Tennis: Wimbledon '99 - Stand-in behind an outstanding talent

Ronald Atkin talks to the hired hand helping a young heroine
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The Independent Online
CRAIG KARDON could be forgiven for thinking he was having one of those dreams, the ones where you know you have been somewhere before, with people clamouring around you. It was Wimbledon 1990, Martina Navratilova had just won her record ninth Wimbledon at the age of 33 and everybody wanted to know exactly how she had done it from her coach, a 28-year-old former touring professional.

On Friday afternoon Kardon was again besieged by a media scrum at Wimbledon. Alexandra Stevenson, the 18-year-old American, had become the first qualifier to reach the semi-finals of the women's singles and Kardon is her coach. How did you manage this, then, Craig? The answer is, by accident.

Kardon is now a national coach with the United States Tennis Association, based in Dallas and, it says on his cv, "responsible for development activities in the central states". After the years of working with Navratilova, Lindsay Davenport, Mary Pierce, Zina Garrison and Lisa Raymond, the 37-year-old Kardon is contracted to the USTA.

When Stevenson decided to play the British grass court season as an amateur, the USTA asked the amiable Australian veteran Ray Ruffels to accompany her as coach. But Ruffels was ill, so Kardon was requested by Tom Gullikson, the US Davis Cup captain, to take his place - "to step in, come over and help her out" as Kardon put it - and the rest is a Wimbledon dream come true.

Stevenson played the tournament at Surbiton, where she lost in the first round to Britain's Lorna Woodroffe, then qualified for the WTA tour event in Birmingham, getting to the quarter-finals before retiring as a precaution against a slight stomach strain so that she would be fit to enter the Wimbledon qualifying at Roehampton. There, as top seed, she sailed through three matches without dropping a set before taking the main event by storm, deciding last weekend to turn professional and put her education on hold.

After eliminating the other surprise packet, Jelena Dokic, Stevenson said: "Craig has been my coach over here for five and a half weeks. Without him I don't think I would have done that well."

The dilemma for Kardon, who is built on the same rugged lines as Andre Agassi's coach, Brad Gilbert, is where this surprise path takes him next.

Stevenson is suddenly a big name, pulling down big prize money, while Kardon's salary is paid by the USTA. "Whether we still work together after Wimbledon has yet to be determined," he said. "We're going to talk about it. I have a job full-time with the USTA but I may end up doing a few weeks on the road with her."

Kardon became Navratilova's coach in 1989, stayed at her side until she retired in 1994 and, as a member of what Martina used to call "my coterie" - the VIP box fan club - shared with her the joy of that Wimbledon title in 1990.

"I see a lot of Martina in Alexandra," said Kardon. "I see a lot of determination and championship qualities, just her will to win. It's tough for me to compare the two at 18 because I didn't know Martina at that age, though I watched her play and followed her career. But Martina was totally different from this girl. She came over to the US, defected, and was a professional pretty early. She lasted three decades by adjusting her game when young hitters like Jennifer Capriati and Monica Seles were coming up.

"Alexandra is a breath of fresh air for the women's game, to tennis in general. I am a little surprised by her lack of nerves, but it shows what she is made of. That's what champions do, they filter everything else out and are able to focus on one thing at a time.

"She is a great athlete and we haven't really seen what she is capable of yet because she has only just finished high school and hasn't had the opportunity to play full-time. Most girls, even at 15 or 16, are training four, five hours a day. When she gets that opportunity really to show everyone what she can do, it is going to be amazing. I knew she was capable of doing well at Wimbledon but I didn't think she would do this well."

All of which presents Craig Kardon, native of Cherry Point, North Carolina, and holder of a BSc in advertising, with the pleasant dilemma of where next he should hang his billboard. Will it be back at the USTA or attached to the soaring star of Alexandra Stevenson?