Originally created 01/30/98

`Air Korda' taking off in Open



MELBOURNE, Australia -- Four sets, three cartwheels, two scissors kicks, one soaring spread eagle.

Petr Korda did it all Thursday as he secured his place in the Australian Open final and celebrated with the springy exuberance of a kid half his age. And what would he do if he wins this Grand Slam tournament Sunday? Fly perhaps?

"If I could get the telephone number of the Chicago Bulls, maybe I ask Mr. Jordan how to fly," he said. "Air Korda."

Korda ascended to the final with a 6-1, 6-4, 1-6, 6-2 victory over Karol Kucera, the Slovak who sent defending champion Pete Sampras packing in the quarterfinals.

orda will play for the title against the winner of today's semifinal between 22-year-old Marcelo Rios of Chile and 21-year-old Nicolas Escude of France.

At the ripe tennis age of 30, six years after his first and, until now, only Grand Slam final at the French Open, Korda is enjoying a renaissance in his game and life.

"I still can't believe it," he said. "I'm still living in a dream, and that (jumping) is my way to express to the whole world how happy I am in the moment. What I went through the past few years, to be where I am right now, it's a very nice ride."

Korda was once was held back in the juniors and denied meal money by the rigid bureaucrats of the former Czechoslovakia. He seemed to have peaked in 1992 and nearly quit tennis three years ago because of searing pain from a torn groin muscle.

`I didn't want to live in constant pain," he said. "I went for surgery just to be OK for my normal life. But then I got the spirit again, and since that time I am probably enjoying tennis more than I was even in '92 or '93 because I know my clock is running against me. Right now, I still feel it is 5 to 12. But these five minutes can be very long."

Surgery healed his body, and marriage and fatherhood gave him new zest. A skinny, 6-foot-3, 160-pounder with a tuft of spiky blond hair, Korda has been variously called "the human toothbrush," "the wild dandelion," and "eraser head." He takes it all with a smile, saying the beauty in his family belongs to his wife and bubbly 4-year-old daughter.

"I know what is inside of me," he said. "I don't need muscles. I cannot look like Arnold Schwarzenegger."

Korda says his rehabs from surgery to his groin, back and sinuses were less difficult for him physically than mentally and emotionally.

`I always knew I could play tennis," he said. "My left hand was always there. I didn't lose a step, and still I was hurting. I was just not capable of doing what I really enjoy 100 percent. I had some very low moments in my life. But I was always surrounded with people who helped met to straighten up my back again."

He spoke of two key moments in his comeback, the first when he had groin surgery in 1995.

"My wife, Regina, was really pushing me to play tennis again," he said. Korda responded by going to England to work with Tony Pickard, Stefan Edberg's former coach.

"Tony just put the spirit in me," Korda said.