Wimbledon: The girls fighting for survival

They travel the world living out of suitcases, praying for victory. But for young female tennis stars there are other, darker pressures. As Wimbledon bounces into action, Ian Smith introduces the girls fighting for survival

Wimbledon starts tomorrow and once again we will go through our annual romance with tennis. Even as you read this, a middle-aged housewife in Luton is dusting off her Henman T-shirt and her Union Jack, and is about to join her friend Dorothy for a night in the ticket queue in leafy SW19. But, in two weeks' time, all the excitement and interest will fade and, once again, that same housewife won't even be able to recall who is Britain's number one female player (no, it's not Sue Barker but the equally level-headed Elena Baltacha).

Wimbledon starts tomorrow and once again we will go through our annual romance with tennis. Even as you read this, a middle-aged housewife in Luton is dusting off her Henman T-shirt and her Union Jack, and is about to join her friend Dorothy for a night in the ticket queue in leafy SW19. But, in two weeks' time, all the excitement and interest will fade and, once again, that same housewife won't even be able to recall who is Britain's number one female player (no, it's not Sue Barker but the equally level-headed Elena Baltacha).

Baltacha, or Bally as she's known by everyone around her, has a career which like the vast majority of tour professionals, does not revolve round the glamour of Grand Slam tournaments. Instead her life is a constant quest to succeed in a cauldron of competitiveness that makes the Big Brother house look serene. One player, trying to explain the pressure to me, starts an earnest analogy along the lines of writing an important exam every other day, except there's someone hanging over your shoulder as you write shouting "wrong!" at your every mistake - she then refuses to let me use her name in case her views are seen as a hint of weakness.

Life on the professional tennis circuit roughly deconstructs as airport, hit balls, hotel, hit balls, play match, hit balls, airport... it's Tuesday so it must be Doha. The majority of women on the World Tennis Association tour live out of a suitcase 45 weeks a year and are seldom in one place for longer than a few days. Tennis is such a fundamental part of their identity, however, that few seem able to contemplate any other life.

Yet the British coach Nigel Sears, who trains the 22-year-old Slovakian Daniela Hantuchova, ranked 22nd in the world, warns against seeing the girls as automatons. "There are as many personalities in that locker room as there are out in the real world," he says, nodding towards the players' lounge at this year's DFS Classic at the Edgbaston Priory Club in Birmingham. "You can't generalise; they've got different backgrounds, different motivations," he adds.

Yet for young female tennis players, many of them fresh-faced teenagers, there are a few commonly shared issues. The first is the presence of parents who act as chaperones. And necessary ones at that.

"Since Anna [Kournikova]," says Sears, "it's gone crazy. There are these men out there old enough to be the girl's father sending her gifts and letters... my son told me there are fan sites on the internet for Dani that have hate sections about me." I ask him if it bothers Hantuchova and he says no, she's just very careful.

"There are some nutters out there," says another top coach. "You should see some of the guys who follow people like Maria [Sharapova] and Dani around the world... the girls need to be looked after; particularly the young ones. The parents can be a pain in the arse, but they couldn't just let their daughters fend for themselves on the tour," he adds, shaking his head as he contemplates the kind of men he has seen hanging round the women's tennis circuit. *

In part, this is a reflection of the increasing pressure on the female players to look like models, to play on their sexual appeal - especially if they are after lucrative marketing deals. Even Ace, the British game's leading publication, has just published its list of the 10 "hottest" tennis stars, men and women.

Players such as Karolina Sprem from Croatia, currently ranked 28th in the world, and Gisela Dulko, the young Argentinean ranked 37th, have built up huge followings that have little to do with on court performance.

On the whole, the coaches I meet are cautious of talking on the record about the role of tennis parents for fear of getting caught up in the controversy raging around the veteran coach and tennis guru Nick Bollettieri's recent criticism of Maria Sharapova's father, Yuri. In an interview, Bollettieri said that 60 per cent of parents are detrimental to their children's tennis career and cited Yuri Sharapova as a particular problem because of what Bollettieri views as the father's interference in the young star's game.

There are, however, notable exceptions to * the difficult parent syndrome: Olga Baltacha and Christine Truman, mothers to Britain's current number one and two players, Elena Baltacha and Amanda Janes, respectively.

Olga Baltacha was a top-class athlete, while Christine won the 1959 French Open at Roland Garros and was runner up at Wimbledon, so they understand the demands of top-level sport. Both agree that some parents need to learn when to let go and Olga is clearly satisfied that Bally is surrounded by the right people - her coaches Alan Jones and Jo Durie. She's also fortunate that her daughter is so mentally strong and well adjusted. "I don't believe in sports psychologists," she tells me with that conviction that only a 21-year-old can muster. "How can someone else tell you what you think? You should know!" You can't help but like her.

The same goes for the Zimbabwean Cara Black, although she has a few more years and three Grand Slam doubles titles under her belt. Last year she won the Wimbledon women's and mixed doubles. "I didn't sleep for three days," she says, laughing at the memory, "but after a few weeks back to reality the high starts to wear off."

Black says she has contemplated retirement, but when I press her it's obvious that she doesn't have a plan for life after tennis and neither do any of the other players that I talk to. It seems that, despite the pressures, these women play tennis because they love the game - oh, and the thought of the odd million or two in the bank helps, of course.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Sport
Jonatahn Sexton scores a penalty
rugby
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
weird news
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?