As far as professional athletes go, doubles specialists in tennis have it rough. Their craft is under-appreciated and unrecognized. For all the incessant noise regarding prize money in tennis, little of it has ever been targeted at raising prize money in doubles; a first round loser in singles at Wimbledon this year took home £23,500, while a first-round doubles loser only pocketed £7,750.
While a handful of doubles specialists are instantly recognizable, even the biggest tennis fanatics might have difficulty recognizing Sandra Klemenschits. By the numbers, the 30-year-old Austrian is little more than a journey woman; despite having won 39 doubles titles on the ITF Circuit, she had little success on the main tour. When she and partner Andreja Klepac triumphed in Bad Gastein on Sunday, the first WTA title for each woman, few batted an eye. For most 30-year-old players, their first title might be their biggest accomplishment to date. Not Sandra Klemenschits.
In January 2007, Sandra and her identical twin sister Daniela (pictured above — Daniela (L), Sandra (R)) were both diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the stomach, a rare form of the cancer. The Klemenschits sisters had great success on the ITF Circuit, winning 20 titles together. In their brief time on the WTA, the sisters were runners-up at Istanbul in 2005 and reached the semifinals at Stockholm and Budapest later that year. They had never played in a grand slam main draw as a team and were forced to retire from professional tennis to focus all of their efforts on fighting their illness. However, the twins and their family had difficulty paying for their treatment, as their expenses were reported at $4,000 a month; to help, the WTA came together with the ATP and raised approximately $70,000 USD for the twins via player donations and a charity auction.
“It is great to witness players from both the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour and ATP rallying to support the Klemenschits twins,” said Larry Scott, then-CEO of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour. “We wish the sisters the absolute best and hope to see them back on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour very soon.”
Tragically, Daniela’s cancer was more advanced than her sister’s and she passed away on April 9, 2008. After being pronounced cancer-free, Sandra made a return to professional tennis in July 2008. She won a title on the ITF Circuit that year, before going on to win 17 more between 2009 and 2012. In 2009, Sandra played her first grand slam in doubles; she partnered Aravane Rezai and the team lost to the fifth-seeded pair of Daniela Hantuchova and Ai Sugiyama at the US Open. In 2011, she made her debut at Roland Garros and Wimbledon; that same year, Sandra made her first WTA final since her sister’s passing in Fes. However, she and partner Nina Bratchikova came up short against Renata Vorcova and Andrea Hlavackova.
2013 has been a career year for Klemenschits. She won the first grand slam match of her career at Wimbledon, also partnering Klepac. The pair also made the quarterfinals in Nurnberg and the semifinals in Budapest after they added her biggest title to date at a $100,000 ITF event in Marseille in June. In Bad Gastein, that all changed. The pair dropped a set in the opening round but didn’t lose one the rest of the way; their run that also included an upset of the third seeded team, Raluca Olaru and Valeria Solovyeva, in the second round. 280 ranking points more than halved Klemenschits’ ranking; she came into Bad Gastein ranked 181 and left at 77, a new career high. For Sandra, however, the win was much greater than a paycheck or a ranking.
“At match point, I was just thinking about Dani…After [she] died, I decided to never play tennis again, but then the tournament director of Bad Gastein offered me a wild card for doubles five years ago. It has been very difficult for me…to play tennis, since Daniela was my doubles partner for 15 years…You never know what tomorrow will bring…every day that you have, enjoy and live as if it were the last.” (Quote from Kleine Zeitung, in German)
After dropping her racket and tearfully embracing Klepac, Sandra looked up and pointed skyward. If you’d dare to guess, the Austrian sun wasn’t the only thing looking down on Sandra Klemenschits on Sunday morning.