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.

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