She started doing gymnastics in the basement on a balance beam her father made for her. At seven, she practiced five hours a day, every day. She made up a baseball game, bouncing a Super Ball off the cellar steps. Sweaty with fatigue, she'd pretend she was a superstar and interview herself in the mirror. If she didn't have enough sweat on her face, she'd throw water on it. "In tennis you have to go on and endure the bad days and the booing," she says. "That's why games and fantasy are so much better. You can stop the action and boo them back."
Tennis was a kind of therapy for her after the accident, perhaps mental as well as physical. "Gymnastics had been her whole life," says her mother. "If it hadn't been for tennis, I think we might have had a psycho on our hands."
Young Bonnie was still wearing a neck brace when she entered her first tournament. She couldn't even serve overhead or bend down to pick up balls. She didn't know how to score, so Darlene held up fingers after each point. But she reached the finals, losing only to the top seed.
Gadusek took lessons at a local YMCA and in 1977, despite the encumbrance of the brace, became the No. 11-ranked 14-and-under girl in the Middle States just months after she had taken up the game. "I didn't like people staring at me as if I was a freak," she says. "The first time I looked in a mirror with my brace on, I scared myself."
"The poor little thing would run and run," recalls Dutch Hoffman, her first coach. "She'd hold her brace away from her body with her hand so she could breathe better. You couldn't hold her back."
One day Sylvia Gadusek picked up her daughter at the courts and saw the brace hanging from a chain link fence. "I was shocked," says Sylvia.
"I took it off," Bonnie told her, "and I'm never putting it on again."
Although Gadusek was getting out of school early to work on tennis, she couldn't find enough good competition in Pittsburgh. So at 13, she wrote letters to 50 top coaches across the country: "My coach is Dutch Hoffman who works with me every day at the YMCA. He teaches me for free because my daddy is retired and can't afford lessons. When it is cold here, Dutch goes to a faraway racket club, and I cannot go with him. So I need someone to coach me because I want to be a professional tennis player. Could one of your pro's [sic] teach me every day-and find people to hit with me? I am sending you a story about me in the paper when I got hurt. My brace is off and I'm playing much better."
She got only a few answers and just, one person offered to take her for free. But that one was a giant, Harry Hopman, who had coached the great Australian Davis Cup teams of the '50s and '60s. "I saw the picture," says Hopman, "and said, 'Hell's bells, what a gutty kid.' " So in May 1977, the Gaduseks sold their house, bought a mobile home and drove to Largo, where Hopman has a tennis camp.
Sylvia Gadusek has been a nurse at Hopman's since the move to Florida. "Bonnie is very determined," she says. "She didn't get it from me or my husband. We're very laid-back." Sylvia lives in a house half the size of Bonnie's, about a mile away. Bonnie's father died of cancer more than three years ago.