Donations help former tennis prodigy get career-saving surgery

  • David Waldstein
  • The New York Times
6:00 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017 Sports
FILE -- Tornado Alicia Black plays in the U.S. Open junior girls' tournament in New York, Sept. 2, 2012. A onetime prodigy whose playing career was halted in 2015 by a hip injury she could not afford to fix, Black has received financial donations in 2017 to pay for an operation and the rehabilitation necessary to get back on the women's professional tennis tour. (Ben Solomon/The New York Times)

Last weekend Tornado Alicia Black traveled to a junior tennis tournament in Orlando, Florida, as the coach of a 10-year-old player. She hopes it was her last coaching job for the next 15 years.

The next time she goes to a tournament, perhaps in six months, Black expects to be playing.

A onetime prodigy whose playing career was halted two years ago by a hip injury she could not afford to fix, Black has received financial donations in recent weeks to pay for an operation and the six-month rehabilitation necessary to get back on the women’s professional tennis tour.

She will have surgery Tuesday to repair both of her hips. “From that point on,” she said, “I’m a player again.”

Black, 19, was once a rising star in U.S. tennis, a runner-up in the 2013 U.S. Open junior girls’ tournament. But in late 2015 her hip gave way, and she had surgery to repair a torn hip labrum. It never healed properly, though. Unable to play and earn money on tour, she began giving lessons to make a living.

The cost of the operation this week and of the rehabilitation was mostly covered by one donor: Alan Hassenfeld, former chief executive of the Hasbro toy company, who read about her financial difficulties in an article in The New York Times.

Another donor, author Steven Gillis, paid Black’s outstanding $1,800 orthodontist bill. Black had not seen an orthodontist in more than a year because she could not afford to pay her bill. Thanks to Gillis, she recently had her braces removed.

Black also raised $40,180 in a little over a month through an internet crowdfunding campaign. She thought that would cover the cost of her surgery and rehab. But the operation alone turned out to be roughly four times as expensive as she had expected, about $62,000.

“I feel so blessed and I am so grateful to everyone,” she said. “I originally didn’t want to do the GoFundMe campaign. But a woman contacted me and said I should do it because if I got back on the tour and became successful, I could do so much for other people. That’s my goal now.”

A member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame’s executive board, Hassenfeld runs his family’s philanthropic foundation. He checked with people he knew to make sure Black was a worthy recipient of his donation.

“I don’t usually give to individuals, but I was so moved by her story,” he said. “I asked her to make two promises. One, that if she is ever able, she helps another tennis player in need. And two, that she invites me to her player box at the U.S. Open.”

This month, using some of the money from the crowdfunding effort, Black traveled from her home in Delray Beach, Florida, to Philadelphia and met with two hip specialists. One will fix two sports hernias — tears in the lower abdominal muscles — and the other will shave down and repair structural damage to the pelvic bones.

“They said I made it a lot worse by coaching and waiting to have it done,” Black said. “Originally, I thought I had one injury. It turned into four.”

But she said the doctors had assured her that she should be able to get back on the court and resume her career at full strength after a six-month rehabilitation, which will begin in Philadelphia the day after her operation. Black will stay in a hotel there for two weeks and then return home to Florida.

She will use some of the crowdfunding money to cover the extra cost of the operation, beyond what Hassenfeld provided. She said she would use the remaining money to pay for a strength and conditioning coach, rent, utility bills, food and other expenses while she rehabilitates.

Black plans to be back on tour by next summer. She will have to rebuild her ranking, which was No. 404 at the time of her injury, and will aim to break into the top 100, where players start to earn enough money to make tennis a real livelihood.

If she succeeds in her comeback, Black said, she wants to open her own charity and address issues that have affected her life, like childhood homelessness. Black has said that she lived in homeless shelters with her family when she was young and that she also lived out of the family car for weeks at a time when she was 12.

“No child should ever have to go through that,” she said. “I hope I can be in a position to help.”