L'affaire tennis: How driving ambition led a father to face manslaughter charge

It's one thing to roar encouragement from the stands, quite another to drug your child's opponents - as a court in France has been hearing. By John Lichfield
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The Independent Online

Parental obsession with the sporting success of a child is not uncommon, but rarely does it reach the monstrous proportions it did with Christophe Fauviau.

As a court in a small town in south-west France has been hearing, Mr Fauviau, a 46-year-old retired army helicopter pilot, was a "tennis dad" so passionate that he came to live entirely for the triumphs of his mediocre son and highly talented daughter. Unsuccessful in his own life, he could not abide seeing his children lose - or even to watch any game their opponents might win.

He began to drug his children's rivals by putting tranquilliser tablets into their drinks. Opponent after opponent - 26 young players over three years - complained of dizziness or nausea or heavy limbs during games in regional and national competitions. Suspicions were reinforced when Mr Fauviau was seen tampering with an opponent's water bottle. But it is alleged that local tennis officials were slow to react, paralysed by embarrassment and fear of scandal.

On 3 July 2003, Alexandre Lagardère, 25, a primary school teacher and amateur tennis player, crashed his car into a tree and was killed. A few hours earlier, he had lost a tennis match against Mr Fauviau's son Maxime. Mr Lagardère was later found to have consumed the equivalent of six tablets of Temesta, a powerful anti-anxiety drug prescribed to Mr Fauviau.

Mr Fauviau, who admits the basic facts of the case, is on trial for manslaughter or "unintentionally causing a death by administering toxic substances". He faces up to 15 years in prison. The jury at the cour d'assises in Mont-de-Marsan must also decide whether the regional tennis league in Aquitaine was guilty of "failing to assist persons in danger".

Since Mr Fauviau's arrest nearly three years ago, his daughter, Valentine, now 15, has continued her tennis career without her father's help, and is regarded as one of the most promising young stars on the French tennis circuit. She will give evidence to the court this week. During a break in the proceedings last week, she gave a self-assured interview to journalists in which she said that she hoped to turn professional.

"There are lots of parents who push their children and who are driven crazy by tennis," she said. "I didn't know what [my dad] was doing ... I didn't need him to help me to beat people ... People ask me how I didn't notice that so many opponents were having problems ... but you know, in tennis, sudden collapses, sun-strokes, are quite common."

Earlier Mr Fauviau gave a halting explanation and an apology to the court and to Mr Lagardère's parents. After retiring from the army, he said, he had invested all his energy and hopes in the sporting careers of his son and daughter. He had become so tortured by watching his children play that he came to regard drugging their opponents as a way of treating his own nerves.

"Every match became a terrible anguish. I became convinced that I was being judged permanently by the success or failure of my children." By slipping his pills into the drinks of opponents or offering them bottles of spiked Coca-Cola, "it was as if I was treating myself", he said.

Mr Fauviau, tall, thin and pale, appealed to the dead man's parents for forgiveness. But Mr Lagardère's father, addressing the court the next day, abruptly rejected the appeal. "There is no question of me offering my pardon to anyone," he said.

The trial, due to last until Friday, will turn partly on evidence that Mr Fauviau's doping of opponents was long suspected by local tennis officials.

Dads from hell: Game, set and a drunken slanging match

While the case of Christophe Fauviau may turn out to be the first in which the father has actually been held responsible for the death of his child's opponent, there are plenty of other demented dads in tennis.

Jim Pierce, an ex-convict from North Carolina, used to encourage his daughter Mary while she was playing in tournaments by screaming "Kill the bitch!" This may have been a figure of speech, but he also hurled cans of soft drinks at her opponents, leading eventually to his exclusion.

After years of estrangement, during which Mary had to pay Jim US$500,000 to settle a lawsuit he brought to claim a share of her earnings, father and daughter now have occasional practice sessions together.

No such reconciliation for Jelena Dokic, left, and her father Damir, who lay in the road in Birmingham after his expulsion from a tournament for drunken and abusive behaviour. He was thrown out of Wimbledon in 2000 for stamping on a journalist's mobile phone, and was banned from the circuit for six months after a tantrum about the price of salmon at the US Open.

Jelena has recently begun playing for Australia again after Damir dragged the family back to their native Serbia in 2001. Now 22, she says she is unable to live or work with her father. During the Australian Open in January, he reportedly threatened to kidnap her and drop a nuclear bomb on Sydney.

Gavin Bradshaw