Wimbledon `99: Some kids do have 'em

The tennis player whose stoic, single-minded pursuit of success seems so admirable is often the product of a stoic, single-minded parent. Gerard Wright in Denver on hands that rock the cradle
Click to follow
The Independent Online
LATE JUNE, 1997. Mark Philippoussis, the tournament's seventh seed and newly minted champion at Queen's, has just lost in the first round at Wimbledon to Greg Rusedski. A Sunday newspaper in Philippoussis's home town of Melbourne, Australia, has announced that Nick Philippoussis, father of Mark, has Hodgkins Lymphoma, a form of cancer.

At the post-match press conference, Philippoussis is asked if his performance was in any way affected by the now public knowledge of his father's condition. A grandee from the All England Club's Ministry of Truth, sitting alongside Philippoussis, rules the question out of order, on the grounds that it has nothing to do with tennis.

This, of course, was nonsense. Anyone who ever had a child or a parent, and a working knowledge of tennis history both recent and more distant would understand the relevance of the query.

Think Gloria Connors or Melanie Molitor, Stefano Capriati or Emmanuel Agassi. The relationship they had with their children helped shape tennis as we know it, for better and worse. It was not just parent-child, but coach-athlete, beneficiary- benefactor, and, not to put too fine a point on it, master-slave.

Like no other sport, the hands that rock these cradles rule this tiny world. The tennis player whose stoic, single-minded pursuit of success seems so admirable, is often the product of a stoic, single-minded parent.

Gloria Connors diverted the emotional and physical energy that might otherwise have gone into a listless, unsatisfactory marriage in down-and- out East St Louis, Illinois, into the coaching and development of her second son, Jimmy, the streetfighter of the Seventies and Eighties, now playing the game's equivalent of the cabaret circuit.

"I taught him to be a tiger on the court," Gloria Connors once told American tennis writer, Peter Bodo. "Even when he was really little, I would hit the ball down his throat if he gave me the opportunity. Then I would call him up to the net and tell him, `Jimmy? Your own mother will do that to you. Everybody will do that to you if they have the chance'."

Melanie Molitor divorced her husband Karolj Hingis, when their daughter Martina was four. Four years later she left Slovakia to live in Switzerland and gave her child the upbringing she had in mind when she first named her. When Martina won her first Grand Slam title, the Australian Open, in January 1997, her father watched her on television, early in the morning, from his small apartment in Kosice, Slovakia, a veritable stranger to his daughter's life.

Emmanuel Agassi had three unsuccessful attempts to develop a protege who would play tennis his way. They were his children, Rita, Phillip and Tami. On the fourth try he got it right. The result was one of only five winners of all the Grand Slam titles, the player who could almost single- handedly resurrect the faltering status of men's tennis: Andre Agassi. This makes the senior Agassi, who now answers to "Mike", a masterful coach but perhaps, too, a remorseful parent. "The real sacrifice was Andre's childhood," he said, in reference to his methods and their impact on his son, in an interview four years ago.

In their heart of hearts, it is a lament that would be shared by many tennis parents. The task, on the face of it, is a difficult one: to pour heart, soul, time and money into the development of a precocious talent that may or may not mat-ure into greatness. Then, when that talent begins to bloom, to step back and hand its care and nurturing over to someone more qualified. All too often, that does not happen. As the American sports psychologist Jim Loehr notes the results of this can be painful for everyone. "There's a lot of people who can coach your son or daughter, but no one else who can be a parent," he said. "You just can't run the risk of getting the two hopelessly entwined. Then you lose as a coach and as a parent."

The best example of this lives alone in the steamy heat of South Florida. Jim Pierce has had little to do with his daughter Mary these past six years, ever since she broke free after the 1993 French Open and was granted a court restraining order to end what she said was repeated verbal and physical abuse.

"I'm so sorry I ever heard of tennis, because it cost me my family," Pierce, now 63, said in a magazine interview two years ago. "I spent years grooming her. Now she's got $4m in the bank and I don't even have enough to fill up my tank at the gas station." Jim Pierce's legacy to the game is the rule that was unofficially named for him, which allows the WTA Tour to remove vexatious parents from a tournament site.

It came into play 12 days ago at the DFS tournament in Birmingham, in a bizarre incident involving Damir Dokic, the father of Serbian-born Australian, Jelena Dokic. The senior Dokic was ejected from the tournament site for shouting obscenities during his daughter's match, then threw himself on to a nearby road. It was not the first time the father of 16-year-old Dokic has come to the attention of tennis officials.

In January last year, at a junior tournament in Melbourne, he was spoken to by police after witnesses saw him assault his daughter in their motel room. Jelena declined to press charges. A juvenile protection official who spoke to her shortly after the beating said she was chilled by the calm and apparent indifference with which Jelena answered questions about it.

This episode occurred after Dokic had lost a match at the tournament, a lead-up to the Australian junior titles, held during the second week of the Australian Open. After reaching the third round of this year's Open in her Grand Slam debut, Dokic is now ranked 131 in the world.

For some parents, defeat seems to be an act of defiance by their child, or at least repudiation. They take it personally, as happened in the locker room at Flushing Meadow, immediately after last year's US Open final between Australians Pat Rafter and Mark Philippoussis. Mark's father Nick, 12 months into remission from his cancer, was already seething at what he perceived to be favouritism by Australian Davis Cup coach Tony Roche against his son, and at Rafter, who won the final in four sets.

Instead of post-match consolations for Mark, who had just played his first Grand Slam final, there were recriminations. "Answer me now! Answer me now!" he demanded angrily, at one point. "That was silly," his son replied in a chastened child's voice. "That was silly." They live together now, in Florida, the English-speaking world's refuge for tennis players and golfers of every stripe.

It is a haven, too, for Mirjana Lucic. The former Croatian prodigy (a bizarre summary of a 17-year-old's career, but she is ranked 156 in the world) fled her home in Zagreb, and her father Marinko, who had overseen her training at sites as far-flung as Texas and Sydney, in July last year. Again, the stated cause for this departure was a father's violence towards his daughter. Lucic senior has denied his daughter's allegations.

Throughout the French Open, Lucic was accompanied by two bodyguards. She now lives in Florida with her mother, two sisters and a brother, but, according to one source who has irregularly dealt with her, refuses to tell anyone her exact location there.

For every dozen or so worst-case scenarios like the above, there is a best-case one. Since this is tennis, however, and not a fairy tale, it does not have a happy ending. Karolj Seles was a man of little English and great kindness. He drew cartoons for a living before emigrating with his family to the United States from Serbia in the hope that his daughter's game could flourish in, where else, Florida. The creation of Monica Seles's game and career seemed to have taken place with the same subtle yet effective brushstrokes. Requests for Karolj's autograph were granted with a signature and a smiling, comic-book face.

Loehr knew the Seles family well. "He was as good as anyone I've ever seen," he said of Karolj Seles. "He understood. He wasn't obsessed with her being a great champion. He took care of her as a human being first, and everything else was second." Through her very presence in women's tennis, Seles remains an object lesson in strength of mind, character and upbringing, as well as, needless to say, success. The man who could have written (and illustrated) the book on the subject died in April last year.