A finalist at Wimbledon and Roland Garros in the early 1980s; hated on the tour for her insolence and fiery temperament, Andrea Jaeger has now converted as a nun in a Dominican church in the United States. Her divine mission? Helping children with cancer through her own foundation. Sister Andrea: the story of a bold path between prayers, Mercedes, lashes and Cindy Crawford.
Christmas 2012: a few children suffering from cancer are squabbling in the corridors of a huge estate of 90 hectares, in Colorado, USA. As a ritual, in every room, the most daring sing Over The Rainbow, one of the most famous American songs of the late 1930s. The plaintive melody and its simple lyrics tell the story of a teenager's desire to escape from the "hopeless mess" of this world, of the sadness of the raindrops, to a new world full of colour, "over the rainbow". This story is also that of Sister Andrea, the owner and director of the Silver Lining Foundation, which, for twenty years, has been to taking care of these young sick kids. The amazing story of a nun born on the 4th of June 1965 in Chicago, to a fiercely atheist family, and who, in her youth, made it to the final of Roland Garros in 1982 and Wimbledon in 1983, losing out to Martina Navratilova both times. At the time, no player was so precocious. At 14 years and eight months old, she already was among the world's top twenty. "I had the insolence of youth" explains Andrea Jaeger, her full name. Indeed, when the player wasn't arguing with the referees and the spectators, Andrea was squabbling with her elders. In 1982, the one her opponents called "The Kid" even accused Martina Navratilova during a press conference of having received technical advice from Renee Richards, her coach, during her famous Roland Garros final, such aid being against the rules. At this point, Andrea was only 17 years old. She was a beautiful schoolgirl, proud of her long blonde quilts, and a rather good student, who enjoyed provoking young boys. Her trick? To keep telling them that "even a girl is able to crush them in sport,” she revealed in an interview for Tennis Magazine two years ago. “I must admit that I like it, but I had a lot of trouble: fights, insults, things like that. But now I can't do these things anymore because I'm fifteen. I'm a grown up."
Wimbledon: the bra and the lash
Grown up or not, this teenage girl, who didn't smile much, seemed quite stressed. Her father, Roland, a German bricklayer and former boxer, had a large part in it. Roland Jaeger was a gruff character, to say the least. "My father was born in Germany before the war, it was another time, another education, another discipline,” she said in 2003 in the columns of the Daily Mail. “He grew up with belt lashes, he wanted to teach me his strange conception of morality and values." To do so, the father corrected his daughter for any excess, including a few minutes before her Wimbledon final in 1983: "In my hotel, my father saw an empty packet of crisps that was lying on the ground. I thought he would grab his belt. So, I apologized, I grabbed my bra, my wallet and ran outside." In the hallway of the hotel, Andrea desperately sought refuge. She knocked on the room next to hers. One knock, then two, and she ended up waking up the entire floor. Finally, someone opened: Nancy Lieberman, Navratilova's coach. "Martina stood there in her living room without moving. She gave me a very brief cold stare to mean that I had interrupted her preparation. Immediately I said, 'Damn, I broke her routine and disturbed her. Before the match, someone came to hand me a towel and I said, 'No thank you, I'm not going to sweat today’. Anyway, out of respect or something like that, I let my opponent win the title." After the match, the Czechoslovak champion was showing off the trophy to the photographers' flashbulbs and the audience applause. "But God knows the truth. I wrote to Martina three years ago (2000, Ed) to tell her the story, but I never got an answer. If I had fully pushed myself, would I have won? Again, I don't have the answer." Andrea's sporting adventure took a final turn on the centre court at Roland Garros, in a first round match against Jamie Golder, another American. At just19, she injured her shoulder on an innocuous backhand, left the match and ended her career. A total of seven operations couldn't change anything: "This injury was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was the choice of God who guided me to sick children "
Prayers, Mercedes and Cindy Crawford
After her injury, her relationship with her father became unbearable. Andrea Jaeger ended up breaking off all ties, until his death. "But we made peace before the end" she said. As a young retiree, she was a staple of many sports psychology textbooks, which described her as a depressive, overwhelmed by a strange inferiority complex. In fact, Andrea just never liked the universe and the competitiveness of high-level sport: "The second pro tournament I played in my career, I was 14 and I beat a few seeds, among them Wendy Turnbull, who offered me a bottle of wine to congratulate me on my victory, and asked me for a corkscrew. I thought: 'Oh, is she making fun of me? Maybe I've upset her? What have I done wrong? This lack of confidence, it was pathetic." Her health concerns put a premature end to her career, but now left her all the time necessary to carry out her new mission, well supported by its main donors: John McEnroe, Muhammad Ali, Monica Seles and former supermodel Cindy Crawford, a long-time friend. "I had millions of dollars. I had a Mercedes Benz at 17. Who needs a Mercedes Benz at 17 years old? I sold it at 19, kept the money aside and used it to buy toys for children in hospitals." For the last 20 years then, Andrea gave everything to her cause, starting with herself. Thus, on September 16, 2006, at age 41, Andrea took the cloth in a Dominican church in the United States. A mission for which, as in tennis, it is best to train hard: up every day at 4 am, five hours of daily prayer and a ban on taking public transport. "Sometimes I wear the religious habit, but it all depends on what I do,” she says. “Because it's uncomfortable, and it gets dirty very quickly. Once I got out of a bus and the left half of my dress got stuck in the door. A nice gift for the driver..." Despite these logistical problems, Sister Andrea is still the head of the charity today, where she looks after 4,000 children this year. And this summer, once again, on her large estate in Aspen, she will have a busy schedule. In addition to a permanent medical facility, they will open children tutoring, white-water rafting, horse riding and even tennis lessons. Tennis lessons? "When people ask me if I miss tennis, my answer is always the same: no regrets. God wanted me to do something else, and so I came to help sick children. I love what I do. And God does too."
By Victor Le Grand