Crossing the line

From Steffi Graf to the Williams sisters, many tennis players have been driven by pushy dads. But would any parent really go so far as to poison their child's opponents? Alex Duval Smith unravels a bizarre tale of sporting obsession
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The Independent Online

Most days, the conversation under the sunshades by the clay courts of Dax Tennis Club revolves around lighthearted gossip rather than match tactics. This is a club with a recreational emphasis, where a player such as Maxime Fauviau, 16, feels at home. In top form, Maxime is what you would call a good player at regional level. He has a strong tactical sense, plays about two tournaments a month in south-eastern France, and wins about half his matches.

His 13-year-old sister, Valentine, on the other hand, is in another league. Already sponsored by Adidas, and recently back from two tournaments in Egypt, she has that extra magic that makes the difference between Grand Slam dreams and Maxime's tennis-playing reality. Even though her backhand still has the awkwardness of a child with a racket that is too big for her, Valentine has reason to see herself playing one day in the French Open at Roland Garros. For Maxime, on the other hand, a good day might see him winning a Bayonne smoked ham or a shopping voucher.

To judge by the snap psychological analysis beneath the sunshades at the club this week, the difference between sister and brother became too much to bear for the children's father. Last Sunday, 43-year-old Christophe Fauviau was arrested and placed under formal investigation on charges that, during matches, he spiked the drinks of Maxime's opponents with an antidepressant drug, Temesta (lorazepam). When one of the opponents, Alexandre Lagadère, 25, died last month after falling asleep at the wheel of his car, the antics of an overkeen tennis dad shifted from the realm of the quaintly mad to the deadly.

"His behaviour was illogical," says Jacques Dupré, the chairman of the Côte Basque Béarn Tennis League and secretary general of the French Tennis Federation. Gendarmes investigating the death of Lagadère and a number of other suspected cases of poisoning by Fauviau believe he only intervened to subdue his son's opponents, never those of Valentine. "There was no financial or sporting incentive to do this," says Dupré, "because Maxime was not playing tournaments for ranking, nor for real prize money. He is a good player at regional level, but he is already 16 and not champion material."

But Dupré admitted that Fauviau had all the hallmarks of a pushy tennis dad - every bit as domineering as the Mary Pierce, Jelena Dokic or Steffi Graf parents who live vicariously through their daughters' triumphs. It was the behaviour of Jim Pierce, the father of the Canadian-born Frenchwoman Mary, that prompted the creation of the "Pierce rule" banning abusive conduct by players, coaches and relatives.

In Britain, Dokic's father, Damir, is the best known of the tennis dads. In the case of Peter Graf, father and coach of Steffi, it was a 45-month jail sentence for non-payment of taxes that got him out of the stands.

In Fauviau's case, says Dupré, the tennis federation has intervened several times during Valentine's young career. "At one point we were advising him to send Valentine to our tennis academy at Toulouse. He refused, so we drew up a schedule of 16 hours a week of tennis for her, as well as time for schooling, leisure and medical checks." In spite of continued interference from Fauviau, the federation last year succeeded in obtaining a boarder's bursary for Valentine to attend an elite tennis academy in Paris. This brought her into a structured environment where she can build her ranking through a gradual round of tournaments rather than going for prestigious championships and almost certain burn-out.

Players at Dax Tennis Club believe that Fauviau, who is a retired army colonel, felt a sense of personal failure when he lost control of Valentine's career. Perhaps, as a result, he decided to try to expand Maxime's moderate talent into something it could never live up to without cheating.

Captain Christian Flagella of the gendarmerie said that Fauviau, who was taken into custody on Monday, will be interviewed by psychologists in the course of the investigation, which already covers two suspected cases of poisoning apart from the one which led to Lagadère's accidental death on 3 July.

