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ITF Seniors remember New Zealand earthquake tragedy

February 5, 2012 11:55 AM
Players from all around the globe rallied to help earthquake victims in Christchurch, New Zealand after the disaster postponed the 2011 ITF Seniors.
Deep cracks destroyed tennis courts in New Zealand but not team spirit, evidenced in the turnout one year later in San Diego.
Fear and sadness were felt in the aftermath of the New Zealand earthquake, yet on the eve of the 2012 ITF Seniors the players gave back to help aid the grief.
by Jerry Magee, Special to USTA.com
"It started out like any ordinary day," Gretchen Magers would write. She had a rental car and a day off in New Zealand. Off she would go, bound from Christchurch for Akora, where she would swim with dolphins.

Her leading concern was remembering to drive on the left side of the road. It was Feb. 22, 2011.
Magers later would compose a remarkable chronicle of what befell Christchurch while she was attempting to keep her appointment with dolphins. The city was ravaged by an earthquake that took many lives and left the tennis facility there in rubble.

At this facility Magers had been competing with a U.S. Margaret Court Cup squad (women 45) in the ITF World Seniors Championship. In the days after the earthquake, Magers viewed the tennis complex, or what was left of it.

"It's like we had been playing at Morley Field," she said, citing a San Diego tennis site, "and all the courts had been ruined."

Magers acted. On the eve of another renewal of the World Seniors, she organized a pro-am at the Peninsula Tennis Club and an exhibition match involving Rick Leach.

Those participating in the pro-am paid $100, with the proceeds - about $3,500 - going to the Cantaberry Tennis Club in Christchurch.

Magers said she had intended to stage the benefit event shortly after returning from New Zealand.

"But I didn't have the momentum," she said. Accepting what she had experienced in New Zealand was difficult for her, she admitted. Not until November of 2011 was she able to return to tennis.

"It was pretty unnerving," she said. And what has she the done to make herself emotionally whole? "I'm not sure I am," she said.

Leach also was in Christchurch during the earthquake, which he said was measured at 6.2 or 6.3 on the Richter scale. When the earth began shaking, Leach said he was in his team's hotel. His roommate, Andy Stoner, had just gotten out of the shower.

A Southern Californian, Leach has been exposed to an earthquake or two. "But I never felt anything this violent," he said. "We ran out of the hotel; we felt the building was going to collapse."

A six-story building near Leach's hotel was consumed by fire, with many lives lost. Leach and his teammates wound up being transported to Ashburton, also a tournament site. There, they spent three days six to a room before they were returned to the U.S.

Magers did not have her get-together with dolphins. The harbor cruise that was to have delivered her to this meeting was canceled.

"As I walked back to my car, I saw a bunch of people huddled around a car listening to the news report," she wrote. "It reminded me of a war movie when the civilians would crowd around to hear FDR."

Magers went back to the dolphin people and asked what she should do. She was advised to return to Christchurch before it got dark. On the radio, she learned that the quake's epicenter was at Lyttleton, a quaint community that she had visited, and that a cathedral spire there had toppled.

"This is really not good was my prevailing thought," Magers wrote. "I stopped at a rural gas station and asked if I could get some gas."

" 'Pumps are down.' "

" 'Can I use your phone?' "

" 'Cell towers are out.' "

On a landline, Magers was able to dial her Christchurch hotel. "A strange beeping sound echoed on the line," she wrote. "So many unknowns. My instincts were saying, 'Don't go into town.' I started to look for a bed and breakfast or something. I wasn't sure what to do."

She did proceed toward Christchurch, where she encountered gridlock. Eventually, she made it to her hotel, where she grabbed her wallet, her laptop, a borrowed guitar and a $40 bottle of Sauvinon Blanc. She had no idea where her teammates were, but she had her passport, some American cash, no New Zealand dollars and a half tank of gas,
"But boy, did I feel lucky and full," she wrote. She pointed her vehicle to the south, toward Timaru. Through the last portion of her journey, she said she followed a tour bus bound for Timaru, where she was reunited with her teammates.

"I asked the driver of the bus if he had been listening to the radio," Magers said, "and he said he hadn't. When I told him what had happened, he burst into tears."


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