Lucas Learns to Live Again
US Open 2008
by Robert Davis|
Lucas Arnold Ker has endured enough tragedy to last a lifetime. But after fearing that all might be lost, the Argentine has bravely breathed renewed purpose into his life and career.
Lucas Arnold Ker knows all about losing. As a professional tennis player, he accepted that losing is a part of the game. However, it was not until he learned how to channel the pain of sorrow, suffering and loss that Lucas became a winner again.
Sun-tanned and solidly built, Lucas has always been recognized by his unruly mop of curly blond hair, devil-take-all grin and flashing dark eyes. Describing Lucas Arnold's personality proves a greater challenge. He has been called everything from carefree to careless. Even to his closest friends, Lucas remains today an enigma.
Some say that Lucas was born to play tennis. His father, Henri, served as president of the Argentine Davis Cup committee and mother, Lindsay, was a popular junior national champion.
Older brother, Patricio, former Top 100 singles and doubles player, remembers when they were growing up.
"Since Lucas was a very little boy, tennis was always his passion," Patricio begins. "Very early he became a 'mini professional' as he was always extremely serious, sometimes too much considering his age. He got this from our mom. She would play with him for hours each week and took us to every possible tournament around Buenos Aires."
Early in his professional career, Lucas was living the good life. In 1998, he reached a career high ATP singles ranking of 77, and then in 2004, his ATP doubles peaked at 21.
Lucas was in the fast lane, but somewhere along the road, he began to lose his way.
"I did not take tennis and life as serious as I might have," Lucas says quietly. "There was always another city, another tournament. Another opportunity."
Little by little, his life began to unravel. It started with the separation from his longtime love and wife, Yannina, and three-year old son, Ignacio. Now, not only was he struggling with his future in tennis, but his personal life was in tatters.
During this difficult time Lucas knew something else was wrong. He felt a pain in his groin and he scheduled a visit with Dr. Javier Marriquien. It was the day before he was to fly to London for Wimbledon with friend and doubles partner, David Nalbandian. The next day, hours before departure, Dr. Marriquien delivered the news – cancer. Testicular cancer.
Lucas's world was shattered.
Longtime family friend, and radiologist Dr. Roman Rostagno, uncle of former ATP player Derrick Rostagno, was with Lucas during all this. "When Lucas found out he had cancer, he was already at a low point in his life," Dr. Rostagno says. "He was going through so much that I had to wonder how much more could this young man handle."
Patricio agrees: "The news came at a time in which Lucas was not doing well in life in general. He had a lot of doubts and he became extremely negative towards life. This certainly was a turning point in his life since Lucas had to get back on track if he wanted to keep on living."
Still, Lucas boarded the flight to London but kept the news from his family, especially his mother.
"She was very sick," Lucas says softly. "Depression." His face tightens and lips quiver. The nerves are still raw.
Once in Europe, Lucas played well, but he could not concentrate.
"I just could not focus," he admits. "I went home after Umag."
It was then, in August of 2006, that the tumor was diagnosed as malignant and the next day Lucas had a testicle removed. Chemotherapy was advised, but Lucas refused treatment. Two weeks later, he left for the US Open.
On the outside, everything seemed to be fine, but beneath the surface, Lucas was worried. Reunited with Yannina and Ignacio, Lucas took his family to Costa Rica for a three-week holiday. However, the holiday did not go well.
"I was not very good emotionally," Lucas admits. "There was a forty percent chance that the cancer could return."
After returning home from Costa Rica, Lucas's greatest fear came true. The cancer had returned and now he had no choice but to accept the chemotherapy.
Mariano Hood was at Lucas's side from the beginning.
"I was trying to be with him as much as I could," Hood says. "It was such a shock for him. He was depressed because there were so many things going on in his life during this period. All of us tried to help keep him up."
"I just wanted to live," Lucas confesses. "You fight more when you have a family. But I never thought that there was even a possibility to come back to playing tennis again. In the beginning, I did not even ask the ATP for a protected ranking. Then I started reading Lance Armstrong’s book (It’s Not About the Bike) and it helped me a lot."
If Lucas wanted to come back to professional tennis, he would have to start at zero.
"We went to hit some balls many times," Mariano Hood says, "but Lucas was physically in a bad condition due to the chemotherapy. We could only hit for just a few minutes before he had to stop and take a break."
It was then that the Argentine Davis Cup team began to rally around Lucas.
"All the players wanted Lucas to get better, and I believe that all the support gave him more strength in that terrible situation," Hood continues.
While Dr. Rostagno mentions the effectiveness of chemotherapy, he is quick to point out the importance of the love and support of Lucas's family. And his tennis family.
"The support from his family was incredible. In many ways, Lucas getting sick brought them closer together," Dr. Rostagno says. "And the way that the Davis Cup team supported Lucas, and which he did reciprocally was very special to witness. I was very proud of the team and Lucas for the way that they united."
"Even though I was in Brazil, I became much closer to my brother during all his chemo treatment," Patricio says. "It was amazing seeing the way Lucas battled through without once feeling sorry for himself. It is as if something inside him was sure that he was going to pull it out of this."