He said that hours before his death, Lagadère, a schoolteacher from Donzac in the Landes region around Dax, played a non-tournament match against Maxime. The match started at 6pm, but Lagadère had to abandon play after one set due to fatigue. He got into his car and drove to a friend's house to rest. Later that evening, still at his friend's house, Lagadère cried off a dinner invitation. Finally, he left the friend's house at 11pm to drive home. A few minutes later, his car left the road and he was dead.

"The circumstances were surprising," Flagella says. "There were no signs of skid marks on the road and no other car involved, so we did a full range of blood tests on the body. We found Temesta, and we believe Lagadère was particularly vulnerable to its side effects because he was completely unaccustomed to taking such a drug.

"Coincidentally, two other tennis players had approached the gendarmerie in Mont de Marsan on the eve of Lagadère's accident. One of them told my colleagues that he had seen the suspect tamper with his water bottle in the locker room before a semi-final match on 28 June. He had avoided drinking from it and later taken it to the gendarmes. The other player had been hospitalised for two days after falling ill following a match against Maxime on 29 June," Flagella says.

The gendarmerie has not yet established whether the second player's illness was linked to a spiked drink. Flagella says analysis of the water bottle brought to them by the first player found traces of Temesta, which is a prescription drug.

Flagella would not say how many other suspected cases of Temesta poisoning are being linked to the ambitious tennis dad. However, Fauviau has been placed under investigation on a double count - "administering a harmful substance which led to death, or absence from work for up to eight days". This would indicate that several of Maxime's opponents may have been targetted over a long period of time, and it does not rule out investigation of Valentine's opponents from the period before she was moved to the tennis academy in Paris.

Dupré says that he has never known of a case such as this in French tennis: "It is an isolated incident of irrational behaviour by a man who lost his senses." But Françoise Fraisse, a paediatrician and psychologist at the French National Sports Institute, says Fauviau's actions are in line with behaviour she has seen in ambitious parents. "They choose individualistic sports for their children, such as figure-skating, tennis and, to a lesser degree, gymnastics." These disciplines, unlike team sports, require the parent to be present often and to stay with the child. Match lengths are not fixed, so the parent has to stay around.

"I cannot say I am surprised by this case," Fraisse says. "Tennis is a potentially lucrative and glamorous sport and parents get swept up in the adventure of it. Many tell themselves their child has extraordinary talent and, as if to prove this to themselves, they take the child out of school and subscribe to correspondence lessons."

The players at Dax Tennis Club would like the chat under the sunshades to return to gentle gossip. Alexandre Lagadère, the schoolteacher who died - all the evidence suggests - after his car left the road due to a few too many innocent slurps from an "energy drink", also had an ambition - to umpire at the French Open. Now, the only person who can still make it on to the centre court at Roland Garros - by fair means or foul - is Valentine.


Jim Pierce

The Women's Tennis Association banned Mary Pierce's father from attending all tour matches and introduced the "Jim Pierce rule" after he punched two fans at the French Open in 1992. The regulation prohibits abusive conduct from players, coaches and relatives. "Mary is like a finely tuned sports car," said Jim. "I built the Ferrari and now I want the keys back."

Damir Dokic

The undisputed king of the tennis dads, Jelena Dokic's father was forcibly removed for being drunk and disorderly and calling officials at Edgbaston Priory Club "Nazis who supported the bombing of Yugoslavia" in 1999. Later that day, police arrested him "for his own safety" for lying down in a road. At Wimbledon 2000 he was detained after grabbing a journalist's mobile phone and smashing it. At the US Open later that year he flew into a rage over the price of his meal. He was then banned from attending tournaments.

Peter Graf

Steffi Graf's father was a former used-car salesman whom the German press called "Papa Merciless". But he was an alcoholic and his finances were less well controlled. In 1997, he was convicted of evading tax on more than £4m of his daughter's earnings and sentenced to three years and nine months in prison. He was released in April 1998.

Richard Williams

Often portrayed as the quintessential overbearing parent, Venus and Serena's camera-wielding father was in fact criticised for holding back the sisters from competing too much at an early age. Of course he drove them hard but, they claim, he gave them the tools and the will to win.