Mailbag: Exploring the Parent-as-Coach Dynamic in Tennis

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Hey everyone:

• Katrina Adams is out most recent podcast guest. She’s the author of a new book, Own the Arena.

• This Nadal vignette is quite something. And consider that he did this after a defeat.

• Here are the Ritchie Boys.

• I’m on the road this week, so a modestly-sized bag.

Onward…..

Let’s start here….We had a number of questions this week about Sofia Kenin’s announcement that she was no longer working with her father. It was an open secret that this had become a—how to put this?—knotty professional relationship that was exacting a price on her game, and, one can safely assume, her happiness.

This is always a problematic area for observers, whether it’s the WTA or other coaches or the media. The same way most of us hesitate before confronting the parent at the grocery store that we think is acting objectionably, same applies here. Different parents have different parenting styles. Your cruelty is their tough love. There’s something sacred about the parent-child relationship. Short of outright criminal or antisocial behavior, who are we to intervene (or report) simply because we might disagree with someone else’s mode? It’s all the more complicated when the child is 21 years old.

This is not a new dynamic. For centuries, there have been stage parents. (Note that in the team dynamic it doesn’t really fly; but in an individual pursuit, parental propinquity flourishes.) Even in tennis, in the 1920s, Suzanne Lenglen’s father stirred debate about his methods and level of involvement. And it’s not only female players. Scan the ATP players’ lounge these days and you see plenty of inter-generational teams.

We wish Kenin—and Caroline Garcia, and another player we hear is about to join the ranks of the emancipated—nothing but the best. Don’t underestimate for a second how much courage this requires. There’s an element of guilt. (“Dad made all these sacrifices for me; now I’m supposed to tell him to hand over the reins?”) There’s an element of (in)security. (“I recognize that this is unhealthy, but he knows me and my game better than anyone.”) There’s an element of trust. (“I don’t have to worry, as I do with other coaches, that he will know the inner core of personality and game and share it with the next players he coaches.”) There’s a financial element that militates against hiring an outside coach. There’s simple empathy and sadness. (“I know it hurts to say good-bye, but it’s time for me to fly.”)

But here’s a lukewarm take: imagine being on the other side of the net from an opponent you know is attached to a parent. They are known to incur coaching violations. Instead of hanging out with peers, the player eats and socializes with the parent. They look achingly to the parent when they are losing; they look achingly to them for approval when they win. Inevitably, you hear chatter: the parent took away their phone and reads their texts. The parent disapproves of a new love interest and is trying to intervene. The parent screamed at them on the practice court.

If you’re the opponent, you remember this and internalize this. It suggests a certain fragility and lack of self-reliance. It suggests the player is dealing with some complex emotional issues. When it’s 4-4 in the third set, you are reminding yourself of that. Which is to say: here’s another point in favor of parents cutting the cord with their kid: the relationship—and all it suggests—might put them at a competitive disadvantage.

sofia-kenin-mailbag-lead

Mailbag

Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at jon_wertheim@yahoo.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

Hey Jon, we don’t hear much about doubles. Not that we ever did. But how would you assess the state of doubles without the Bryans around?
Tammy, New Jersey

• Good question. I think we need to wait until post-Covid to take the full measure of doubles. Playing schedules are screwy. Singles players are either entering conspicuously many draws, or conspicuously few. On the men’s side, we have a team, Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic, that win most everything in sight. On the women’s side, we still see top players—Mertens and Barty and Sabalenka—enter doubles draws. Though we’ll see how long that lasts. Good sector to watch. Let’s hold off on any conclusions.

Mr. Wertheim, I read your article. Who do you think Novak Djokovic and others should get for the leader of PTPA? I think they need a person who knows tennis but not a player.
Abel

• There’s no shortage of savvy, experienced, qualified sports labor lawyers, male and female. Here’s an unsolicited vote for Ken Shropshire (full disclosure: a longtime friend and former professor), who has not only been a leading sports lawyer for decades but whose wife played on the WTA Tour and whose son has points as a professional doubles player.

Jon, I watched Naomi Osaka lose (to Muchova) the other day and the commentators kept talking about her adjustment to clay. Doesn’t this go against the conventional thinking that all the surfaces are the same these days?
Sam in the O.C.

