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Cara Black, advancing in U.S. Open doubles, thrives far from spotlight

SportsColumnTennisU.S. OpenWimbledon ChampionshipsAnna Kournikova
Tennis' Cara Black, progressing in U.S. Open doubles with Sania Mirza, succeeds while drawing few headlines
Cara Black, whose doubles tennis feats earn a singular lack of attention, advances at U.S. Open

Cara Black is one of the have-nots in the world of professional tennis. But then, there is so much money in the sport that we might all be happy not having.

Black is a doubles specialist. She toils on the back courts of tournaments, even at the mega-events such as the current U.S. Open here.

She is one of the darlings of fans who were able only to purchase grounds passes that don't get them onto the big courts. Her matches attract a mix of true doubles fans and people looking for a bleacher spot to sit down.

We should not feel sorry for Black. She would be horrified at the thought. She has long ago come to grips with the discrepancy between the haves (singles players) and her. The women's singles champion here will win $3 million. Each women's doubles champion will get $260,000.

She is 35, a mom, and is now in her 16th year of traveling the world and playing on the back courts. For her efforts, she has made close to $7.5 million. No "poor me" there.

Wednesday, she and partner Sania Mirza of India, seeded No. 3, ran past the Pliskova twins, Karolina and Kristyna, of the Czech Republic, 6-3, 6-0. A cozy gathering of fans was on hand.

Black is also among the elite players in mixed doubles, teaming with veteran Leander Paes of India and seeded No. 3 in that event.

Except maybe in Zimbabwe, where she is from, her great tennis success draws few headlines. It takes a Bryan brothers career in doubles to get attention, and even their big victories are often an afterthought to singles news.

But if she has any regrets — and with five Grand Slam women's titles and five more in mixed, you'd expect not — she has little time to ponder it. She travels with husband Brett Stephens and 2-year-old son Lachlan. After each match, the tennis racket is replaced by a stroller.

"The tour used to have so much down time," she says, laughing. "Now, there is zero down time."

Her father, Don, was a touring pro who played half a dozen times at Wimbledon and had a dream that one of his children would one day win there. He built four grass courts and one all-weather court in the family backyard. Older brothers Byron and Wayne learned there and each went to USC, where they were stars on the team and had pro careers.

Byron graduated and now works in real estate in South Africa. Wayne is back in Zimbabwe, running a bed-and-breakfast and coaching his children on the same courts where he and his siblings learned to excel at the game.

"I didn't go to USC," Cara says. "I came along at the time of [Anna] Kournikova and [Martina] Hingis. Girls started sooner. If you were 16 or 17, it was time to get out there on the tour."

In 2004, her father's dream would come true. Cara won the Wimbledon women's doubles title and added the mixed, with brother Wayne.

"I won both on the same day," she says. "Sadly, my father had passed away by then."

She still calls Zimbabwe home, but her husband is from Australia, making that a family stop too, and tournaments keep her on the road much of the rest of the time.

"I'm in Zimbabwe about twice a year," she says. She says nothing about the current politics of the place making it a less-than-Shangri-La spot, but that assumption would be logical.

The only year she missed since she started to compete for real in 1998 was 2012, when she had Lachlan. The question often arises as to when it will be time to stop.

"Last year was going to be the final year," she says, "but then we did well, so we decided to go another year. Now, it's kind of a month-to-month thing, actually."

She is 5 feet 5 and 120 pounds. Her opponents are seldom picking on someone their own size.

"The girls are bigger and bigger now," she says. "The Pliskova twins, they serve so big that at the start today, they were hitting like two aces a game."

But Black hasn't won 68 pro doubles titles and held the No. 1 ranking in women's doubles for 163 weeks in her career without reason.

"We figured it out," she says, adding that she has been able to survive in the era of "Big Babe" tennis by changing speeds, keeping the ball in play, mixing pace with slice and taking advantage of her quick hands at the net.

"Once we started getting those serves back today," she says, "we were OK."

So is she with her life on the back courts, as well as with her life in general.

"I'd like to have another child," she says, getting to the ultimate successful life match point.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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SportsColumnTennisU.S. OpenWimbledon ChampionshipsAnna Kournikova
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