Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Read this article on The New York Times website.


July, 2011

Tennis Pressure Strains Bond of Parent and Player

By Karen Crouse

WIMBLEDON, England — One might reasonably suspect that the man sprinting down the deserted street in the upscale Southern California neighborhood in the dead of night was up to no good. In fact, Wayne Bryan’s only crime last week was wanting so badly for his sons to succeed that he went running because he could not sleep.

Thousands of miles separate Bryan from his children, Bob and Mike, who won their 11th Grand Slam men’s doubles title Saturday. And still he has a hard time distancing himself from their matches.

“We all sweat blood when they are out there playing,” Wayne Bryan wrote in an e-mail. His sons said he once threw his back out while pumping push-ups to expend nervous energy on a day when they played.

Many parents can relate to Bryan’s emotional investment in his children’s endeavors. For Bryan, the stakes used to be even higher. For several years, he was also his sons’ primary coach, essentially home-schooling them in tennis until they earned their doctorates.

Several players on the men’s and women’s tennis tours have or once had a parent as a coach, including the singles semifinalists Maria Sharapova, Sabine Lisicki and Andy Murray, and the quarterfinalist Bernard Tomic. The dual roles of guardian and drill instructor are like two sides of the same badge of authority, and are not always compatible.

Mirjana Lucic fled to the United States from Croatia with her mother and siblings several years ago, alleging physical abuse by her father and coach, Marinko.

Aravane Rezaï has accused her father of swindling her. According to the French news media, Rezaï filed a complaint against him last month for “harassment, intentional violence and death threats.”

The sometimes uneasy alliance between players and the parents who coach them occupied center stage last week after Marion Bartoli banished her father and coach, Walter, from the players’ box during her third-round victory.

Her behavior, which called to mind a teenager ordering a parent out of her bedroom, was greeted with dismay by the public and with a shrug by players.

“You see it all the time,” Bob Bryan said, adding: “I’ve done it and so has Mike. Bartoli shouldn’t do that. In the heat of the moment, anything happens.”

In most cases, the parent/coach relationship starts innocently enough, with the parent passing on his or her love of a sport or enthusiastically embracing a child’s avocation.

The Bryans’ parents were tennis players. On the other end of the spectrum is John Tomic, who left his job as a taxi driver in Australia to oversee the tennis development of his children, Bernard, now 18, and Sara, 14.

He has raised eyebrows by suggesting tournament draws have been fixed so his son is at a disadvantage, and by being ordered off the court in a match three years ago when he became irate over noncalls on foot faults by Tomic’s opponent. John Tomic later apologized. His son sees no reason for regret.

“Sooner or later, he’ll back off a little bit,” Tomic said, adding, “But until I become the best player I can be, I think only he can help me.”

Home is never too far away when a parent is near.

“As a girl, especially in the beginning, it’s much better to have someone from the family with you,” Lisicki said after being dispatched by Sharapova in the semifinals. “So many girls travel with only their coaches and they miss home so, so much.”

The extra attention heaped on children coached by their parents can be salubrious, said the California-based psychologist, Dr. Wendy Mogel. A parenting expert and author of “The Blessing of a B Minus,” Mogel said athletes could flourish like hothouse flowers in the warmth of their parents’ gaze.

She added: “It’s a wildly competitive, increasingly insecure world. Parents look at that and say, ‘I can give this gift to my child who has this talent; I’m providing them with some security for this unstable future.’ ”

The problem is adolescents and young adults often cannot see the big picture. Mogel has counseled high-achieving students who worry that if they receive a grade lower than an A, it will cause their parents to divorce or their primary caregiver to become depressed. Similarly, athletes may stress over how the family dynamics will be affected if they do not win.

“Part of it is the natural narcissism of the adolescent and young adult,” Mogel said, “and part of it is an astute and sensitive reading of how much they need to achieve to stave off their parents’ own anguish.”

Mike Bryan said he and his brother lost a big point in a United States Open match and heard a loud noise coming from the stands where their father was sitting. They glanced up and saw that he had kicked a chair.

“Sometimes, the parents want it more than the kids, which puts pressure on the kids to perform,” Bob Bryan said. “You never want to feel like they’re more disappointed than you are.”

His brother said, “That just puts extra pressure on you.”

Mike Bryan added: “You always want to please your parents from a very young age. Sometimes, you look up there and you’re like: ‘Come on, Mom and Dad, help me out down here. Give me some support.’ But there have been a lot of matches where we just told our dad to get out of here.”

What’s weird, Mike Bryan said, is he could not imagine treating another coach that way.

“When you’re listening to your dad as your coach, it can be hard,” he said. “It’s a very slippery slope with family. I know we had a lot of bad passages where my dad said something and we’d pop off our mouths at him like a son and a father sometimes do, but you would never do that to someone whose blood and DNA you didn’t share.”

It is natural, Mogel said.

“My formula for healthy kids is they are respectful to their teachers, their grandparents, their friends’ parents, their coaches, their restaurant servers and store clerks, and fairly moody or obnoxious with their parents,” she said, “because it is literally the caterpillar struggling to get out of the chrysalis and be a butterfly.”

Sharapova, whose father, Yuri, until recently traveled with her full time and acted as her coach, was asked how their relationship had changed since he shed most of his coaching responsibilities.

“I don’t tell him to be quiet that often anymore,” Sharapova said with a laugh.

Mogel said there was no place like home for young athletes. “It’s where they can let down their hair after a hard practice or a trying day,” she said.

But what if the dinner table is where the child is force-fed notes from that day’s practice?

“Let’s face it,” Bob Bryan said. “The lines get blurred. How intense this sport is and how much you have to sacrifice, it’s very hard to flip the switch on and off. It becomes a tennis family and a tennis life.”

July 2, 2011