Tennis: Mum's the word, Alexandra

Parental guidance is the key for a new teen queen. By Steve Tongue
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The Independent Online
JUST AS Samantha Stevenson, a journalist on the New York Times, was cheering her 18-year-old daughter Alexandra to another victory during last week's Wimbledon qualifying tournament at Roehampton, Ann Jones was giving a radio interview about the perils of trying to make a career out of tennis. "Only the top 200 make any money," said Britain's former Wimbledon champion. "It's a big risk that parents and children are taking, so it's a tough choice."

It is a choice that the Stevensons have been pondering for the past two years, while Alexandra finished high school and played as an amateur, waiving some pounds 55,000 in prize money. The safe option would still be be to take up a place offered at UCLA to study acting, her other great love; instead her performances recently at Edgbaston - where she beat Dominique van Roost, ranked 16 in the world, to break into the top 100 for the first time - and then in skipping through her three qualifiers, have convinced them both that putting your daughter on the tennis stage is now an acceptable risk.

To those who know them, the risk is evidently not high. A friend recently gave Alexandra a graduation present of 100 books and told her that working through those would be the only further education she needed; The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men are next on the reading list.

The only surprise is that the decision took so long. This is a girl who says: "Since the tender age of three, I always wanted to come to Wimbledon. And since the tender age of nine I wanted to win it." This is a mother who wrote in her regular column in World Tennis (entitled "Mother of a Pearl") that she could see herself "sitting around Centre Court clapping for my daughter" - Alexandra was four years old at the time.

Brought up by a single parent who happened to be a reporter - her father is the one subject neither discusses - the young Stevenson was given unique access to the biggest names in American sport. Samantha would take her on interviews with everyone from Ali to Agassi, working on the basis that "a child is a sponge - you let them be around great people and see great things, and it gets inside of them".

And she soaked it all up. At a dinner one evening, mother and daughter sat with Rod Laver and Roy Emerson, "who talked to Alexandra the whole night about drop-shots". Pete Fisher, coach to Pete Sampras, changed her, like Sampras, from a two-handed backhand to one-handed, after which Ellsworth Vines, at a time when he could barely still walk, told Alexandra that that stroke would win her Wimbledon; Don Budge sat waiting for more than an hour while she finished a tennis lesson, then gave her another; Bobby Riggs "was a master at showing her how to con an opponent".

As well as Fisher, she has worked with Robert Lansdorp, who coached Tracy Austin, and since arriving in England six weeks ago, with Martina Navratilova's former mentor Craig Kardon. Wary enough of hype and adulation to whip her straight off to the practice court after matches before any thought of press conferences, Kardon nevertheless says: "She's a natural grass-court player and learns very quickly. She learns out on the court which is good, and now needs more matches against the best players. She's improved her return and her net-game, but all areas can still be improved."

One professional observer at Roehampton, watching her brush aside a much smaller opponent with big serves, a fierce forehand and that formidable backhand, felt that Stevenson would not only be "top 50 in no time", but that we were seeing one of the physically powerful, athletic figures who represent the future of women's tennis.

Comparisons with Serena and Venus Williams may be burdensome, but could soon become inevitable. Fortunately, the sisters are good friends from way back, who helped her find her way past the worst of All England Club bureaucracy while she was playing Junior Wimbledon last year. Now it is the real deal, starting with a tough tie against compatriot Amy Frazier, ranked 27.

Her mother will be there, and will stay on the circuit by her daughter's side, changing jobs if necessary, because of, rather than despite, her reservations about the unnatural life on the road. "She's my priority and she needs me," Samantha said. "It's a lonely life for a young girl. But she's ready now." John Steinbeck and the Academy Awards will just have to wait.