In My Opinion

Charlotte tennis player Sadri fights cancer with optimism

February 26, 2013 

John Sadri hits a return during a match in the Wachovia Tennis Classic in Raleigh in 1987.

SCOTT SHARPE — 1987 News & Observer file photo

John Sadri is 56 now, half a lifetime removed from a stellar tennis career in which he once reached No. 14 in the world.

The Charlotte native played everywhere, in front of hundreds of thousands of people. At N.C. State, he was a two-time All-American and reached the 1978 NCAA final, where he lost a classic match to a guy named John McEnroe.

Sadri once made the finals of the Australian Open. He made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. But he wasn’t sure he was going to make it to 2013 at all.

A brutal bout with throat cancer consumed much of his past year. But now Sadri has found his way back inside the familiar geometry of a tennis court, teaching at a small tennis club in south Charlotte.

“I feel so fortunate,” Sadri said. “I have a second lease on life to come back and do what I love to do.”

Most afternoons you can find Sadri holding court in front of a group of 12-24 junior players at Russell Tennis Center. It is there he feels most alive, running around trying to improve one young girl’s forehand or teaching a teenaged boy the enormous serve that was always Sadri’s biggest weapon.

Said Adam Landau, whose two daughters both have Sadri as one of their coaches: “After all his chemotherapy and radiation, the first thing out of John’s mouth was ‘Get me out of this bed. I’ve got to get to my kids.’ He was more worried about their upcoming tournaments than anything else.”

A former N.C. high school singles state champion at Charlotte’s Myers Park in 1974, Sadri has had his struggles – most of them bunched into the past three years. He had been a home builder in Charlotte since 1996, but the recession bit off pieces of that business until 2010, when Sadri went totally broke and had to close his construction company.

Then came the cancer, which was located in his tonsils and lymph nodes. Sadri has a clean bill of health now. But the after-effects of two surgeries in 2012 and all of his chemo and radiation treatments include a raspy voice, swallowing pain and food just not tasting as good as it used to.

All of that beats the alternative, though, as Sadri well knows. And his renewed acquaintance with his old best friend – tennis – along with his friends and family have kept him strong.

“This is the most passionate I’ve felt about going to work since I’ve been on the tour,” Sadri said. “I just enjoy it so much. And if I died tomorrow, I’d be content. Because I’ve had a great life. I have a great family. I have two of the most well-mannered kids in the world and a wife that loves me. And all my students are amazing.”

Allison Sadri, a preschool teacher at a Charlotte church, saw her husband lose 40 pounds, from 190 pounds to 150, before he finally began to put the weight back on his six-foot frame. “He couldn’t get from our bedroom to the car without holding onto me,” she said. “It was the scariest year of our lives – but also the most wonderful. We had so many angels around us.”

Weeks after his initial surgery in April, Allison Sadri twice took her husband to the hospital for complications related to dehydration. “She said, ‘You look like you’re about to die,’ ” Sadri said. “I told her, ‘I feel like I’m about to die.’ ”

Cowboy hats and college

Sadri grew up during a golden age for top-flight tennis players in the Charlotte area. Shelby’s Tim Wilkison was the other one who made it big, once reaching No. 23 in the world. Wilkison – nicknamed “Dr. Dirt” for his hustling style – was three years younger than Sadri but so good that the two would frequently meet in junior tournaments.

Sadri continued to develop his fearsome serve at N.C. State, where he was a two-time All-American under coach J.W. Isenhour.

Isenhour recalled Sadri as a “late bloomer” who was only modestly recruited, but a player so dedicated that as a teenager he would sometimes sweep the snow off Charlotte courts so he could practice. “I really thought I could build a team around John,” Isenhour said. “He wanted to be good so bad.”

In 1978 as a Wolfpack senior, Sadri made it to the NCAA finals. He was quite the character in those days, wearing a five-gallon black cowboy hat and a bright, Wolfpack-red blazer for his pre-match attire.

“I looked like an absolute moron, but it was cool,” Sadri said.

McEnroe was a freshman at Stanford, playing what would be his only year of college tennis before turning pro. He was already ranked No. 15 in the world.

Sadri went 55-4 in his last two years at N.C. State, mostly because of a 135-mph serve that he had honed through endless repetition. He aced McEnroe 24 times in a four-hour match – still considered one of the best ever played in college tennis – and never lost a service game.

“It was the best tennis match I’ve ever seen,” Isenhour said, “and I saw it up close. They let both of us head coaches sit right by the court, which was unusual. But John was feisty, and McEnroe was feisty, and the tournament officials were worried they would go after each other.”

McEnroe prevailed by winning three tiebreakers: 7-6, 7-6, 5-7, 7-6. It could hardly have been closer. McEnroe won 144 points, Sadri 143.

“Then McEnroe went on to be No. 1 in the world and I went on to be mediocre,” Sadri said with a grin.

He was hardly mediocre. Sadri had a 10-year pro career, earning nearly $900,000 in prize money, winning two singles titles and getting to the world’s top 10 in doubles as well. His playing style was similar to Andy Roddick’s. “My groundstrokes weren’t as good as Roddick’s,” Sadri said, “but my serve was.”

‘The biggest prize’

At a tournament in Florida once toward the end of his career, Sadri met a pretty woman at a restaurant. He later left her a note asking her to come watch him play the next day.

His future wife wasn’t going to go until her mother persuaded her to. Sadri played and lost to Ivan Lendl that day. “But I got the biggest prize,” he said. He and Allison have been married 25 years.

Sadri retired in 1987 and came back to Charlotte full-time. To satisfy his competitive urges, he put down the racquets and took up golf. He became quite good for an amateur, playing well in some statewide tournaments. And some longtime golfers will hate him for this – Sadri has eight holes-in-one for his career.

“Whatever the sport,” Sadri said, “I always was pretty good at aces.”

Professionally, be bounced around a little. He worked selling Christmas ornaments for awhile. He owned a maid-service franchise. Then he opened the construction company in 1996, which specialized in high-end homes. It did OK for awhile but failed when the housing market went bust. In the financial hailstorm that followed, Sadri lost his own house.

So he started over at Russell Tennis Center once known as Cedar Forest Racquet Club – which had fallen into some disrepair. “We swept, blew, chopped and hacked our way back to a nice little tennis club,” Sadri said.

While he was teaching a group of ladies a lesson a year ago, one convinced him to get a lump on his neck checked out. That began the yearlong odyssey of doctors, hospitals and a cooler on the front porch at the Sadri family’s new smaller, rented home.

The cooler kept getting filled up by his tennis families with casseroles, soups and salads. Sadri could hardly eat any of the food for many months, but it still made him feel better to look at it.

Doctors still have to check Sadri out every four to six months. He believes his cancer won’t ever come back. And he promises one thing about him will remain incurable:

His optimism.

Said Sadri, his voice even raspier after talking for most of an hour: “if I’m on a camping trip and it’s pouring down rain, I try to find something good in it. You know what I mean? If I run out of gas in my truck I think, ‘Well there’s a gas station only a half-mile up the road. It won’t be that bad. It’s going to be a fun walk.’ I want all my students to be like that, to really think this is going to be good. Because this is going to be a great day.”

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler

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