For the first time in 21 years I will not be attending the tennis tournament at Indian Wells, CA, certainly one of my favorites events ever. I traditionally has arrived there on the Tuesday before plays starts on Wednesday, which ironically is the day this year that I am undergoing brain surgery on San Francisco.
I just came off a great five-week trip to Australia personally and work-wise.The day after I arrived back at my home in Moraga, CA, I was talking to my son, Connor. in the kitchen. I can’t quite recall about what it was but as I was standing over the counter. It’s very likely I was talking about what chores needed to be done – my kids favorite subject
As many of you who know me or listen to me on radio, I have a lot to say, and most times I can say things clearly, but at that moment I had a good five sentences in my head and couldn’t get any of them out. All I could do, as Connor would attest, is drop a series of F-bombs in frustration. Perhaps I have never used the word more appropriately.
A little more than 24 hours later I found myself in a neurologist’s office staring a brain tumor on the left side of my head that was the cause of the incident the day prior.
Hey, Doc, hit one like Fed
By Ron Cioffi
Over nearly four decades, I’ve written about forehands and backhands, murders, politics, hometown features and how much I love the Rolling Stones. It’s been easier to write about sports, the arts and tennis tournaments than my personal life. But, hey, we all have to change.
It was nearly 13 years ago when Matt Cronin and I (with Sandy Harwitt) founded TennisReporters.net. It was a great idea: a website written by professional journalists who covered pro tennis. No amateurs, no gloss, no frills and no BS. We broke new ground in the world of sports and tennis journalism. At first I thought TR would pay for a cushy retirement but soon realized it was wouldn’t make a cent and was an addiction that we couldn’t shake.
Matt and I worked at Inside Tennis in the early 1990s. But, believe it or not, I’ve only seen Matt three times since we established TR, twice at the US Open and once at Fed Cup in North Carolina. But we often start our phone calls on business but lapse into the world of tennis, family, age and frailties. I never thought we would come so close to a life-threatening situation. Figured it would be me, a decade older and more decrepit than Matt.
Over the years Matt has kept the site running, based on his goal of writing honestly about tennis without an editor telling him what to say or not to say. I try to do that once in a while. But, Matt is pretty headstrong.
All I can say to Doctor Berger is: “Hey, Doc. It’s a good brain. It’s a really good brain. There’s a hell of a lot of great tennis info in there, years of experience, expertise and clarity.
“So, Doc, do the tennis world a favor: Don’t screw it up. Hit a winner down the line.”
For about a month before that, there were days when I felt a little odd. My father, Bill, was a doctor and my mom, Joan, was a nurse, so I am by no means I am not psychosomatic and might be the opposite as my parents could recognize real illnesses. When my two bothers and two sisters and I were kids, they knew when to tell us to shake it off. Perhaps as result I have only visit the doctor for mandatory checkups.
While I was still in Australia, I called a couple of people and told them I knew something was wrong with me and that when I returned I would go straight to the doctor. While I was in no real physical pain, I had a sense that something dangerous was going to take a swing at me and I wanted to get a handle on it before it took me completely down.
But before my scheduled doctor’s appointment, I had my mini-meltdown in the kitchen and the battle was on.
I am not going to get into the details of all my medical visits and their effect on me, but what I can offer that it has been an extremely emotional time for me as my kids, other family members and close friends can attest to. Those who know me know that I think a lot about a lot of things, and my mortality has been at the top of the agenda over the past month. I do not fear death at all, and believe that I will leave the operating table healthier and with a decent chance at a long future, but I am a realist and a care-taking type and trying to get my head around not being there for my kids/family/friends with all the things I wanted to accomplish with them is difficult to swallow. At least in my case, I don’t feel like I have planned ahead enough and had I know this was coming a decade or so ago I very well may have changed the vast majority of what I was doing – excepting the constant tennis coverage, of course.
It seems like at all times that I am thinking multi-dimensionally about my past, present and murky future. It’s fascinating, but does not leave time for much sleep, which is OK because at least this point it seems like a pretty big waste of time and, as all of you know, dreams during these types of periods can quite off-putting.
When many people think about relaxing, they think about kicking back and mellowing out. I have never been that person. In fact although I do like short naps in the afternoon, what really relaxes me is physical exercise, namely yard work which I crave daily and can do for hours at a time without feeling overly stressed. That is how I relax for the most part, by doing non-work related chores. Even living in my now beloved California for the past 31 years has not cured me of that habit.
I had a very interesting decision to make last week, choosing between two very reputable SF Bay area neurosurgeons, one whom I had seen three times and the other — who I will describe as the Roger Federer of his profession — I had only talked to on the phone.
Regarding this issue, last week I made a long and drawn out tennis analogy to some of my tennis journo friends, most especially Emily, as well as Doug, Richard, Courtney, Tom and Brad as to why I would make the call either way: essentially, whom am I going to trust to win a match with my brain tumor.