After four months of chemotherapy and many weeks of grueling and gut-wrenching training, Lucas began to regain his strength and stamina. In August of 2007, he began playing professionally again. The former Argentine Davis Cup player would have to start at the bottom though, playing doubles in Futures tournaments.
Steadily, things began to return to normal. The wounds of the past 18 months had begun to heal over, and Lucas was almost able to relax again. Then, suddenly, tragedy struck a fatal blow, piercing Lucas straight in the heart. In late January, after a long battle with depression, Lucas's mother died. Once more, Lucas's world would be rocked, only this time nearly all hope would be drained from his soul.
It was during this period after his recovery and his mother's death that Lucas became the most difficult to be around. His grief turned to anger, and he began to lash out at those closest to him. Not only did he build walls to keep people away, but he stacked them with razor wire. On the tennis court, he would often try to intimidate officials, and he became aggressive with opponents; some were friends that he had grown up playing with.
"After Lucas completed his treatment, there was a period in which he was tough to relate to," Patricio says. "This was not so good but his friends and family tolerated it. We knew that he needed some time to adjust his life again to normal."
In the Hotel Barceló Miramar in Salinas, Ecuador, Lucas Arnold is staring at the man in the mirror. An electric razor in his hand, he begins to carve odd patterns in his hair. Lucas walks out of the hotel lobby, across the street, and onto the beach moving past families enjoying the last days of summer. Steadily moving into the water and wading far out, he ignores the signs warning of riptides and dangerous currents, and swims to the Salinas Yacht Club, the venue of the ATP Challenger.
Marcio Torres, who was in Salinas, says, "Some of the players who did not know Lucas very well said he was crazy and out of control. But for those of us that knew what he was going through we could see that he was just, well, tortured. He seemed very tortured."
Despite the hardships, Lucas was making progress. His fitness was improving, his game was getting better, and it was with high hopes that he brought his family to Europe for the clay court season.
It could have been just another typical spring morning in Bordeaux, France, except for the black smoke that was billowing out of the third floor of the Quality Hotel. Players and coaches alike are standing in the parking lot, huddled together, some holding laptops, passports, and racquet bags and trying to figure out how many rooms might be destroyed.
Standing apart from the group, Lucas is clutching his young family, Yannina and Ignacio. He is visibly shaken. And with good reason, for only minutes earlier, his wife and son had narrowly escaped the hotel fire down a hallway filled with black smoke. The Ratiwatana brothers were there too.
"We were searching for a way out," Sonchat explains, "but we went in the wrong direction at first, and we were struggling to get back to our room with all the smoke, and it was very dark so we could not see."
"Then we heard a voice calling out to us for help," Sanchai interjects. "It was Lucas's wife. She and her son needed help getting out."
"But we needed help too," Sonchat adds. "She let us into her room, and that gave us all a chance to calm down and regroup. Then we wrapped wet towels around on all our faces and tried again. We were very lucky to find an exit."
Once again, Lucas is harshly reminded just how fragile life is and how suddenly it can be taken away.
While the events of the last two years have washed away the boyish grin, a smile – albeit, a guarded one – has returned to Lucas's face. Life is good again, and Lucas Arnold realizes what is most important to him.
In the players' lounge beneath Susan Lenglen Stadium at Roland Garros is a children's playroom. Lucas is lying on the floor with his head propped up on a beanbag. Ignacio, who inherited his mop of honey blond curls from his father, is running about the room while watching cartoons. Lucas's dark eyes follow his son's every movement.
"Now if I lose a match, maybe I have bad mood for like one maybe two minutes," Lucas says. "Then when I see my wife and son, I am happy again."
In a gesture to honor the woman who had inspired his tennis so much and who had helped him to recover from his fight with cancer, Lucas had his mother's last name legally added to his.
"Lucas has a mission to achieve in the name of his mother, who was and still is his number one fan," says Patricio. "I also believe he is carrying our mom inside of him, and that Lucas knows that our mom is taking care of him too."
At Wimbledon this year, few if any of the spectators gathered around Court 9 on June 25th, knew just how important what was about to happen next was for Lucas. Walking back to the baseline, Lucas noticed the contrasting colors of the All England Club; the verdant green of the neatly trimmed lawn court, the polished maple wood net posts, and a soft powder blue sky with white clouds in drift.
Shifting four balls in his hand, Lucas selected the two that he would use. Teammate Luis Horna asked him where he would serve, should he cross or cover, and then turned and jogged towards the net to take up his position. Chair umpire Carlos Ramos made a note with his pencil, shifted in his seat leaning forward slightly, and announced, "Arnold Ker to serve."
His mother's name sounded clear and sweet to Lucas, and it filled him with a long awaited joy. Taking a deep breath, Lucas closed his eyes. For a brief moment, he was a little boy again, back at the Club Los Olivos in Buenos Aires hitting against the backboard with his mother looking on, smiling proudly.
Ready now, Lucas opened his eyes, bounced the ball several times, balanced his weight and relaxed his shoulders. Like a pendulum, Lucas's arms began to dip and rise and he served the ball.
Once more Lucas was playing the game that he loved, and the game that had made his mother, Lindsay, so very happy.
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