"The greatest achievements of tennis are often crazy family projects," once said the former tennis player Georges Goven. It is true than in tennis more than elsewhere, the behaviour of fathers who bet everything on their progeny sometimes make miracles. Graff, Capriati, Williams and even Suzanne Lenglen, investigation in the privacy of the craziest families of the little yellow ball. For the best, but mostly for the worse...
1/ Jennifer and Stefano Capriati
"What I do, all the parents in the world would do it for their children." Stefano Capriati has always been convinced that his daughter Jennifer was a champion. "Feel it! We brought forth a future tennis star" he once said, while touching the belly of his wife. In a hurry, Stefano sent Jennifer Capriati on the professional tour at only... 14 years old! An early age? "When the fruit is ripe, it must be picked, answered the former spaghetti westerns stuntman. Children don't get caught, parents do." Result: victorious in junior at Roland Garros and at the junior U.S. Open, his teenage girl got committed to a young offenders centre in 1993, arrested for jewellery theft and drug possession. Bulimic and depressed, she talked in 2010: "I looked in the mirror and I was seeing a distorted image. I was fat and ugly, I couldn't stand my body. I wanted to kill myself".
2/ Mary and Jim Pierce
Because a friend took her at 10 years old on a tennis court, Mary Pierce soon food herself in front of a wall. A wall on which Jim, her father, drew an imaginary net in white chalk. "Dad was slapping me when I was losing a game. I entered the court as one takes the veil." Worse, during a routine junior tournament, her dear father was screaming from the stands to one of her opponents: "Kill the bitch, Mary!". She was only 17 when Cindy Hahn, an American journalist, ultimately revealed that Jim Pierce was none other than Bobby Glenn Pearce, an ex-convict sentenced for jewellery robbery and check forgery. One day, her father even threatened to kill her. Mary ended their relationship a few months later. Bobby then said: "I built a Ferrari. But I'm still waiting to get the keys back."
3/ Venus, Serena and Richard Williams
"Hello, I'm Richard Williams. There are people who wonder what I think of endogamy. So, any black person who doesn't get married to a person of the same race should be hanged by the neck until sunset. Leave a message after the beep." Yes, this was indeed the voice mail of Richard Williams in the 1990s. Since then, the father of Venus and Serena has been dragging his sweet madness across tennis tournaments around the world. As far as he was concerned, there wasn't any danger. But a mad desire to raise his daughters to stardom from this day in 1978 when he heard on television that the winner of a women's tournament will pocket a check for $30,000. Result: 22 Grand Slams won by his two daughters and many sponsorships worth millions. Mission accomplished. "I always speak as someone stupid. I like people to think I really am."
4/ Steffi and Peter Graf
"I tried to be honest, but honesty is not a one-way street." In the scrooge kind, Peter Graf, father and coach of Steffi at her debut, was sentenced to a year in jail in 1997 for failing to report his daughter gains in taxes. "Don't worry about me, I'm the best tax expert in Germany" he replied the day he was arrested. "When you know the possible effects of alcohol and drugs on somebody, yes, there are reasons to be angry," retorted brilliantly the German player. Ping-pong.
5/ Mirjana and Marinko Lucic
Thin Slavic of almost 6 feet, blonde, gaunt face, big hitter and close friend of Martina Hingis: Mirjana Lucic was the greatest Croatian hope of the 1990s. But she also was the victim of a long-term family drama. Behind the scenes, her father Marinko was constantly hitting her during her childhood. "Nobody can imagine the number of kicks I took, she revealed in 1999. Sometimes it was for a lost match. Sometimes for just one set." A year before her revelations, Mirjana decided to flee the family home, direction the United States. Penniless, of course, because Marinko has embezzled all of her first tournament winnings. Easy. "If I've ever slapped her, it's because her behaviour wasn't that of a well educated girl" he said. Too easy.
6/ Marion and Walter Bartoli
Self taught coach, personal physician, physical trainer, manager and father of the current best French player, Walter Bartoli has never touched a racquet in his life. Behind his small round glasses, this former family doctor abandoned his office ten years ago to look after his daughter's career. Since then, he's been building his own balls machines, sliding some under Marion's heels for her to stay on her tiptoes and made her play with children racquets to work her accuracy. The Bartoli structure is a particular family structure, it's a laboratory. "My style is what makes my strength and that's also why I'm very criticized, but I don't care” says the man. Especially when the French Tennis Federation, at the 2012 London Olympics, refused to select Marion Bartoli. The latter wanted to be accompanied by her father, which is prohibited by the regulations.
7/ Andrea and Roland Jaeger
Never in this sport a player was as precocious than Andrea Jaeger: at 14 years and eight months, the American and her famous pair of bunches were already ranked 19th in the world. Finalist at Roland Garros in 1982, the teenager, who didn't smile much, yet seemed to be under constant tension. Her father, Roland, a Swiss mason and former boxer, was probably the reason for it. Roland Jaeger, a gruff character to say the least. "One day I beat Martina Navratilova on grass at Eastbourne, but after the match my father saw an empty packet of crisps in my room that I wasn’t supposed to have, Andrea told the Daily Mail in 2008. Thinking he would get his belt out, I ran away. I then went to the hotel of Martina. I knocked on her door, I knocked, and knocked again. Fortunately for me, she opened. "
8/ Suzanne and Charles Lenglen
But damn, how to make of your daughter a tennis champion? Especially in the early twentieth century when the racquet sports were only a matter of gentlemen in their Sunday best. Mr Charles Lenglen, wealthy industrialist from northern France, had a little plan. Around Nice, where his family spent their winter holidays, he invented intensive training methods for Suzanne, his 10 years old daughter. Every day, at noon, she had to play tennis for an hour, and even took dance lessons every night to improve her suppleness and grace. The photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue, tennis enthusiast, said: "Every day, Mr Lenglen goes to the club to adjust the training of his daughter. We see how much he'd like to turn his daughter into a machine." Machine is the right word...
9/ Bernard and John Tomic
"I will show you that I will soon be the best player in the world." Big cars and pretty girls enthusiast, Bernard Tomic is certainly the greatest hope of Australian tennis. However, his relationship with his father, John Tomic, has always been extremely complicated. Even though everybody can acknowledge the technical work of John, his evil and brutal nature raises many questions. Even his own son is finding it more and more difficult to stand him. On March 24th, 2012, when David Ferrer eliminated him in Miami [6/4, 6/4], he asked the referee to expel this annoying father: "He bothers me. I know this is my father, but he really does bother me. I want him to leave if possible." Request granted.
10/ Jelena and Damir Dokic
"I can assure you of one thing. At the very least, 40% of the female tennis players are lesbians." Outstanding mathematician, Damir Dokic, father and coach of Jelena, Australian tennis player and former World 4th, deserves the end of the table of this family ranking. Always provocative, a Croatian war veteran and plums producer, this big guy made some noise in 2009 during a prison stay of 12 months for possession of illegal weapons: seven shotguns, a Beretta pistol and a few grenades are found at his home. "I’m a war veteran. I'll shoot her down in her car with my grenade launcher", he threatened the Australian ambassadress in Serbia, in response to Jelena's interview in the (Australian) magazine Sport & Style. Magazine in which she claims to have been abused by a "violent and alcoholic" father when she was not getting the desired results. After a few years of separation, the father-daughter duo eventually reformed in 2011 alongside Tin Bikic, coach and boyfriend of Jelena. A relief. "The lesbians? I couldn't stand it if Jelena proved to be one of them, said the father. I think I'd kill myself!"
By Victor Le Grand