Massu: Spirit Of A Survivor
by Leopoldo Iturra|
At 32, Nicolas Massu is fighting the last big battle of his career as he attempts to overcome injuries and return to the highest level.
Epicondylitis is the name of the injury commonly known as golfer’s elbow. Nicolas Massu can spell it out with the help of a doctor. This injury is the reason why the only male Olympic champion in both singles and doubles in tennis history has been sidelined for a year and a half.
It was in March, during a practice with the Chilean Davis Cup team in Uruguay, when Massu’s left arm told him to stop. “The court was heavy at night. I felt pain after my first forehand and it got worse and worse so I had to stop. The next day I couldn’t even brush my teeth because of the pain. I had a broken tendon in my arm. If I had a surgery, at 32, it would take me at least six months to get back and even if I did come back, it would only be in best of cases at 85 per cent of my full level.”
The fighting spirit of Vina del Mar’s hero was tested once again. “In the past four months, I’ve spent over two hours each day in the morning doing kinesiological work and two more for physical training in the afternoon. The last examination I had revealed that the tendon was already healed. Now I need to work on my arm strength before I can play again.”
At the 2003 BNP Paribas Masters in Paris-Bercy, Rainer Schuettler spoke about his first round opponent: “When you have to play against Massu, you know that it will be a long match, because he will fight for every ball until the last one.” That time in France, the former Australian Open finalist won his only match against the Chilean in four meetings. A year later, the German player suffered one of the toughest defeats of his career. With Nicolas Kiefer, he lost the doubles gold medal at the Olympic Games in Athens to Massu and Fernando Gonzalez.
But Massu’s great stories began much earlier. On 13th May 1995, the Under 16 Chilean team played the South American Championship in Porto Alegre, Brazil, against the hometown squad. Massu had to face Marcelo Junqueira in the first leg and then Gonzalez had to play Alexandre Simoni.
"They wanted to kill us. I don't know how we survived"
Local supporters made their best effort to annoy Massu during the whole match. When he had match point, he showed the ball to the crowd before serve and said, “With this ball I will shut you up.” He fired an ace to win the match 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, got onto his knees and put his finger on his mouth as a sign of silence.
“They wanted to kill us. I don’t know how we survived,” remembers Massu’s lifetime coach, Nano Zuleta. “I then realised Nicolas was special. You need courage to do that. He’s extremely competitive and he never gives up.” One year later he made his first Davis Cup appearance. At 16, he was the youngest player in Chilean Davis Cup history to debut.
Massu has been working with Zuleta since he was 11. “With Nano we always argue about who is right. One time, in Adelaide, we began a discussion about a match at 8pm. Suddenly we realised the sun was rising,” says Massu.
Nicolas doesn’t like to lose. Not even in arguments.
When Massu was at the first stages of his career, he always made himself really clear about his roots. “I am the son of a Jewish mother and Palestinian father. Look at the weird thing that I am,” he would say.
A few days before his 92nd birthday, Ladislao Fried Klein, his grandfather, passed away. “Tata Laci”, as Massu called him, was Jewish and born in Hungary. He survived the Nazi occupation by hiding and running away – a fate that his parents and siblings didn’t share because he never saw them again. His wife, Veronika Vegvari, was a survivor at Auschwitz-Birkenau. A number engraved on his forearm was his strongest memory of the Holocaust. That story marked Massu’s life.
“If my grandfather fought to survive that, why won’t I be able to fight in a court to win a tennis match?” said Massu. And perhaps it was that strength that helped him survive almost nine hours on court for the singles and doubles finals in Athens, where he won the first two gold medals in Chilean sport’s history.
“There’s no doubt that Nicolas is a warrior thanks to his grandfather’s image,” said Nano Zuleta. Steven Spielberg’s production team visited Ladislao Fried and a big part of his story was used to create Schindler’s List, a film that he watched with his grandson, leading to a conversation that Nicolas would never forget.
"There’s no doubt that Nicolas is a warrior thanks to his grandfather’s image"
Tata Laci designed several of the most emblematic buildings of the city coast of Vina del Mar, which is also known as the “Garden City”. But it wasn’t his only contribution to Chile.
He advised Nicolas to quit his rising career as a soccer player at the city club Everton to dedicate himself full-time to tennis. Ladislao financed Nicolas’ junior career with his own savings. “When I got to be an Olympic champion, I thought how happy he would have been. He always was my number one fan.”
Nicolas Massu is the only player to have won gold medals in singles and doubles in the same Olympic event. “Nano Zuleta told me that there would be a time in my career where I would be ‘in the zone’, and that I should be ready when it happened. And I was,” said Massu.
“In the singles final against Mardy Fish, I was extremely tired. I could only think one point at a time. I could only see the ball, the court and the guy in front of me. Nothing else. When I had match point, I looked up to the sky and said: ‘God, please, let me win this point and I won’t care about tomorrow, even if you don’t want me to play tennis again in my life.’ And I took my chance.” Massu defeated Fish and won his second Olympic gold medal. But the story didn’t end there.
“I arrived at the Olympic Village at 5am, and at 9am I had a flight to New York City. I put the medals next to my pillow so I wouldn’t forget them. But I couldn’t sleep, so in the morning I put my stuff in my suitcase and went to the airport. Before boarding I noticed that I didn’t have the medals. I went crazy and called Fernando. Fortunately he took care of it and gave them back to me at the US Open.”
"I want to leave tennis walking through the front door, not by the back window"
Massu can’t help but get upset when he watches the Grand Slams on TV. “I saw when Tommy Haas won Halle. He had three surgeries and was two years out; he even lost all his rankings points. With the career he had he could be happy at home, but he wanted to come back and he even got to beat Federer. That example motivates me.
“At 32, I could easily be travelling through Europe or having fun with my girlfriend in Miami, but I can do those things when I’m 35. Today it’s all about trying to make a comeback and that’s what I’m fighting for. I want to leave tennis walking through the front door, not by the back window.
“People still look at me and see a warrior, a gladiator. And yes, I am. It’s still real.”
Massu’s warrior legend has many chapters, but one of the biggest was in the Buenos Aires final in 2002. He trailed 6-2, 5-1 and faced two match points before he defeated Argentine Agustin Calleri 2-6, 7-6, 6-2. “I think that was the moment when everybody realised that I was never going to give up a ball,” he says. “I felt that people started to notice my fighting spirit. But I also was a very fast player and had one of the best forehands on the tour. It was much more than just a fighting spirit.”
Fernando Gonzalez, his partner and friend from juniors, retired this past March and Massu is still sad about that news. “I was a little upset when he told me. We played all of our lives together; we won gold medals and the ATP World Team Championships in Düsseldorf. It will be tough to be at tournaments without his company,” said Nicolas.
They still meet once in a while, but not exactly to talk about tennis. “We watch every game of the Chilean soccer national team with a barbecue at his house.”
Massu is fighting to come back. Even though he’s outside the Top 600 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings, it doesn’t matter to him. Because of the respect he’s earned, everybody knows that he will not give away a single ball, not even the last one, in his effort to achieve it.