• Interesting. In terms of data—tracking the height of the bounce or the ball; the length of the rally; the speed of the ball off the bounce—it’s hard to argue that surfaces aren’t becoming more homogenized. A former player recently suggested to me that if Pete Sampras played in today’s era—where “the clay plays like grass and the grass plays like clay”—he wouldn’t be fourth in the GOAT race.

Yet….if you look at results you still see significant differentiations. Osaka is an obvious exponent. She has four majors, most of any female player of the last five years. And yet she hasn’t survived the first week of the European majors. (Small sample size, but point taken.) It’s been more than 10 years since a male player won the French and then backed it up at Wimbledon. Serena did it in 2015, but she is clearly better on surfaces other than clay. Venus never won the French. Henin never won Wimbledon. Point: the surface may have homogenized, but the results haven’t.

Here’s a point floated to me by a former player: it’s less about the courts than everything outside the courts. Americans don’t falter on clay because they are impatient and haven’t mastered sliding or court construction. It’s because they have been away from home for weeks, six (or nine) hours ahead of their friends and family, in a country where they don’t speak the language, don’t feel the love of the crowd and are sleeping in small hotel rooms.

Conversely, every year at the U.S. Open players get asked how they like New York. The implication: their comfort level has some bearing on their tennis. A number of players (Kvitova, Thiem, Halep, though she’s adjusted) have remarked that it’s too frenetic and chaotic. (Presumably: at Wimbledon, everyone stays in a house and can walk to the courts. In Australia, everyone is jet-legged and displaced and likes a medium-sized city.) I’m not saying I buy this. But it’s worth considering that there are factors at play other than the speed and condition of the court.

What did you make of the recent Twitter dust-up between Ben Rothenberg and Justin Gimelstob. I feel like it’s an issue you have brought up in the past. But I was interested to see them go at it.
Name withheld

• I had to look this up. Ben tweeted about the shadows in Madrid—both a great band name and significant tennis problem, we can discuss another time—and noted: “Whole point of playing the match is so people can watch it.” Justin apparently took offense to this and tweeted back a link to Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech.

I remember once having a similar debate with a player we will call Andy R. He complained about the natterers in the press rooms. I’m paraphrasing him here but not by much. “I love how these overweight guys who couldn’t walk across the room without wheezing are critiquing our conditioning.” I responded something to the effect of, “Are you a Hollywood director? No, you’re not? I guess you just surrendered your right to critique the next movie you’ll see.”

He was right of course. At least to a point. There’s something maddening about your work picked over by people who don’t get it. Who have never competed. Who don’t grasp the sacrifice, the cocktail of stress hormones, the experience. This is not unique to sports, much less tennis. Ask musicians how they feel about critics. Or have your book panned by someone who’s never written one. Or your outfit criticized by anyone who owns a denim tuxedo.

The flip side: criticism is the tax you pay for operating in the public domain. (I would further argue that criticism is vital to any creative sector/society.) In Justin’s case, I’d ask him to reflect on the word “arena.” The very fact there’s a physical venue implies that what you’re doing has an audience. You may be motivated by an appreciation for the purity of competition in the innermost circle; but you’re not the only ones inside the venue. Discount those other people—crassly, the customers; but also the audience who gives what you’re doing heft— at your peril. It recalls not Teddy Roosevelt but John Maxwell: “He who thinks he leads, but has no followers, is only taking a walk.”

How do you rate the chances of Nadal in Roland Garros with his struggling serve? Over the last couple of seasons even his clay court dominance has been reduced (the way he lost to Zverev in Madrid). Was Federer doing any better/worse at 34/35?
Mustaf

• One rite of spring—or a wrong of spring, they might say in dad jokery—sees Nadal losing a tune-up, sparking the inevitable discussion about whether he’s vulnerable. Then Nadal goes to Paris and treats the competition like Macbeth treated Duncan. We say it every week, apologies, but there is such a difference between best-of-three and best-of-five. Get hot for an hour and you might beat the Big Three in best-of-three. It’s so much harder to do that over five sets.

• Take us out, Jonathan Scott in Indy: