The accident could have paralyzed him. The shingles almost did. Then an unending parade of friends (and their jokes) reconnected the tennis player to the simple pleasures of his life.
For a guy who's 25 years old, I think I've lived a lot. As a pro tennis player and a model, I've had more real-life experience than most people my age. But last year was a very difficult one. In May I broke my neck. I was on the court, and I was running for a ball, tripped, and hit a net post headfirst. But it could have been much worse—I could have been paralyzed if I hadn't turned my head at the last moment. And it meant I got to spend time at home with my dad in the last weeks of his life. He was struggling with stomach cancer; he lost the fight in July. But we got to say everything we needed to before he was gone.
A week later, I started to feel very sick, and soon after I was diagnosed with shingles. The virus left half my face paralyzed, messed up my balance and blurred my vision. The doctors told me that in six months to a year and a half I'd be 100 percent back to normal. But I didn't know if I'd ever compete again.
Leaving the hospital, I felt it was all catching up with me. I couldn't walk, I couldn't taste anything, I didn't look right. I went home and got ready to spend months alone, sitting on the couch, waiting to get better. That's when they started coming. What felt like a constant stream of friends from every corner of my life descended on Fairfield, Connecticut, with one purpose: to cheer me up. They made me laugh at them, and when they saw my crooked grin, they made me laugh at myself. That's when I realized how many deep, lifelong connections I had made. I try to make people laugh and happy, and they were all returning the favor.
Now that I've fully recovered, I'm grateful for everything. I walk down the street and think, I'm not dizzy, my legs are working right, I can see straight and smell and hear clearly. It's a nice day. I have a family that loves me and friends who will be there no matter what. My father is with me. I'm competing again, and I think people are rooting for me. I have a new credibility with fans because they've learned that I don't have the perfect life. I'm like the character in a movie whose misfortunes help people relate to him. And I'm always aware that everything can go wrong, that it can all be taken away at any minute. Like I said, I feel much older than 25.
From the May 2005 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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