Monday, July 27, 2009

A Caribbean girl/French woman retires

Did you know that Nathalie Dechy was born in the Caribbean? Most people don’t. Most people assume that she was born somewhere in France, or Belgium where she now lives. But in truth she was born a Caribbean girl and only later became a French woman.

She was born in Guadeloupe, a tiny island shaped like a butterfly, or a Rorschach inkblot, take your pick. It has a population of less than half a million. And it is an overseas department of France, in pretty much the same way that Puerto Rico and Guam are territories of the United States, and all that that implies.

When Christopher Columbus visited Guadeloupe in 1493, he did not ask any of the Indians living there what the place was called. Instead, in the manner of arrogant pillagers everywhere, he changed the name of the island to Santa María de Guadalupe de Extremadura, after the image of the Virgin Mary from the Spanish monastery of Villuercas, in Guadalupe, Extremadura. But Guadeloupe was not then a hospitable place so Columbus collected his fresh water and sailed off.

It wasn’t until 1635 that French farmers from the Normandie region began to settle in Guadeloupe. There is some debate over whether they did so willingly. There is no debate over the fact that they brought with them diseases, alcohol, and guns, which swiftly killed off the Caribs then living on the island, and who had previously killed and eaten the more peaceful Arawaks.

So there is a fierceness that runs in Dechy's veins, and an easygoing tranquility too. This is the dialectic into which most people of the Caribbean become immersed -- the ability to fight fiercely, even ferociously on the one hand, and then suck your teeth and dismiss things with a sweet smile on the other. Is there a more apt description of Dechy?

I wonder what Dechy’s career would have been like had she never left Guadeloupe? It’s hard to tell. Certainly she came from a family that is mad for tennis. Her mother, Françoise, was a French-Canadian sports teacher, and her father, Michel, taught math and tennis. Both her younger sister, Isabelle, and her older brother, Nicolas, also play the sport. One assumes that Natalie‘s talent would have been nurtured early.

But there are few opportunities on an island not much larger than New York City. And this is true even when one has the privilege of being born white, in addition to being talented. The impact of the French Federation cannot be truly felt on those territories of the Caribbean archipelago with allegiance to France. In order to benefit from federation support, one has to be on site, in France, under its tutelage.

I always got the impression that Dechy enjoyed a balanced life. Tennis never seemed more important than her friendships. Her husband never seemed less important than her sport. And now they are having a baby. She is leaving tennis in order to honor this new priority. I can only respect her for this.

Dechy was not the most tremendous achiever in tennis. I say this against the backdrop of comparisons to such high achievers as the Williams sisters and Steffi Graf. Some players, like Graf, seem to wait until their tennis life is over before than can go on to other pursuits. Players like Dechy combined tennis with other pleasures. If I had to choose, I could not imagine having Graf’s single-mindedness, even though I truly admire it. I am more like Dechy. I like to enjoy a nice glass of wine on my days off.

Dechy’s best year was 2005. I remember when she emerged looking fitter than ever with a clearly improved game that took her to the 12th spot in singles ranking. She came so close to beating Lindsay Davenport at the Australian Open that year. She was also a tremendous doubles player. Her more recent wins include the 2007 French Open mixed doubles with Andy Ram, and the US Open doubles with Dinara Safina that same year. Dechy was elected to the Players Council (2004), proof positive of her ability to get along with most and intelligently argue for the needs of fellow players.

From her website, Dechy gives us a glimpse into her balanced future. She has on one page a list of likes and dislikes. Her likes include, “Sharing good wines with friends“, “The ease of Federer“, “Spring coming“, “Christmas with my family”. Among her dislikes are “Too much make-up”, “Playstation addicts”, “Drugs in sport”, “Speeches that never end”. I dislike seeing her leave. But I wish her all the best in her future.

TENNIS: MAR 11 BNP Paribas Open

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