Why insane parents are the only way to end America's tennis drought.

The stadium scene.
June 2 2009 11:37 AM

Wanted: Insane Tennis Parents

The only way to end America's Grand Slam drought.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

With Andy Roddick's loss at the French Open on Monday, American men have now failed to take the title in 22 straight Grand Slam tournaments, extending the longest dry spell in U.S. tennis history. This stretch of futility, coupled with a dearth of young talent on the women's side, prompted the United States Tennis Association to overhaul its player development system last year, introducing a host of initiatives such as regional residential training centers, a new roster of national coaches to scout and train prospects, and an increased budget (upward of $100 million over the next 10 years). The plan is comprehensive and ambitious, intended to produce the next Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, and Venus Williams. Unfortunately for the USTA, national organizations with comprehensive mission statements don't produce tennis champions. Crazy tennis parents do.

Consider the Williams sisters. As the story goes, their father, Richard, upon learning of the lucre that women's tennis offered, decided to make his next two kids into tennis pros. That his wife, Oracene, didn't want any more children was a minor obstacle—he simply hid her birth-control pills. He taught himself the game, coaching his protégés on rotten courts where their sessions were sometimes interrupted by gunfire before shipping them to a Florida tennis academy for refinement. While his girls racked up Grand Slams (17 singles titles and counting), he made headlines with his histrionic antics at tournaments, erratic ramblings, and general weirdness—he insisted on meeting his daughters' first hitting coach at a public carwash because he believed the FBI had bugged his car and house.

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Obsessive, overbearing, and downright insane parents are not a new phenomenon in tennis, nor are they uniquely American. Frenchwoman Suzanne Lenglen was the product of a taskmaster father who withheld jam for her bread if she practiced badly. Under Daddy Lenglen's tutelage, and occasionally fortified with the cognac-soaked sugar pieces he provided during matches, Lenglen won 31 Grand Slam titles between 1914 and 1926. In 2000, Jelena Dokic's father and coach, Damir, who has admitted to hitting Jelena ("for her sake"), achieved three legs of an ignominious Grand Slam, getting ejected from the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open. Since Jelena cut ties with him, he's threatened to kidnap her and drop a nuclear bomb on Australia, where his daughter now lives. Maria Sharapova's father, Yuri Sharapov, is currently so reviled for his cheating (blatant coaching during matches) and belligerence (making a throat-slitting gesture from the stands) that Anastasia Myskina refused to play in the Federation Cup if her countrywoman was named to the Russian team.

Why are so many tennis parents unhinged, and why are they so successful at incubating talent? While sociopathy—the utter lack of a conscience—undermines a society, it happens to be really useful on court. Florida-based sports psychologist John F. Murray likens the stress of the game to combat, and the late David Foster Wallace once wrote that tennis "is to artillery and airstrikes what football is to infantry and attrition." It's no coincidence that three notorious tennis fathers—Stefano Capriati, Mike Agassi, and Roland Jaeger—were trained as boxers. Great players reduce their opponents to targets that must be eliminated. This was the impulse Gloria Connors (the rare insane tennis mom) was encouraging when she taught her son Jimmy to try to knock the ball down her throat "because ... if I had the chance, I would knock it down his"; when Mike Agassi positioned Andre at midcourt and blasted him with close-range shots; when Jim Pierce screamed, "Kill the bitch!" during one of his daughter Mary's matches.

Arthur Ashe once remarked that if he didn't play tennis, he'd probably have to see a psychiatrist. After all, you have to be somewhat crazy to submit to the itinerant lifestyle and brutal competitiveness of professional tennis, where only about 10 percent of the ranked players break even. "If you want to win the French Open, which is like desert warfare, you better darn well have a Jim Pierce beating you into the ground ... so long as it's not abusive," says Murray, the sports psychologist. (For the record, Pierce was abusive. Mary claims he would slap her when she lost matches.) Murray also notes that the pathology of tennis parents often belies a certain genius, such as Charles Lenglen's decision to eschew the demure playing style of women in his time in favor of training Suzanne against men, and Gloria Connors' insistence on teaching Jimmy a two-fisted backhand in an era of one-handers.

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