The term “tennis parent” usually comes with a silent (or perhaps not so silent) “pushy” as a prefix. So many tennis parents, from Damir Dokic to Jim Pierce, have proven themselves to be almost uncontrollable while watching their children play that it is sometimes assumed that all tennis parents are just as appalling. But this week, in a fascinating BBC radio programme on the difficulties of raising children to become tennis players, Judy Murray provided a necessary corrective to that stereotype.
The programme was called “Can You Create A Champion?” (The podcast is available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p062n8l2 and an accompanying article is available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/tennis/43486837) Ostensibly, it was about Ray Wood, a Briton who emigrated to Australia with the express intention of emulating Richard Williams and raising his daughters, Liv and Paloma, as tennis prodigies. Of course, for all Liv’s achievements—she is only nine but has already won a succession of tournaments at state level in Australia—it is absolutely impossible to know whether she will ever make it as a professional tennis player, let alone a Major winner. Consequently, the real interest in the show was in hearing Judy Murray, a tennis parent who has already proved that she can create champions, provide what amounted to a beginner’s guide to being a successful tennis parent.
Perhaps the most interesting point that emerged from the programme is that it is almost always just one parent who becomes involved in, if not instrumental to, their child’s development as a tennis player. Of course, Judy Murray divorced her husband and the father of Andy and Jamie–Willie–while her boys were still very young, so she was very much on her own as they began to show some serious sporting talent. However, even when the parents of a young tennis player remain together, it appears to be almost inevitable that one of them will take the main interest—one might even call it a controlling interest—in their child’s sporting development. For example, Oracene Williams may have given birth to Venus and Serena, but it was Richard Williams who first conceived of turning them into tennis players and then eventually coached them to become champions.
So, almost from the start a tennis parent can be isolated and the very nature of tennis, as an individual sport, only compounds that sense of isolation. As Judy Murray said, as a tennis parent she had to do “everything” for her two boys: coaching them, or at least finding them a coach; organising their schedules; and above all driving them around to tennis tournaments. By contrast, in a team sport such as football, a parent can almost become redundant in terms of their child’s development, given that there is usually a support structure specifically in place to provide all the coaching, organisation and transport that a young participant will need.
Nevertheless, for all that she oversaw her boys’ sporting development, Judy Murray did not make them focus on tennis to the exclusion of other sports. She proudly told tales of their achievements in football (Andy was offered a professional contract with Glasgow Rangers) and golf (Jamie had a handicap of just three when he was 16). She also stressed that when they had both decided to focus on tennis exclusively, it had been their own decision and not one that she had made for them. Indeed, this provided a major contrast with the approach of Ray Wood, who has already decided that Liv will concentrate on tennis at the expense of her other sporting interests, such as gymnastics. Indeed, the only other sport that she participates in regularly is athletics, and that is only to build her stamina for tennis. Again, in complete contrast, Judy maintained that Andy in particular had never had any such need to build up his core strength as he was already doing that by playing football.
Probably the most serious, if not downright dark, element of the programme was when the conversation strayed on to the thorny topic of pushy tennis parents, such as the aforementioned Damir Dokic, from whom his daughter Jelena is now estranged, and Jim Pierce, who infamously called out during one of his daughter Mary’s early matches, “Kill the bitch!” Judy Murray said that she had read Jelena Dokic’s autobiography, in which Jelena admitted to being mentally and even physically abused by her father, and said that such dreadful parental behaviour presented a problem for the sport of tennis as a whole, because, as she put it, “who can intervene” when there is a problem between a parent, who is also often a coach, and their child? She suggested that there should be some kind of official “body” that young tennis players could approach, even in anonymity, if they found themselves in such a situation.
Finally, what was perhaps most instructive about all of Judy Murray’s comments was that they were applicable to all parents, and not just tennis parents. The type of difficulties that she had experienced in bringing up Jamie and Andy were the kind of problems that almost all parents experience, especially if they have more than one child. She admitted to having made “mistakes” with Jamie, her older son, in particular sending him “down south” to England for training when he was only in his early teens, which he hated and which she did not repeat with Andy. And she also talked about the whole nature of sibling rivalry, insisting that Andy “owed” Jamie a great deal for his own development into a singles Major winner (Jamie, of course, has also won Majors, but as a doubles player). In particular, she said, Andy benefited enormously from regular exposure to a “lefty” in Jamie, which she directly attributed his enormous success against left-handed players to.
So, in honour of Judy Murray, who has virtually single-handedly been responsible for the revival of British tennis in the last decade, here, in brief, are “The Five Finest Tennis Parents”:
- Walter Bartoli
The real achievement of Marion’s dad, Walter, was not in coaching her all the way from her first picking up a racket at the age of six to her first Wimbledon final in 2007, when she lost to Venus Williams, but in deciding not to continue as her coach early in 2013. Instead, as if liberated by emerging from her father’s shadow and by receiving high-level instruction from Amélie Mauresmo, within six months Bartoli had won Wimbledon. Now, as she returns to the game after five years out, it is not entirely clear who her coach will be, but chances are that it will not be her father.
- John McEnroe, Sr.
It is easy to forget that the great tennis player, commentator and agent provocateur John is actually only John McEnroe Junior; it is his father who is the Senior John McEnroe. Although Dad was never officially Junior’s coach, he was instrumental in his development as a player, in particular enrolling him in the Eastern Lawn Tennis Association when he was only nine. Later, when John Junior was causing havoc at the Grand Slams, particularly Wimbledon, his father provided a contrastingly silent figure. And of course, John Junior was not the only professional tennis player in the family. Although younger brother Patrick never scaled the heights that John scaled in the singles game, like Jamie Murray he was an extremely accomplished doubles player, and won the 1989 French Open men’s doubles with the marvellously named Jim Grabb.
- Gloria Connors
Unlike John McEnroe’s dad, the mother of Jimmy Connors was also his coach for a large part of his career, especially the early stages, and he always attributed much of his success to her. Intriguingly, though, Jimmy could not replicate his mother’s achievements when he tried his hand at coaching. He only had short periods with both Andy Roddick and Maria Sharapova, and has not coached professionally since.
- Richard Williams
Richard Williams is the inspiration for Ray Wood and probably a million other tennis parents. His story is so astonishing that it deserves to be made into a Hollywood biopic, or at least a TV movie, and perhaps one day it will be, with Venus or Serena producing. He deliberately chose Oracene to be the mother of his children because of what he regarded as her impressive physical attributes. That was the one thing he couldn’t do himself, but everything else—especially coaching his two girls even as gunshots rang out around the lone tennis court in the notorious Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles where they lived—was down to him.
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- Judy Murray
Only Richard Williams and Judy Murray have raised not one but two World No. 1s, and although Jamie Murray only achieved that feat in doubles rather than singles, Judy just edges the title of “Top Tennis Parent” by virtue of having given birth to her two champions. Being a mere man, not even the great Richard Williams was capable of that.
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