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SISTER ACTS

Clarke is a writer for the Washington Post

It’s a long way from Wimbledon’s Centre Court to southwest Colorado. For Andrea Jaeger, the spiritual journey has been even longer.

At 14, she was a pig-tailed phenom, brandishing every stroke in the tennis repertoire with a swagger that rivaled Jimmy Connors’s.

Most times, nothing thrilled her like winning -- especially if she felt she had a point to prove. Other times she was so tortured by the cost of success that she didn’t try -- including, she says, intentionally losing the 1983 Wimbledon final.

Now 43, Jaeger rarely picks up a racket or reflects on the era when she toppled legends of the game but had no friends, traveling the world with a father-turned-coach who believed that discipline, often in the form of a firm whack, was the most effective teacher.

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Today, the teen once ranked No. 2 in the world and on track to unseat Chris Evert atop the sport is an Anglican Dominican nun, ordained in 2006, and devoted to helping children with cancer.

They are the reason she has given away every dollar she earned, shed her possessions and devotes her days to raising money to bring them to a Colorado ranch to ride horses, play Ping-Pong, perform in talent shows and, if only for a few days, share a childhood otherwise denied.

If Sister Andrea thinks about professional sports at all, it’s of the prodigies like herself -- children whose uncommon gifts have thrust them into an adult world. Whether Michelle Wie, Freddy Adu or a 75-pound Olympic gymnast, today’s phenoms have teams of advisors she never had -- agents, business managers, publicists, trainers and nutritionists.

But who, Sister Andrea wonders, takes care of their souls?

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Jaeger wasn’t the first prodigy in women’s tennis; she was preceded by Tracy Austin, the Southern Californian whose pinafores and bows accentuated her pre-pubescence.

But Jaeger, who turned pro in January 1980, at 14, was different. Daughter of a German bricklayer, bar owner and former boxer, she learned the game on Chicago’s hard courts and played with bravado. To say that her on-court demeanor was impudent would be kind. Nothing riled her like a bad call, and she let linesmen know. Some called her a brat; others, “the female Ilie Nastase.”

“She was young and cocky and plucky, like a little boxer” says tennis commentator and former pro Mary Carillo, who was 23 when Jaeger burst onto the tour.

Looking back, Jaeger believes she never should have inhabited this world as a minor.

But at 14, all she wanted was to play tennis.

So when an agent came to her home to discuss turning pro, it was Andrea, then in eighth grade, who made the decision.

She remembers the adults sitting at the kitchen table, where she had watched her parents count quarters to pay for her lessons and indoor-court rentals. Andrea sat on the floor playing with Matchbox cars while her mother fretted about the rigors of international travel and her father argued that turning pro was the only way to keep their daughter challenged.

She had won age-group titles practically in her sleep and trounced top collegians. Now she was winning pro events but being forced to return prize money her family desperately needed because of her amateur status.

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Back and forth they went, until Andrea blurted out: “Really, it’s not a big deal. Let me just turn pro. I’m OK with it.”

But she wasn’t.

Most matches, Jaeger was all fight. She crushed Billie Jean King in the 1983 Wimbledon semifinals after hearing her tell the ball boy that she wouldn’t need a towel, explaining, “I don’t plan on sweating much.”

So Jaeger clocked her, 6-1, 6-1.

There’s no guarantee Jaeger would have beaten Martina Navratilova in the women’s final that followed. Then the tournament’s three-time and defending champion, Navratilova claimed a record nine Wimbledon singles titles before retiring.

Still, Jaeger had won their only previous meeting on grass. Plus, she didn’t get rattled in big matches as Navratilova famously did.

But what should have been a compelling match started unraveling the day before, according to Jaeger, who first acknowledged throwing the match to a British newspaper last year.

It started over an empty potato chip bag.

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Then 18, Jaeger wasn’t allowed to eat potato chips -- and certainly not during the two weeks of a Grand Slam, when her father restricted her diet even further.

So when he found the empty family-size bag stashed in her closet on the eve of the final, he stormed out of the room. Jaeger muttered a cuss word, thinking he was out of earshot. He wasn’t. Now, she was sure to get disciplined.

So she ran -- a bra stuffed in one pocket, her wallet in another -- and started banging on the doors of other players’ rented flats until one finally opened.