To me, it made perfect sense, but perhaps not so much to others. However, to tennis people it might. In my nearly 22 years covering the sport, I think I have learned to distinguish real confidence from false bravado, which is why some players consistently deliver in the clutch and others don’t. For me to allow someone to open my brain up I needed to be sure that he was not only a distinguished person with great reputation, but if I put the challenge to him to show me that he was confident and great enough to win my “match” that he would look me in the eyes, tell me he was, and his voice would back that up.
I did not want to be put in situation where I felt like I was in broadcast booth on the outside looking in at a tennis match, where the likes of Federer, or any other star, would choke a simple backhand down the line on match point because there was too much pressure on him. As tennis journalist, if I have been around a player for years and have spoken to him or her at recent tournaments, I usually get a much more clear idea as to where their head space is at the moment and how competent they are really feeling.
New fans walking into a stadium might not have a clue as to why an all-time great misses a crucial shot at a big moment, but most of us regulars get why. In the case of the surgeon, I did not want to be in similar position going into the OR, wide-eyed and merely hopeful he would make the shot. I wanted to be sure as much as I could that the guy I picked (and of course who allowed me to be his patient) would bring all of his so-called weapons at his disposal the court and use them appropriately.
And that is why I chose Dr. Mitchel Berger out of UCSF, that and because he talked to me like my dad, Dr. William T. Cronin, would have, straight, to the point with no BS and telling me firmly that he will get the job done.
I joked with my tennis journalist friends that I was going to live tweet my operation on Tuesday and would Skype into the Indian Wells WTA All Access Hour on Wednesday to take care of any questions they might want to ask, or just to chat with a player who was not getting enough attention.
Of course that is not going to happen – largely because I don’t want folks looking at me with half-shaved head– but believe when I tell you that if I felt even remotely confident that I could pull it off I would try to make a go of it. That is how much I love being part of sport. For me, being there and telling pro tennis’ true story is what tournament coverage is all about.
I recently came back from a one-week Bucket List trip, the first few days of which I spent with my 21-year-old daughter Cassandra, my soon to be 18- year-old Connor and my 14-year-old daughter Chia. We had some very memorable dinner table conversations about how we view friends and family and their reactions to these types of situations. My kids may already be smarter than me and I sure hope they have 100 times my intelligence level when they reach my age. But I have a bit more experience due to age and been on the other side of some of these situations as a support person. I’m not sure how I really did, but I do know that many of my friends and family have been extraordinarily helpful to me, especially when it comes to listening. In my opinion, there are few folks in one’s general circle who can hand out sound medical advice (fortunately for me I have some people whom I am very close to who are excellent with it), but there are many who can show they really do sincerely care by just hearing you out on anything you want to talk about.
Believe me there were times when I didn’t want to talk about it at all, which is why I did not tell everyone I am or have been close to until now because I have led a long enough life to have gathered a fair amount of important relationships. While I realized that I would like to talk to everyone I hold dear, there were so many other things I had to deal with on a daily basis that it would have been overwhelming to talk to everyone. I did not leave anyone out on purpose, I just needed fair amount of quiet time in my head.
The mother of my children, Patti Orozco, has been extraordinarily helpful and dedicated as have my mother, Joan, my siblings Tami, Mark, Megan and Paul, their spouses and kids, some of Patti’s extended family and my nieces and nephews on that side, as well as my kids, who for the first time have been really faced with one of their parents mortality and have dug deep to try to sort it out. It has been a role switch for them having to pat me on the back this time in an attempt to keep my spirits up. They have been patient, understanding and given their dad as much love as a man could ask for.
There have also been those close friends whom I contacted and are asking me every day how I feel and are super concerned. Those people know who they are. As it was before I would walk through fire for them. After this experience, I think I would roll and crawl through it, too.
Now to the bottom line of what may of you are wondering about: my prognosis. It is unclear now as the type of tumor won’t be identified until the open me up on Tuesday and take its pathology. The good news is that it does not appear to be large and it is close to the side of my head so the removal process will more than likely go OK. It may be benign, it may be malignant, but one way or another as much of it as possible has to be removed. After that, I will have a good idea what type of recovery process I am in for.
Tennis tournament wise … my plan is to be 100% fit and improved by the time the French Open rolls around in mid-May, talking up a storm on Radio RG like nothing ever happened, and showing Serena Williams my head scar like she showed me her foot scars post her pulmonary embolism scare a few Wimbledon’s ago. And then I can write another tennis book, another couple of thousand articles and produce a million tweets.
Lifestyle wise, the day after I return to our property from the hospital, I want to be out in the spring sun again like I was in this picture two years ago, pruning tress, chopping wood and mellowing out in my own distinctive way. It has been a hairy ride the past month, but my life has been good overall and hopefully it will soon get a hell of lot better.