Wanted: Insane Tennis Parents
The only way to end America's Grand Slam drought.
For a long time, the USTA seemed to recognize that its role in developing American champions was to stand aside and leave the training to parents and Svengali coaches like Nick Bollettieri and Rick Macci. (In 1987, Bollettieri's finishing school had an astonishing 32 players in the main draw of Wimbledon.) But in 1986, with Connors and John McEnroe aging and no obvious American successors on the scene, a panicked USTA launched its player-development program. (Disclosure: I worked for the USTA for a few years during and after college.) The methods—an infusion of money to support new regional training centers and national coaches—will sound familiar to anyone who followed last year's renovation. Since that first attempt at resuscitation, the development program has been defined not by its production of Grand Slam champions (zero) but by the continual formulation of new plans: The department was revamped in 1995, 2001, 2003, and 2008.
While the bloated, bureaucratic USTA sputtered, tennis parents continued to spawn champions. Leading the way was Mike Agassi, a self-described "crazy Iranian from Las Vegas who browbeat his kids into mastering tennis." Mike indoctrinated his son Andre by hanging a tennis ball over his crib and taping a pingpong paddle to his hand. Stefano Capriati boasted that his daughter Jennifer was doing sit-ups as a baby and had a racket in her hand as soon as she could walk. Though Jim Pierce had no tennis background, he pulled daughter Mary out of school to train her full-time, working her up to eight hours a day, sometimes until midnight. He also punched a spectator at the 1993 French Open and was so unruly that he led the women's tour to add a provision for the banning of abusive players, coaches, and relatives. (In an act of solidarity, Richard Williams later called him "one of the best parents I have ever known.")
The approaches of these tennis tyrants may have been objectionable and the psychological damage they inflicted on their children immense. Nevertheless, these parents had a plan, and they stuck to it. They spent time and money and energy and didn't have to clear their decisions with a committee, answer to a board of directors (or even their spouses), or worry about overtraining or being fair to other players. And the expectations they put on their children, however misguided or unrealistic, originated from a resolute belief in their ability to become champions. Richard Williams' biggest achievement is not teaching his daughters how to hit forehands and backhands but inculcating them with, in the words of 1990 Wimbledon finalist Zina Garrison, the "strength, confidence, and arrogance you need to become the top player in the world."
It's no surprise that the USTA would try to cultivate star players—the organization doesn't have much to gain from acknowledging that it has nothing to do with producing Grand Slam winners. The reality, though, is that rational coaches and trainers with sensible development plans can never compete with the designs of an obsessed parent. The success of self-taught tennis players turned coaches such as Williams, Capriati, and Bollettieri—the famed coach didn't pick up a racket until college—reveals that it doesn't take long-tenured gurus and well-structured organizations to teach the game. Tennis consists of only a handful of basic strokes and strategies. As such, parents who wouldn't dare try to teach, say, golf can read a book, watch a few videos, and give capable instruction. What separates the best players from their peers isn't superior teaching. It's maniacal devotion.
It's no accident that three of ESPN's 10 worst sports relatives (Dokic, Pierce, and Peter Graf) are tennis parents. The ugly truth is that for the United States to produce another Andre Agassi or Venus Williams, some crazed dad is going to have to add his name to that list. In its quest to develop a new generation of champions, the USTA would do well to remember the words of Robert Lansdorp, the former coach of Sampras and Lindsay Davenport. "The basic principle is the same," he said. "Every person who has made it in this game, Americans or foreign, it has been the parents who were behind it."