Mad, dad and dangerous to know: the strange world of tennis parents from hell
A tragic case in France has shed light on the tense relationship between players and their families. Paul Newman reports
Saturday 11 March 2006
Thousands of young tennis hopefuls have passed through the Florida academy run by Nick Bollettieri, who knows better than anyone what makes a successful tennis player. His only regret is that most parents he deals with do not have the same understanding.
"My overall impression down the years is that more parents have a negative effect on a young person's tennis career than have a positive influence," Bollettieri said this week. "Too many of them don't know what's right for their children.
"Thankfully, there are those who do know how and when to support their kids and when to let the coaches do their work, but look at the figures. The negative impact of parents - and of some coaches - means that 80 per cent of kids who play from the age of seven drop out completely by 14. And some of those who continue to play don't want to. They're forced to by their parents."
Family relationships have been brought sharply into focus this week by the case of Christophe Fauviau, who admitted drugging his children's opponents. Fauviau was sentenced to eight years in prison by a French court after one of the players he drugged subsequently died in a car crash.
While Fauviau's case is clearly extreme, tennis, like perhaps no other sport, has a history of young players driven to distraction by parents consumed by the desire for success. In a sport where individual coaching is the norm, young girls have been particularly vulnerable to the controlling influence of their fathers, who might start out wishing simply to be protective but end up obsessed with their offspring's careers.
Pushy tennis parents are nothing new. Suzanne Lenglen, who won six titles at Wimbledon and Paris between the wars, was driven to success by her father, Charles. He introduced her to tennis when she was 10, put her on a strict training programme and forced her repeatedly to hit a handkerchief laid on court. He also gave her sips of brandy from a flask between games. On retiring Lenglen told reporters: "Let me live a little!" She died of leukaemia at the age of 39.
Nearly half a century later Gloria Connors built a tennis court on land behind the family home and coached her son, Jimmy, every day. "I told him to try and knock the ball down my throat, and he learnt to do this because he found out that if I had the chance, I would knock it down his," she said. During one match later in his professional career she yelled from the sidelines: "Kick him in the nuts, Jimmy!"
Jimmy Evert was similarly demanding and supportive of one of the players he coached, his daughter Chris. Bollettieri acknowledges the crucial contributions of many parents. He cannot speak highly enough of Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena, or of the parents of his latest wunderkind, Nicole Vaidisova. He points to the guidance Martina Hingis has received from her mother and even believes that Mary Pierce would not have become the player she is without her father, Jim, who was in many respects the ultimate tennis dad from hell.
However, the list of less productive relationships is a long one. Many have involved players from eastern Europe. Some thought Anna Kournikova's mother wanted too much say in her daughter's coaching after they moved to America from Russia, Jelena Dokic fell out with her father Damir after their move from Yugoslavia to Australia and Mirjana Lucic fled to America from Croatia to escape her father's beatings. Not that such scenarios had to end in tears, for Monica Seles owed much to her father, Karolj, who brought her to America from Yugoslavia and coached her from the age of five.
Money has often been a problem as parents have seen the financial opportunities their children can offer, perhaps in compensation for the sacrifices they made in their offspring's early years. Steffi Graf's father, Peter, who oversaw the early stages of her career and looked after her business affairs, spent a year in prison in 1997 for evading tax on more than £4m of her earnings.
Stefano Capriati, who hired and fired a succession of coaches, signed lucrative contracts with a number of sponsors when Jennifer had barely begun her career. He once said: "Where I come from we have a proverb: 'When the apple is ripe, eat it.' Jennifer is ripe." Capriati's hugely promising career faltered after she was arrested for shoplifting and underwent a rehabilitation programme for drug abuse. However, she did not turn her back on her father, even after embarrassing incidents like his vociferous protests over a line call during a match against Serena Williams at the French Open two years ago. "Dad, will you calm down?" Jennifer told him.