“He was chasing after me,” Jaeger recalls, “and I just didn’t feel like getting hit on that day.”

As Jaeger tells it, she ended up at the door of Navratilova’s flat in obvious distress, begging to use the phone to call a taxi. Navratilova’s trainer let her, but Navratilova never rose from her chair, instead flashing a look of irritation that her preparation had been interrupted.

Navratilova has declined to comment on Jaeger’s account and did so again, through a spokesman, for this story.

The morning of the final, Jaeger didn’t warm up, thinking a slow start would boost Navratilova’s confidence and make the match look more authentic. But after losing the first set at love she tried harder in the second, worried that TV broadcasters wouldn’t have enough time to air commercials.

Navratilova won, 6-0. 6-3. And in Jaeger’s mind, that was the only way to right the wrong she had committed in disturbing her the day before.

“If tennis was that important that she couldn’t turn around and help a kid that was in trouble -- not to even give them a hug and say: ‘Don’t worry about tomorrow. Are you all right?’ -- if that’s how much tennis meant to her, then, ‘Here, have it!’ ” Jaeger says today.

When she blew out her shoulder during the 1985 French Open with a pop as loud as a bullet, Jaeger saw God’s hand at work. The injury was a blessing, she decided, seven surgeries later -- God’s way of telling her she had accomplished enough in tennis.

Another calling awaited.

Amy Elam wasn’t familiar with Jaeger’s tennis resume when her daughter Jessica, then 9 and battling a form of cancer that attacks the central nervous system, was chosen for an all-expenses-paid trip to one of the two Colorado ranches funded by the Little Star Foundation. The ranches are in Hesperus and Aspen.

She was scared about the prospect of Jessica leaving Cincinnati. Jessica was scared, too.

But she made friends in no time and barely had time for phone calls home, she was so busy riding horses, white-water rafting and playing volleyball in the pool.

“It is the best therapy there is -- for the kids to know they’re not alone; that this didn’t happen to them because they ate something wrong,” Amy Elam says. “It gave Jessica an opportunity to be free.”

Now 14, Jessica Elam is undergoing chemotherapy for her fifth relapse. She still gets cards and calls from Jaeger, along with boxes of Beanie Babies to give to the other patients at Cincinnati’s Children’s Hospital.

“She really cares about other people. She doesn’t worry about herself first,” Jessica says of Jaeger, who stays in touch with all of the kids who have visited the ranch. “She really helped me get my mind off my disability and focus on some fun things I thought I might never be able to do.”

Jaeger started her foundation in 1990 after volunteering in childhood oncology wards for years. The work, she says, brought her closer to her father, who died in 2003 of a brain tumor. He visited the camp once and told her that it made him more proud than any victory on the tennis court.

But in the years that followed, Jaeger realized that her faith in God, however profound, wasn’t enough to help the children she had come to love. She had no theological response to questions like, “What happened next?” So she immersed herself in religious studies, earning an associate degree in ministry training and theology. Joining the Dominican order, she said, was a natural next step once she learned that not all nuns lived in convents but increasingly were drawn from the laity and lived among those they served.

Jaeger’s concerns extend to abused children, as well, and those growing up amid the backdrop of war. And if she could figure out how, she would do something to help young athletes negotiate what she views as the perilous path ahead.

“They are not being nurtured or protected,” Jaeger says. “All the adults think that it doesn’t matter; that if they have enough money, a child can always go back and get that later. But they can’t. You don’t catch up with your emotional state. You don’t catch up with your psychological state.”

That conviction is what brought Jaeger to Washington this month for a fundraiser on behalf of the city’s Tennis and Education Foundation, which provides after-school programs and tennis lessons to youngsters in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

“They see the whole child,” Jaeger said with admiration.

Last month she met with U.S. Olympic officials in Denver to urge greater care of the emotional and spiritual life of young athletes. In the early ‘90s, she urged the Women’s Tennis Association to provide counseling for Jennifer Capriati following her well-publicized troubles with drugs.

“I’m not saying I’m a well-balanced human being,” Sister Andrea says with a smile and self-deprecating laugh. “I don’t have the answer to everything. I just know I love what I do. I have peace with what I do.”


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