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 ass."
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 so long."
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 heart."