Does America Need Crazier Tennis Parents?

An argument that lunacy breeds champions

Serena Williams was knocked out of the French Open on Wednesday, losing to Svetlana Kuznetzova in a three-set quarterfinal match. Her departure means that there won't be an American winner of the tournament this year, extending a drought that began after Serena won the tournament in 2002.

In general, it is a bleak time for American tennis. Serena and sister Venus are the only American women ranked in the WTA Top 50. Four men are in the ATP Top 50, but none have won a grand slam tournament since Andy Roddick took the U.S. Open in 2003. In an intriguing article for Slate, Huan Hsu argues that's because the United States Tennis Association has been handling player development instead of leaving it in the hands of maniacal parents.

The approaches of these tennis tyrants may have been objectionable and the psychological damage they inflicted on their children immense. Nevertheless, these parents had a plan, and they stuck to it. They spent time and money and energy and didn't have to clear their decisions with a committee, answer to a board of directors (or even their spouses), or worry about overtraining or being fair to other players. And the expectations they put on their children, however misguided or unrealistic, originated from a resolute belief in their ability to become champions.

The Williams sisters were raised by a father who hid his wife's birth control pills so he'd have students to teach on courts. Andre Agassi's father described himself as "crazy Iranian from Las Vegas who browbeat his kids into mastering tennis." Mary Pierce, Jennifer Capriati and, for some foreign flavor, Steffi Graf all had similarly obsessive, sometimes abusive fathers pushing them to become top players.

Obviously it worked in all of those cases, which makes Hsu's point seem sound. The problem is, he limits the discussion to the players who fit his hypothesis and discards all the rest. He doesn't offer any anecdotes about players who were pushed to the brink by their parents only to fall apart, although Capriati had her issues, nor does he include three names that really need to be part of the discussion. 

Neither Roger Federer nor Rafael Nadal were raised by parents whose methods qualify for inclusion in Hsu's hypothesis, so he just ignores them. They aren't American, of course, but Pete Sampras was and he also didn't worry about catching a smack from his father. Sampras' father wanted to train him, in fact, but realized there were others better suited for the task.

All of them obviously worked incredibly hard to get where they are, which would seem to indicate that it isn't about having crazy parents but a resolute devotion to the game wherever it comes from. Perhaps the USTA's current methods aren't well designed, but it hardly seems like forcing kids to play tennis under threat of retribution is the only other answer available.  

Josh Alper is a writer living in New York City and is a contributor to and in addition to his duties for

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