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She Feels Rosy After Defecting Out of the Blue : Cuban, Acting on Impulse, Bolted at a Tennis Tournament in Mexico

March 26, 1994|DANA HADDAD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LA CRESCENTA — Rita Maria Pichardo had no immediate plans to defect. At least not in October in the middle of Mexico.

The decision came spontaneously. She said it was as if she had grabbed the idea out of the air. Pichardo, 23, a native of Cuba, had long considered fleeing her country. But not on this day, not during a tennis tournament in Zacatecas, Mexico.

It was a sweltering autumn afternoon--Pichardo guesses Oct. 23--when she abruptly decided the sweat on her brow would be more appreciated in another country.

The impulse came, and Pichardo, possibly the best-ever Cuban women's tennis player, reacted with the same aggressiveness she had always shown on the court.

Without hesitation, she charged.

A week later, clutching a fake passport, Pichardo crossed the international border at Tijuana into the United States. Two days later she landed in La Crescenta, at the home of her cousin, Carlos Sanchez--who came here as a Cuban refugee in the 1960s.

In the United States, Pichardo hopes for an opportunity that wasn't available in her country: to play Wimbledon, the U.S. Open . . . all the Grand Slam events.

"I don't want to talk about any politics," Pichardo said. "The absence of funds is what keeps a tennis player in Cuba from advancing."

But Pichardo, Cuba's five-time national champion, admits it was more than economics that restricted her to playing only satellite events in South America and Central America.

"There's a fear of letting their players play Grand Slam tournaments . . . a fear of losing them," she said.

Pichardo said she left Cuba because she, like other Cubans, struggled to make a living. As a professional athlete with asylum in the United States, she might finally play money tournaments.

But prosperity has its price. Still in Havana is her fiance, her brother and her father, Gerardo Pichardo, who became a widower three years ago. Rita Maria never said goodby. She had planned to return after playing the Mexican tournament.

But Pichardo, who had won her fifth consecutive National Championship of Cuba tournament in February of 1993, was told in Zacatecas by the Cuban Tennis Assn. that she would no longer be given new equipment like other players. "I was national champion, but if I didn't take used rackets, I wouldn't be able to travel," said Pichardo, who sensed she was being phased out.

"So I took off then."

Pichardo is not ranked in the top 300, said her agent, Gus Dominguez, because she hasn't played any prominent events.

"Right now she's a little out of shape," Dominguez said. "But I have to say she's a very patient, understanding, model athlete.

"We hope to have her train with the UCLA women's team. We want her to be confident. Athletes that perform at a high level have a certain cockiness. We want her to be at that level."

From her arrival in the United States until early February, Pichardo had not worked with a coach. Then she met Gene Malin, a respected instructor who works with several Valley players. He said Pichardo has the ability perhaps to play in a Grand Slam.

"She's got some talent," Malin said. "I think she can get into the top 50. She can win points, but how well she competes is another story."

But that, according to Pichardo, is her strength.

"I feel when the odds are even and the other player is at my level, my aggressiveness and competitiveness put my opponent on the defensive," she said. "I have controlled aggression. I always know what I'm going to do."

Pichardo has vowed to avoid the fate of Karelia Echevarria, her predecessor as Cuba's top women's player, who quit in her prime.

"Most of the girls left the sport early, because there was no future," Dominguez said. "The sport is not promoted. Many got married or went to other careers."

When Pichardo decided to defect, she contacted friends in Guadalajara. The friends picked her up at the Zacatecas tennis center, ostensibly for a visit.

Several hours after Pichardo disappeared, Augustine Martinez, the Cuban coach, called Pichardo's friends in Guadalajara and was told she was not with them.

But Martinez contacted the Cuban Embassy, which dispatched two agents to watch her friends' Guadalajara home.

By then Pichardo had left Guadalajara, staying with other friends in Toluca, near Mexico City.

"I was scared when I found out men had come," she said. "If I was taken back to Cuba, they would have taken tennis away from me.

"That's my career."

Her Cuban coaches couldn't take away her career, but now they are holding her fiance, Duvier Medina, as a hostage. Pichardo said Medina, 23, also is a top player in Cuba. She said officials, who leaned on Medina to persuade Pichardo to return, have since taken away his privilege to travel.

Said Pichardo: "I told him I'm going to wait for him."

Her father, Gerardo, and her younger brother, Gerardo Jr., support Rita Maria's decision.

"They want me to have a bright future," she said.

The dawn of that bright future came when Pichardo, standing in front of a 7-Eleven store in San Ysidro after crossing the border, called her cousin, Enrique Sanchez, in nearby Chula Vista. Enrique brought her to Carlos in La Crescenta.

The traumatic earthquake on Jan. 17--the first Pichardo had ever experienced--did little to shake her resolve. Pichardo is firmly committed to staying in the United States at least until she gets a shot at a Grand Slam.

Said Pichardo: "Not even 100 earthquakes could make me go back to Cuba."

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