Psycho parents smash frailties all over court

Here's a fantasy match-up of fruit-loop tennis parents.

Here's a fantasy match-up of fruit-loop tennis parents. Up one end is "Mad Mike" Agassi, whose infamous home-made ball machine (aka "the dragon") gave his son Andre the grounding to become one of the greats and with it a lifelong hatred of tennis. Up the other is Peter Graf, "the German Mike Agassi", who designed his daughter Steffi to be a tennis Mercedes-Benz, while skimming enough fringe benefits to end up in scandal sheets and, for two years, prison. Agassi-Graf, immovable tormentor versus irresistible embezzler.

The craziest thing is that it did happen. As Andre recounted in his memoir, Open, the "unavoidable moment" happened after he and Steffi had fallen in love. The clash of the in-laws lived up to its billing. As Mike Agassi demonstrated the dragon, he and Graf began trading insults. Eventually Graf took off his shirt and the two men shaped up with raised fists until Andre broke them apart. Later, he wrote, his margarita "[n]ever tasted so good".

So Bernard Tomic's father John, this week banned from the professional tennis circuit after head-butting Bernard's hitting partner Thomas Drouet, inherits a rich tradition. Of course, there are soccer mums and football dads and the frothing adult psychos lining every sports field every Saturday morning. But for sheer lunacy, all kneel down before the tennis parent.

Some parents might chastise their kids for failing, but only a Damir Dokic could cause his daughter to go into hiding and change nationality. Sporting mums and dads may not trust their offspring's ability to handle money, but it takes tennis psychos, such as the parents of Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, to steal half her earnings. Parents may discipline their child for sneaking some junk food, but only a Roland Jaeger, father of the US tennis prodigy Andrea, would lock her out of the apartment the night before a Wimbledon final, after finding a chip packet. (Jaeger claimed she threw the final, against Martina Navratilova, whose door she had knocked on the previous night for help. Jaeger later became a nun.)

Nearly everyone gets mad watching sport, but tennis has a prominent, if not unique, capacity to bring homicidal impulses to the surface: here's Mary Pierce's father Jim screaming, "Kill the bitch!"; there's Yuri Sharapov, slitting his throat towards a rival of Maria's.

If not homicide, then coachicide. Lleyton Hewitt's parents have chewed their way through unsatisfactory mentors as relentlessly as their son ate up short balls on his backhand. Caroline Wozniacki's latest coach, Ricardo Sanchez, lasted two months before quitting, unable to work under her father Piotr's "system". The coach often serves the same function as a lamb invited to a family barbecue.

The essence of the tennis parent, however, is to bypass the coach altogether. Some of the most notorious tennis dads, such as Jaeger, Stefano Capriati, Richard Williams and Walter Bartoli, have also been coaches. Their progenitrix - the parent of all tennis parents - was Gloria Connors, mother of eight-time Grand Slam winner Jimmy; Jimmy's memoir, The Outsider, is published this Tuesday. A policeman's daughter and former highly ranked junior, Gloria began building a backyard tennis court while still pregnant with Jimmy. When she hit balls past him, she taunted: "See, even your mother will do that to you!"

At 16, Jimmy beat her for the first time and apologised. She cried, "No, this is the happiest day of my life." Gloria taught Jimmy to loathe his opponents, but still retained a good relationship with him. Her philosophy went to the heart of what makes tennis parents different. "It's us versus them, kid. Get it? Everyone's out to get us and, yeah, by the way, I'm the only one who's got your back."

Tennis is a peculiar sport, from a parent's point of view, because their child is alone on court. Every protective instinct is activated. Tennis parents are called on to make huge contributions in money and time, all for a sport where results can hang on millimetres.

Sometimes it can become too much. A rare "true confession" from a repentant tennis parent was written 22 years ago by Sherreen Appel, a Floridian parent of an elite boy player. "I remember one of Jason's first tournaments as a 10-year-old ... He hit every ball short and got clobbered. As soon as he got in the car, I screamed as loud as I could, 'Deep. D-E-E-P. Do you need a dictionary?' I scared the heck out of my kid and continued to yell and scream the whole way home, while he cried." Appel saw the light and quit as Jason's coach.

Recognising the problem, Tennis Australia provides an eight-part course for parents, providing guidance on "ugly parent syndrome", coaching, sibling rivalry, and, most importantly, "failure". USA Tennis' parents guide, chock-full of "Don'ts", says: "Don't use your child's success in tennis to fill your own unmet needs for success and recognition. This is a fairly common mistake parents make that can have tragic consequences. It is easy to get so wrapped up in your child's activities that you forget it is his or her life and not yours."

Tennis Australia's guide says: "It is well documented within elite sport that the most successful athletes are those that have positive role models." There are too many exceptions to that for it to be fully believable, but in tennis heaven there is a hall of fame for the Federers, the Samprases, the Stosurs, the Rafters and the many others who have remained supportive and invisible.

It's been suggested that Tomic should now sack his father. This brings to mind Josef Stalin's threat to Lenin's widow Nadya Krupskaya, that if she kept criticising him he would find a new Lenin's widow to replace her. John Tomic, who must face a Spanish judge this month, has more serious problems than whether he can shout at his son from courtside. He has reportedly claimed he head-butted Drouet in self-defence. Given the history, is being a tennis parent itself a mitigating circumstance?

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