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Tennis Survives Despite Parents

Steffi Graf wins the U.S. Open, becomes the third female to win tennis’ Grand Slam, and before she can celebrate by taking in a Broadway play, an East Side restaurant or even a breath of the Manhattan night air, she is dragged aboard a plane back home to Germany by her father. Graf calls it “one of the worst days of my life.”

Jennifer Capriati is pulled out of her junior high school classes, flown to Europe, told at 14 to endorse a skin-moisturizing cream because her father wants to wrinkle a few thousand-dollar bills and then prohibited from giving interviews until, her father decrees, “ my deals are done.”

Michael Chang is kicking back with his Junior Davis Cup teammates after a workout when his mother orders him to shower and change out of his sweaty clothes. Chang insists his clothes are fine and keeps talking. His mother reaches into his shorts, grabs his underwear and announces that they are “wet,” embarrassing Chang in front of his friends and prompting a quick exit.

What ails professional tennis most in the 1990s? After spending a year following the circuit, John Feinstein has compiled an exhaustive list in his new book, “Hard Courts,” denouncing the tournament guarantee fees that encourage players to tank matches, the weasel-like agents who mold a player’s image into whatever’s marketable at the moment, the obscene gobs of endorsement money that have forged an entirely different Grand Slam for this era--Nike, Ellesse, Ray-Ban and Yonex.

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But Feinstein reserves special wrath for the new-age version of the age-old problem, the tennis parent. It is worse than ever, Feinstein contends, because the money has spun out of control, turning the education of Junior’s backhand into a multimillion-dollar board game the entire family can enjoy.

“That’s the difference in the kids today and the mentality of Connors and McEnroe and Navratilova and Evert,” Feinstein says. “When they came up, they were taught that what you’re in the game for is to win Grand Slams. Now these kids are taught that what you’re in the game for is to get contracts. By parents, agents and, to a lesser degree, their coaches. ‘Well, you lost, but we got you a good patch deal.’ That’s the way it works.

“Jimmy and Chris didn’t turn pro when they were 14. They weren’t their parents’ meal ticket at any point in their lives. Their parents didn’t quit their jobs to travel around the world with them.

“Jennifer Capriati loses in Paris this year, to Conchita Martinez, who’s a very good player, especially on clay. She’s the seventh-ranked player in the world. And Stefano (Capriati’s father) storms off the bleachers in a rage, pushes his agent out of the way, pulls (his wife) away from a reporter. And here comes Jennifer, I’ll never forget, walking off the court, and she looks up at the bleachers for her parents. And they’re gone. Because Stefano had stormed out.”

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Feinstein’s book hits the Chang clan hard, portraying Betty Chang as “the ultimate tennis mother” who not only dislikes the media but is “disdainful of everyone.” Feinstein cites an unofficial ATP Tour staff poll, listing Betty and Joe Chang as the least-liked people on the men’s circuit.

“They are a classic example of the parents of someone who has become a star and think they’re stars,” Feinstein says. “They expect to be treated as stars. They are not unique, by any means, in that sense. I mean, Stefano Capriati owns the patent on that kind of behavior, and Peter Graf is right up there.

“But there is a holier-than-thou approach from the Changs--and a lot of people on the tour really dislike them. . . . I don’t think the Changs are evil. In fact, among tennis parents, they probably wouldn’t even crack my top five. Stefano is No. 1, although when Peter Graf was in his prime, he was the all-timer. He was Laver.”

The flip-side of the parent who rules by fear is the parent who is ruled by fear. Karolj Seles can’t say no to any of the whims of 17-year-old daughter Monica. Phil Agassi fails to raise a finger while Andre transforms himself from Great American Hope to acid-washed, neon-wrapped court clown.

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“Where are the adults?” Feinstein asks. “Somebody’s got to come in and say no.

“The problem with tennis is, unlike a team sport, where you have a coach or management who’s in charge, the players are in charge. Players fire their coaches, fire their agents, they even fire their parents--and the parents can’t afford to be fired. You think Phil Agassi is going to tell Andre off?”

The result, the book argues, is a tennis world gone mad. Agassi has yet to win a match that means anything--he is 0 for 3 in Grand Slam finals, he tanks in the Davis Cup--but is showered in money because his Axl Rose-with-a-forehand image sells. Boris Becker, a dignified three-time Wimbledon champion, talks of burnout and retirement at the age of 22. Seles and Chang sit in front of microphone clusters after winning Grand Slam titles and speak not of happiness or pride but of “relief.”

Ted Tinling, the late tennis philosopher/curmudgeon profiled in the book’s warmest chapter, is sobering in his assessment of the sport’s future, fearing that all hope has been lost, that as soon as tennis “discovered the gold, the end was inevitable.”

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Feinstein disagrees.

“That’s the one thing about tennis. They can’t ruin it,” Feinstein says. “The game itself is so good, it saves itself from the business of the game.

“You had the winner-take-half matches of Bill Riordan in the ‘70s. Tennis shrugged it off. We know tanking goes on. Tennis shrugs it off. Everybody has known for years that guarantees go on. Tennis shrugs it off. The sport is eating its young. Tennis shrugs it off.

“Maybe the sport survives because of Jimmy Connors playing Aaron Krickstein at the U.S. Open and Andres Gomez beating Andre Agassi at the French. The great matches and the drama they create--that’s what saves the game from all the B.S.”

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The message is: Let the children play.

And to the parents: Get a life. How about one of your own?


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