That’s setting a high bar for parenting.
And, unhappily, it is far too high for far too many tennis parents who, instead guiding their off spring to fame, titles and fortune actually destroy those hopes by believing they know best and refusing to step aside to allow experts to pick up the reins.
“You see it all the time and it’s tragic,” yet another veteran coach who has worked with top ten players was telling me at Wimbledon this week. “Yes, you have to be strict and you have push but you also need to know how and when and you have to realize it’s their career, not yours.”
I have lost count of the number of times I have heard people who know what they are talking about utter the same sentiments. And the spotlight is only thrown on the problem when we get a headline-making example such as Bernard Tomic’s father, John, has offered up this week.
Tomic’s attack on Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tyley and Patrick Rafter, the head of development, in press conference after he lost to Novak Djokovic in the third round was so gratuitously insulting that he left the authorities no option but to dismiss him from the Davis Cup squad that will be playing Kazakhstan in Darwin next week.
And the saddest thing is that John Tomic, infuriated at having his son’s funding taken away because, according to Tennis Australia, of his own behavior, seems to have put the words into his son’s mouth. I have it on good authority that Mr Tomic was heard using the same phrases to describe Tennis Australia officials while talking to Bernie the night before.
Tomic, of course, has long been known as a firebrand parent, even before he punched a photographer in Madrid. And while acknowledging that his son has much to thank him for during his early years, his actions can be seen as nothing but a hindrance now.
Australia has not been lucky with first generation parents who seemed to find it difficult to fit into the Aussie way of doing things. Mark Philippoussis’s father was often at logger heads with Tennis Australia and, of course Jelena Dokic’s father ended up in jail back in Serbia. There have been too many other examples in other countries and one shudders to think of the number of promising kids who never even got as far as playing top level tournaments because of the way their parents treated them.
I know how difficult it is and have spoken to numerous Moms and Dads at tennis academies in Florida who are clearly stressed out over the best way to manage a child with obvious tennis talent. It might seem easy to step back and hand over to a coach but that can be emotionally hard as well as financially difficult. And there are far too many examples of parents succeeding with the hands on approach to suggest that stepping aside is always the right path to take.
Yulia Maleeva somehow managed to emerge from Bulgaria in the eighties and produce THREE daughters, all of whom ended up with a top ten ranking. It wasn’t easy on her or Manuela, Katerina and Maggie because she drove them hard. The eldest two were unkindly referred to as Boo and Hoo on the tour when they were young because they were often in tears. But there is no doubt that they owed their success to their mother.
Martina Hingis who, incredibly, was No 1 in the world at the age of sixteen, was drilled day after day by her mother until she had such an instinctive idea of which shot to hit from which particular section of the court that she was able to outwit players with far greater firepower. The rising Swiss star Belinda Bencic is now benefiting from Melanie Molitor’s work ethic and Martina’s knowledge of court craft.
Caroline Wozniaki’s Dad was a soccer player but he learned enough about the game to bring her up as a tennis player and Caroline keeps going back to him after trying brief and not so successful attempts to be coached by someone else.
Each relationship is different and each young player requires handling in a certain way, depending on their talent,
physical attributes and emotional makeup. Young bodies have to be treated with care and parents who demand four and five hours a day on court are just asking for trouble. Apart from the danger of mental burn out, a growing body just can’t take it.
But Richard and Oracene, while pushing the girls hard, never did that. Venus and Serena pleaded to be allowed to play more tournaments but were told “School first.” They had also wanted to play junior tournaments but, in a conversation I had with Oracene several years ago, she told me, “We took the girls out of junior tournaments for the three years before they played on the WTA tour because we just didn’t like the bitchy, back-biting atmosphere. It wasn’t a race problem. We just didn’t want our daughters around those sort people.”
No one would suggest that depriving young players of junior competition is a good idea but, after seeing their daughters win 27 Grand Slam singles titles between them, who is to say Richard and Oracene Williams weren’t right?
Further proof seemed to be provided when the sisters stepped on to Centre Court to play each other for the 26th time in the fourth round of a tournament they have won five times each. They played a good match; Serena, being the better player won 6-4, 6-3 and, in press conference afterwards, the love and respect they share survived all attempts to make them suggest they found something wrong with each other.
Serena jokingly said she didn’t like Venus’s dog but then added, “I always say I wouldn’t be the player I am today if it wasn’t for Venus. “She does nothing wrong. She’s like the perfect sister.”