Sometimes parents appear determined to relive their lives through their children. Jim Pierce once said of his work with his daughter: "Maybe I'm trying to live my youth now." After they had split, he said: "Mary is like a finely tuned sports car. Well, I built the Ferrari and now I want the keys back." Andre Agassi's father, who emigrated from Iran to Chicago in 1956, made up his mind while he was working as a hotel waiter, before his son was born. "I promised myself I'd have a kid worthy of comparison with the greats," he said later.
Of the current leading women players, Justine Henin-Hardenne no longer has any contact with her father, although the precise reason remains unclear, and the Williams sisters have always worked closely with their father. Maria Sharapova is coached by her father, Yuri, who brought her to Bollettieri's academy from Russia when she was seven. Now 19, she won Wimbledon two years ago, but Yuri is a hard task master, not afraid to bark at her during matches, and is unpopular with many on the circuit. Other players have complained about his courtside behaviour.
Bollettieri said: "Yuri learnt his tennis watching me and my staff for several years. He was bright enough to learn from other coaches and he's worked very hard with Maria. He can come across on the television as very competitive and he probably is, but he learnt a lot about the game and she's been hugely successful. She's probably the highest paid female sportswoman in the world today. Maria's a very strong girl and I'm sure the positives outweigh any negatives."
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about many similar relationships.
Family fortunes: Three fathers who took their obsession with success too far
* DAMIR DOKIC
In 1999 Jelena Dokic, a 16-year-old qualifier ranked No 129 in the world, beat Martina Hingis, the top seed, 6-2, 6-0 in the first round at Wimbledon. She reached the Wimbledon semi-finals and became No 4 in the world, but became better known for the outrageous behaviour of her father, Damir, who had fled Yugoslavia with his family in 1994 to settle in Australia. Damir was ejected from the Edgbaston tournament after drunkenly accusing officials of being Nazis who supported the bombing of Yugoslavia. He was subsequently arrested for lying in the road and jumping on the bonnet of a car. Damir was thrown out of Wimbledon for stamping on a journalist's phone and was banned for six months after arguing over the price of salmon at the US Open. In 2001 he accused the Australian tennis authorities of rigging the Australian Open draw to his daughter's disadvantage and took the family back to Serbia. Last year Jelena returned to Australia, having cut all ties with her father, and she is now trying to rebuild her career.
* MARINKO LUCIC
Ten years ago Mirjana Lucic won the US Open and Australian Open junior titles. Nearly 6ft tall and with immensely powerful shots, including a booming serve, she was the first player to win a professional event on her debut, at her home tournament, the Croatian Open. In 1998, however, Lucic fled to live in America in order to escape from Marinko, her tyrannical father. "Beatings... there have been more of them than anyone can imagine," she told a Croatian newspaper at the time. "Sometimes it was because of the lost game, in other cases for the lost set. I don't want to even say what happened after the matches I lost." Marinko, a former Olympic decathlete, denied the beatings. Mirjana reached the Wimbledon semi-finals at 17 in 1999, losing in three tight sets to her former idol, Steffi Graf, but her career quickly tailed off. Still only 24, she has played only three times in the three years since she last won a match, at Wimbledon in 2003.
* JIM PIERCE
Mary Pierce, the 1995 Australian Open and 2000 French Open champion, was born in Canada to a French mother, Yannick, and an American father, Jim. She began playing tennis at the comparatively late age of 10 but, under the guidance of her father, quickly developed into a major talent and started playing professionally at 14. Her father, however, was a domineering figure who put her under immense pressure in eight years as her coach. "I was just following commands," she said last year. "I felt this awful pressure to win." Her father raged at her in practice and in public, particularly if she lost a match, and also abused spectators and opponents. During one match he shouted: "Mary, kill the bitch!" He got into a fight with two Dutch spectators at the French Open and his behaviour led to the Women's Tennis Association introducing the "Jim Pierce rule", outlawing abusive behaviour by a player's entourage. He was banned from all tour events. Mary eventually broke off all relations, although father and daughter are now reconciled.
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