Wimbledon 2013: The problem of pushy tennis parents
Posted by Dean Holden at September 24th, 2013
by Ben Dirs, 2 July 2013
We’ve all been there as kids: standing on the field of play, staring across in disbelief at the psychotic father exploding on the sidelines.
The psychotic father who thinks his son or daughter will play for England but is barely good enough to make the school team. And you thank your lucky stars that you’re not that father’s child.
Tennis has had its fair share of pushy and punchy parents down the years, so that sometimes you wonder why anyone in Britain would want its ‘crisis’ in the sport to end. If this is what it takes to produce world-class players, then maybe it would be best if the ‘crisis’ continued.
“It’s a huge issue on the junior circuit,” says former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash. “Parents being very aggressive, very abusive, cheating. Tennis Australia has even had campaigns to try to prevent it.”
“My son was playing Under-12s tennis last year,” says Richard Krajicek, Wimbledon champion in 1996, “and there were a few really bad cheats.
“My son got upset and I told him that although his opponent was a friend, he’d rather have problems with you than lose the match and have problems at home.”
Krajicek knows how Bernard Tomic, whose father John was recently charged with headbutting his son’s hitting partner before the Madrid Open and banned by the ATP Tour, feels.
As a result, John Tomic was absent from Wimbledon this year, to Bernard’s obvious annoyance. “It’s all the ATP’s fault,” he said. “They know I’m not on their side, I’m on my dad’s side.”
Upset by what he believed to be his father’s unreasonable behaviour during his formative years, Krajicek did not speak to him for a decade between the ages of 20 and 30. He won Wimbledon when he was 24.
“If I didn’t practice well my dad made me run home behind the car,” says Krajicek. “Once, he was upset with me and he spanked me pretty good. I’d just come back from the States and he didn’t know about jetlag, he thought I tanked the match, that I didn’t try.
“A few days later he said to me, ‘I’ve heard about this jetlag, I shouldn’t have done it – but all the other times you deserved it.’
“I understand what Tomic is saying about his father – he’s still your dad and you love him. And maybe if you want to be a good player it is the way to be, the way my dad did it.
“Maybe the way I approach it now, my son is going to have a good relationship with me but he’s going to be a terrible tennis player.”
Pushy parents are more usually associated with the women’s side of the game. The father of Suzanne Lenglen, who won eight Grand Slam singles titles between 1919 and 1926, provided the template, forcing her to repeatedly hit a handkerchief pinned to a court from the age of 10.
Mary Pierce’s father, Jim, once shouted “Mary, kill the bitch!” while watching his daughter playing in a junior match. “Maybe I’m trying to live my youth now,” he said later, at least admitting what many wouldn’t, namely that he was living out his dreams vicariously through his talented daughter.
The promising career of Jelena Dokic was hindered by her father, Damir, whom she claims mentally and physically abused her.
In 2009, Damir was imprisoned for threatening the Australian ambassador to Serbia with a rocket launcher. John Tomic seems like a soft touch in comparison.
“This stuff rarely reaches the ATP Tour,” says Cash, “because usually the guys get to an age where they can say, ‘back off’. But Tomic is a rare case of a guy whose dad is still coaching him .
“The ATP has no option other than to say that this type of behaviour is not going to go on. They have a duty to protect Bernard.”
Jelena Dokic and her controversial father Damir
American coach Nick Bollettieri has encountered so many crazed parents down the years that he should start a sideline in family counselling.
“Having mum and dad so closely involved is not the most productive route to success,” he says. “Too close a relationship in terms of sport, more often than not, proves a negative.”
Bollettieri, however, is keen to point out that sometimes a close relationship works, citing Serena and Venus Williams’s mother Oracene and father Richard – “I never once heard him raise his voice” – as prime examples.
And it should not be forgotten that there are countless examples of parents of successful players who are content to remain in the shadows, opting for stoic support and firm but gentle persuasion.
“My mum did absolutely everything for me to enable me to achieve my dreams and I really appreciate how much she sacrificed,” says women’s world number two Victoria Azarenka, whose mother follows her career from a distance.
“I didn’t feel like I was going to let them down, because they would be proud of me no matter what. But I wanted the opportunity to make a better life for me and for them. It was personal, they’d done such a good job.”
Which perhaps partly explains why the eternal ‘crisis’ in British tennis continues: not necessarily because there aren’t enough pushy parents on the British scene, but because the British scene is so comfortable.
“There have been plenty of examples where parents have really pushed an individual and that isn’t so healthy,” says former British number one Tim Henman. “In an ideal world, the passion and the drive should come from the player.”
Wimbledon 2013: The parents behind the tennis stars’ success