The making of a tennis hero
Tim Henman is a rare British success at Wimbledon. So how do parents bring their children within reach of the sport's holy grail, asks Jojo Moyes
Wednesday 03 July 1996
Mary's father still cannot understand what the problem is. He was only helping her to play tennis.
Jim Pierce may have taken his ambition to extremes, but there is little doubt that for a young player to succeed in tennis today, their parents need to want it as much as they do, and probably more.
And however much of a surprise the British public finds the success of the 21-year-old native player Tim Henman, it has certainly been no accident. Henman, back on Wimbledon's centre court today, began playing tennis at three, encouraged by his mother, Jane, who played junior Wimbledon. His grandfather and great-grandmother had also played there.
By the time he was 11, he was being coached by British champion David Lloyd and has now won at least pounds 100,000 in prize money. Henman, whose family live in a neo-Georgian house near Oxford, says: "Probably the most important factor from my background was that we had a court at home, and I always had someone to practise with."
Compare this with the experience of Luke Milligan, the fellow Briton he knocked out of Wimbledon last week. Milligan, 19, is a taxi driver's son who learnt to play tennis at comprehensive school. He took up tennis seriously just four years ago after he failed to win a place with Tottenham Hotspur Football Club.
His father Jim Milligan works 10 hours a day, seven days a week, to finance his son's tennis career, while his family have sacrificed holidays and other luxuries. Jim Milligan recently told how the family had rented a home in Nottingham while Luke was playing there - "and that was our holiday". His other children, Nina, 16, Sarah, 15, and Peter, 12 (also a keen tennis player) accompany their brother to watch him compete.
Luke Milligan's success is something of an anomaly, as although tennis is gradually losing its elitist image, for serious success on the courts one needs to have a credit rating as strong as one's backhand.
Professional coaching, for example, costs up to pounds 25 an hour, depending on the grade and location. Then there is the use of an indoor tennis court at up to pounds 20 an hour. Multiply these figures by at least five per week. Then add the cost of tennis club membership (several hundred pounds a year), equipment, and then, once the player starts work on the county and regional circuit, travelling, hotel and entry expenses (don't think you can expect prize money at this level). Now it becomes apparent why there are still few Milligans to be found at Wimbledon.
Many of Britain's best tennis players never break out of the 100-rankings, so that their prize money never covers their costs, or they become one- season wonders. Among the handful of home-grown successes are Sue Barker, now building a successful career as a commentator, Virginia Wade, John Lloyd, and Jeremy Bates, who was knocked out of this year's tournament in the first round, but may be consoled by the Porsche he has bought.
In the United States, which turns out a high proportion of Wimbledon's entry, young players attend privately owned and operated junior academies where families pay fees of more than pounds 20,000 a year to have their children taught top-level tennis while pursuing their high school studies.
Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Pete Sampras, Michael Chang and others are all alumni of these schools .
With funds now available from the National Lottery, Britain may soon have its own hot-house specialist schools, to help less-well-off players to succeed. Even Tim Henman, with his support network, found it necessary to take advantage of the (now abandoned) David Lloyd tennis scheme, which helped sponsor young players.
The Lawn Tennis Association, the sport's governing body, has tried to address this with a number of support schemes, including the creation in 1990 of the Rover Junior Tennis Initiative.
"The scheme has identified the need to help as many youngsters as possible and for players to develop within their home environment," said a spokesman for the LTA. Rover pays for things like coaching and court time.
The scheme, which sponsors players for up to pounds 15,000, is currently helping150 future British hopefuls (now aged between10-16 ). But the LTA admits that the best way for the players to get onto the scheme "is to show promise at club or county level", both of which require parents to have already served up large amounts of both time and money.
"Parents are always going to have to be committed. Even with these supports there needs to be a lot of parental support both in terms of time and money," the spokesman admitted.
But there are other questions of commitment. As the three siblings of Luke Milligan are already no doubt aware, the career ambitions of a young player means that other family considerations often have to take a second ranking.
Mark Winters, a tennis writer who has covered the international tennis circuit for the past 15 years, believes that the ambitions of parents are often the driving force of the young player's success, and that all members of the family can become losers.
"I've seen some abhorrent things. The parents want to have the next Steffi Graf or Pete Sampras. They mortgage their hearts and souls along with their children's lives," he said.
"If you looked at the top 10 women players a few years ago eight of them had fathers who no longer had jobs. The women were the sole support of the family, while Dad was 'coach and companion'," said Winters. "The best example of that is Jennifer Capriati. Her mother, Denise, was a flight attendant and Stefano was an 'entrepeneur', but you know what that means."
He said brothers and sisters who were left to tag along were also common fixtures of tournaments. "An example of that is David Pierce, or Stevie Capriati who sat there all day," he says. "Some of these kids just have no identity."
And the special attention given to the player may often be just as damaging to the player as their siblings. Annabel Croft, the former British No 1 and whiter-than-white teenage tennis star, said in an interview that as a player, like everyone else, she had been incredibly selfish and self- absorbed.
"Part of the reason I wanted to give up tennis was that I couldn't bear to think of myself being like that. I didn't have any friends and I had to think of myself as number one all the time," she said.
According to Winters, the "gift" of being allowed to think about nothing other than their own game led to players who were not just selfish, but "childlike", often well into adulthood.
"Where today can you find people who are journeymen, at best, but with entourages where you have coach, a trainer, somebody who is overseeing travel, just taking on everything that you normally have to deal with? The only other place you see that kind of treatment lavished on young kids is in the music or movie industry. Of course lots of them are dysfunctional."
Often the players bearing the burden of parental expectation are barely past puberty, and psychologically ill-equipped to deal with the intense pressure. This leads to high levels of burnout. Annabel Croft said she was "desperately unhappy" until she gave up tennis at the age of 21, while Andrea Jaeger and Tracy Austin, both subjected to pressure by ambitious fathers, have both since dropped out of the professional circuit.
In recognition of this, the LTA's age eligibility rules were changed last year to block anyone under 15 from having a computer ranking and to monitor the number of matches played by young competitors. The changes came about partly as a result of the testimony of witnesses, including players, who listed the major stresses on the tour as: 1) parents and family; 2) travel; 3) loneliness; 4) the media; 5) competition; 6) agents.
The ITF has also published booklets giving advice on how to cope. One, entitled Burn-out: The Solution reads: "Burn-out is a modern-day phenomenon. It is the result of outside pressures being placed on talented children to succeed at any cost, whether it be in education, music or tennis."
Despite the hours of sweat and tears, the vast majority of young players will not reach the holy grail of Wimbledon. Many will not even come close. And, even if they do succeed in their investment, parents may find it all thrown back in their faces.
One of the abiding images of the child star Jennifer Capriati is not her flying across the courts, but her police mugshot, taken after her arrest for possession of marijuana in 1994. She reportedly refused to speak to her father for several years after she came off the circuit.
Winters thinks that for as long as parents turn on their television screens and see their children as the next Becker or Graf, it will be ever thus. "Tennis players are dysfunctional, the families are dysfunctional and other kids have got no identity," he says. "It just doesn't work."
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