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That Reminds Me: The tennis dads from hell

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A PARAGRAPH in the Times sports pages last week about the ‘British’ tennis star Emma Raducanu and the reasons for her slide down the rankings finally acknowledged what has been whispered about ever since she shot to fame. Viz: her dad.

Tennis correspondent Stuart Fraser wrote: ‘There have long been raised eyebrows within British tennis circles about the involvement of Raducanu’s father Ian. In truth, no one outside the Raducanu camp can legitimately claim they have full knowledge of his influence. But it is unusual for a parent to turn up alongside their daughter at training sessions for the Great Britain Billie Jean King Cup team.’

Emma Raducanu was born in 2002 in Toronto, Canada. Her father is from Bucharest, Romania, and her mother, Renee hails from Shenyang, China. The couple, who both worked in the finance sector, moved to Britain when Emma was two, settling in Orpington, Kent. She has both Canadian and British citizenship.

Emma started playing tennis at five and her progress mirrored that of our daughter Elizabeth nine years earlier. Both girls played at the Parklangley club in Beckenham before moving to the Bromley Tennis Academy. Elizabeth was gifted with an affinity for racquet sports. She was in the junior national top 20 at both tennis and squash (a number of people told us that it is not possible to play both sports. We would answer that Roger Federer did, and that was good enough for us) and her badminton coach felt she had the potential to become world-class, but tennis was her favourite.

As it turned out (probably fortunately, as life on the tennis circuit is grindingly hard for all but the very top players) she stopped growing at 5ft 2in and found it increasingly difficult to compete with much larger rivals roared on by their pushy parents.

Our first experience of this phenomenon had come early, when Elizabeth was six and playing mini tennis with foam-rubber balls. A girl of the same age, whom I shall call X, was renowned for the antics of her father, who constantly berated her while arguing with the other watching parents.

Elizabeth played X in the final of an under-eights tournament and was well ahead in the first set when the opponent caught her father’s eye and suddenly collapsed like a dying swan, weeping real tears and claiming she had sprained her ankle. Her wails resounded round the courts. When the umpire suggested she retire, she made a miraculous recovery and played on. From then on Elizabeth held back on her shots, not wanting to punish a wounded rival, and she lost the match only to see the other girl skip merrily into her father’s arms with them both laughing uproariously. Another watching parent came up to Elizabeth and said: ‘Don’t worry, cheats never prosper.’

On another occasion X came off court having lost a match. Her father pulled her out of sight and a resounding slap was heard. My wife tried to get action from the tennis authorities on child abuse, but they weren’t interested.

I hope it is fair to say that Margaret and I were the opposite of pushy. Our advice was ‘enjoy yourself on court, and if you lose it’s only a game’.

One suspects that was not the case in the Raducanu household. Emma won her first International Tennis Federation title in Liverpool having entered on her 13th birthday – the earliest possible age she was allowed to take part.

Her subsequent rise to fame was rapid. She turned professional in 2018, while still at school, and her finest hour was winning the US Open in 2021 at the age of 18. Since then she has made many millions from endorsing brands including Nike, Wilson racquets, Tiffany, Dior, British Airways, Evian, Vodafone, Porsche and HSBC.

Her tennis form, however, has fallen off a cliff and last week she dropped out of the world top 100 after withdrawing from the Madrid Open with a wrist problem. This is the latest in a catalogue of injuries while she has also found it impossible to hold on to a series of coaches who found life with Team Raducanu untenable. One of them, the Russian Dmitry Tursunov, lasted only two months before quitting. He cited ‘red flags that just couldn’t be ignored’ as the reason for his departure.

So what makes a tennis ‘father from hell’?

In a piece for the Independent some years ago, our former Daily Mail colleague and all-round good bloke Paul Newman wrote: ‘Thousands of young tennis hopefuls have passed through the Florida academy run by Nick Bollettieri, who knows better than anyone what makes a successful tennis player. His only regret is that most parents he deals with do not have the same understanding. “My overall impression down the years is that more parents have a negative effect on a young person’s tennis career than have a positive influence,” Bollettieri said. “Too many of them don’t know what’s right for their children. Thankfully, there are those who do know how and when to support their kids and when to let the coaches do their work, but look at the figures. The negative impact of parents – and of some coaches – means that 80 per cent of kids who play from the age of seven drop out completely by 14. And some of those who continue to play don’t want to. They’re forced to by their parents”.’

Newman wrote that ‘family relationships have been brought sharply into focus by the case of Christophe Fauviau, who admitted slipping drugs into the drinks of his children’s opponents. Fauviau was sentenced to eight years in prison by a French court after one of the players he drugged subsequently died in a car crash.

‘While Fauviau’s case is clearly extreme, tennis, like perhaps no other sport, has a history of young players driven to distraction by parents consumed by the desire for success. In a sport where individual coaching is the norm, young girls have been particularly vulnerable to the controlling influence of their fathers, who might start out wishing simply to be protective but end up obsessed with their offspring’s careers.’

Perhaps the most famous ‘dad from hell’ was Damir Dokic, whose daughter Jelena found fame aged 16 in 1999, qualifying for Wimbledon and beating top seed Martina Hingis in the first round. She made the semi-finals and became world No 4 but was known mainly for the behaviour of her father, who had fled Yugoslavia with his family in 1994 to settle in Australia. Damir was ejected from a tournament at Edgbaston, Birmingham, after drunkenly accusing officials of being Nazis who supported the bombing of Yugoslavia. He was arrested for lying in the road and jumping on the bonnet of a car, was barred from Wimbledon for stamping on a journalist’s phone and was chucked out of the US Open for arguing over the price of salmon. When Jelena decided to play as an Australian he threatened to drop a nuclear bomb on Sydney. Eventually she cut all ties with him.

Mary Pierce, the 1995 Australian Open and 2000 French Open champion, was like Emma Raducanu born in Canada, although to a French mother and American father. She started playing professionally at 14. Her father Jim coached her for eight years, putting her under intense pressure. He raged at her in practice and in public, especially when she was losing, and fought with spectators and opponents. In one match he shouted: ‘Mary, kill the bitch!’ His antics caused the Women’s Tennis Association to bring in the ‘Jim Pierce rule’, outlawing abusive behaviour by a player’s entourage. Whether it works, however, is open to conjecture.

Old jokes’ home

A chap goes into a seafood restaurant and asks for a lobster tail. The waitress smiles dreamily and says: ‘Once upon a time there was a handsome young lobster . . .’

A PS from PG

My Aunt Dahlia has a carrying voice. If all other sources of income failed, she could make a good living calling the cattle home across the Sands of Dee.

PG Wodehouse: Very Good, Jeeves

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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