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 lines-people, 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.
"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—"Somethingwild," 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 15½ 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 air.
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 2½-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."