles championship. But that was scant consolation for failing to secure a place in the final.

Although Rubin had not played Seles before, her nimbleness troubled the top seed sufficiently for her to take the opening set of the semi-final on a tie-break (7-2), and to recover from a severe letdown in the second set (1-6) to gain the initiative in the third.

Rubin led 4-1, had points to break for 5-1, and served for the match at 5-3. At 30-15, Rubin went for an ace and missed. She also went for an ace on the second serve. The gamble failed. Rubin salvaged only two more points as Seles won 6-7, 6-1, 7-5.

Overcoming her disappointment, Rubin continued to prosper. In March she qualified for the Million Dollar Club in prize-money after reaching the quarter-finals at Indian Wells, California, where she won the doubles with Brenda Schultz-McCarthy, and raised her world ranking to No 6 by reaching the singles final at the Lipton Championships in Florida.

Rubin's fifth Tour final ended in defeat - as did the previous four, at Phoenix, Chicago, Los Angeles and Eastbourne - but on this occasion the adversary was Steffi Graf, who has a knack of confining their contests to a sprint distance.

"For some reason, Chanda hasn't played the best against me," said Graf, who has won their four matches in straight sets, with the American accumulating a total of only 14 games. "Steffi and Monica are both great players," Rubin said, "but Steffi's game definitely presents more problems for me."

One reason is that Rubin makes more mistakes when playing Graf. In losing the Lipton final, 6-1, 6-3, Rubin committed 26 unforced errors, five of them double-faults - although it transpired that her right hand had been damaged during the course of the tournament.

Rubin was able to make only one further appearance between April and November, the injury forcing her to retire after one set of a tournament in June. She underwent surgery in September, and reached the quarter-finals of the second event of her comeback, in Philadelphia, defeating the eighth- ranked Iva Majoli, of Croatia.

While Rubin inevitably experienced moments of frustration during the lengthy lay-off, her rehabilitation was generally hassle-free, in accord with the gradual nature of her progress from the junior ranks.

With Rubin, there is not a hint of parental pressure to do anything other than enjoy her career. Her father Edward is a district judge in Lafayette, Louisiana, her mother Bernadette is a retired teacher.

Chanda, along with her older sister, La Shon, and younger brother, Edward, grew up with a tennis court and a swimming pool at home. "We never had a need for her to support us," her mother says. "There was no pressure for us to rush her."

Nor is over-emphasis placed on the family's African-American roots. "We don't want to stand out from everybody else," Bernadette says. "We just want to be like everyone else, and we are, if you look past our colour."

The tennis court was Bernadette's idea. "When our house was built, I asked my husband to build a tennis court because I wanted to learn to play. He said, `OK, I'll do that for you. But since I already know how to swim, I'm going to build a pool first'."

It could be said that fear played a part in Chanda's gravitation to tennis as a five-year-old, but not in the usual sense. "I had fallen asleep in my house, and when I woke up, no one was around and I got kind of scared," she recalls. "Then it came to me, `They are probably outside on the tennis court.' It was like, `Wow, what a relief.' I remember walking out on the court and thinking it was a good place. Everyone was having a good time and I just wanted to be out there."

In comparison to some of her American predecessors, notably Tracy Austin, Andrea Jaeger and Jennifer Capriati, the gestation of Rubin's career was hype-free, even though she was ranked No 1 nationally at 12-and-under at the age of 11 and, at 12, was the top female US player aged 14-and- under.

That was when she first told her mother, "I wanna go pro," and received a wry smile in response. "I think she had heard that phrase from a couple of the high school boys, who were talking about football and basketball," Bernadette says. "We really didn't think she would stick to that idea. But sure enough, that's what she wanted to do."

Rubin was 15 when she did turn professional, at the 1991 US Open. "I knew that I was going to turn pro before going to college because it would have been just too long for me to wait," she says.

Although a finalist at her second tournament, in Phoenix, she nevertheless continued with her high school education before travelling on the tour full time. Indeed, she elected to miss the 1993 French Open in order to march with her graduating class at the Episcopal School of Acadiana.

By then Rubin's all-court style had established her as a dangerous competitor, one capable of graduating from the Wimbledon junior singles title to the US Open fourth round in 1992.

Endeavouring to maintain a healthy balance between professional tennis and life in general, Rubin has earned as much respect for her work in the local and state community - conducting clinics, involving herself with a children's museum, the American Heart Association, Special Olympics causes and wheelchair tennis - as she has been shown for her performances on the court.

In 1995, she received the WTA Tour's Most Improved Player Award, and was named the USTA's female Athlete of the Year and became the first tennis player to be selected as the US Olympic Committee's Athlete of the Month. In recognition of this, her home town of Lafayette declared 12 September, 1995, "Chanda Rubin Day".

The ITF News observed that "Chanda is making a habit of claiming her own day at the Grand Slam championships". She certainly did that at Flinders Park, as the National Tennis Centre was known for nine years until the Victoria parliament had the name changed to Melbourne Park on the day after last year's tournament, in order to accentuate the city.

Matthew Flinders probably would have approved. After all, Flinders was the English navigator who insisted on calling the continent Australia after it had been named New Holland by the Dutch and New South Wales by Captain Cook.

What's in a name? Lafayette was a French general who became a hero of the American cause against the British. And Chanda? A reporter telephoned the family and asked where the name came from and if it was of African origin. "We found that very amusing," Bernadette says. "Chanda is an American Indian name, and I got it out of a baby book."