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Tennis star climbs ranks, wins hearts

Ten Slovaks are ranked in the top 250 on the WTA's world tennis chart. Twenty-four-year-old Henrieta Nagyová leads the pack at 21; eighteen-year-old Daniela Hantuchová may be the next star at 53. But only seventeen-year-old Ľubomíra Kurhajcová, ranked 213, is tallying as many points in the humanitarian world as on the courts battling opponents.
After winning her first women's title September 2 at the Stavbar Open in Maribore, Slovenia, Kurhajcová, a tenacious player with a strong baseline game, donated the Sk100,000 ($2,000) prize to a fund for disabled Slovak children. The money will help buy wheelchairs.
Then on September 25, a day after returning from a tournament in Lece, Italy where she lost in the finals, Kurhajcová presented a 70-by-80-centimetre heart made from wire to officials at the American embassy in Bratislava. The heart was created by the Society of Ferdinanda Martinena, a humanitarian organisation Kurhajcová and her uncle/manager Peter Kurhajec founded when she was 13, in memory of the victims of the September 11 terrorist attack on the US.


Ľubomíra Kurhajcová combines philanthropy and gritty tennis talent.
photo: Zvonimír Lehotský

Ten Slovaks are ranked in the top 250 on the WTA's world tennis chart. Twenty-four-year-old Henrieta Nagyová leads the pack at 21; eighteen-year-old Daniela Hantuchová may be the next star at 53. But only seventeen-year-old Ľubomíra Kurhajcová, ranked 213, is tallying as many points in the humanitarian world as on the courts battling opponents.

After winning her first women's title September 2 at the Stavbar Open in Maribore, Slovenia, Kurhajcová, a tenacious player with a strong baseline game, donated the Sk100,000 ($2,000) prize to a fund for disabled Slovak children. The money will help buy wheelchairs.

Then on September 25, a day after returning from a tournament in Lece, Italy where she lost in the finals, Kurhajcová presented a 70-by-80-centimetre heart made from wire to officials at the American embassy in Bratislava. The heart was created by the Society of Ferdinanda Martinena, a humanitarian organisation Kurhajcová and her uncle/manager Peter Kurhajec founded when she was 13, in memory of the victims of the September 11 terrorist attack on the US.

"I'm grateful that I'm healthy and able to devote myself to tennis. It's important to me to help those who aren't so lucky," said the soft-spoken Kurhajcová. "As for the money, when I started playing in women's tournaments two years ago, I vowed to donate the winnings from my first title to sick children."

Kurhajcová considered sending her earnings from Lece to the families of the fire-fighters killed when the World Trade Center towers collapsed in New York September 11. The embassy suggested a symbolic gift instead, and she and Kurhajec came up with the idea of donating a heart made in the Slovak folk tradition of wire-weaving.

Her humanitarian interests have blossomed along with her tennis game. Still a junior, she entered her first women's tournaments in at the end of 1999, not long after she began visiting a Bratislava centre for disabled youth, attending tennis tournaments for wheelchair-bound children, distributing tennis balls and hats.

"We realise she's busy with training and we're thankful for the time she spends here," said centre director Štefan Tvarožek. "Disabled children should still be active, and Ľubomíra encourages and supports them."

The children have become her biggest fans. After she led team Slovakia to a silver at the junior women's championship in Australia in 1999, a group from the centre waited with roses for her at Bratislava's airport.

Staying on target

Kurhajcová comes from a family of athletes - her uncle was a 10-time Czechoslovak champion in the modern pentathlon and her father/coach Ľubomír Kurhajec is a former tennis star who has coached most of Slovakia's present-day tennis elite, including Dominik Hrbatý, Karol Kučera and Henrieta Nagyová.

Because he took a job as Indonesian national coach when Ľubomíra was a child, he couldn't start training her until she was nine, practically over the hill by women's tennis standards. By comparison, her idol Steffi Graf began playing tennis at age five.

Ľubomíra's work ethic has enabled her to overcome the late start and propelled her into the world top 250, those closest to her say. She is in the weight room every day by 8:00, on the tennis court by 10:00. She breaks at noon for lunch and tutoring sessions, then returns to the court for another two hours in the afternoon, followed by an hour and a half of conditioning in the early evening.

"She started late, and is not as naturally talented as some others, but she is a tireless worker, and she believes in herself," said Ľubomír Kurhajec. "She's catching up."

Kurhajcová was ranked 1040 when she played her first women's tournament in 1999 at age 16. She's moved up steadily since, and says a victory over world junior number one Aniko Kapros in the 2001 French Open quarterfinals was a huge confidence builder. Months later she defeated Polish favourite Katarzyna Straczya in the finals in Slovenia, vaulting from 245 to 220. The latest WTA rankings have her at 213.

"She's not the kind of player who's going to have a meteoric rise," said Vladimír Habas, head coach of the Slovak Tennis Association. "But she's improving steadily. She is one of several young Slovaks with the potential to crack the top 100."

Kurhajcová's athletic aspirations, will power, religious faith and philanthropy came together in Mariboro, Slovenia in early September. After losing the first set, she rallied from a 5-2 deficit in the second, holding off three match points on the way to win 7-5, and then breezed through the third set 6-1.

She said afterward that she had felt "the hand of God" guiding her through the comeback. She then announced she would donate her winnings to disabled children, and when she returned to Bratislava, the first thing she did was visit a church to give thanks.

Kurhajcová will battle Slovakia's best at the Slovak Indoor Championship 2001 in Bratislava. The tournament begins October 13 at Incheba hall in Petržalka, two days after her 18th birthday. For more tournament information go to www.stz.sk.

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