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Families in the Tennis Family

by Richard Evans

Unhappily, one of the lasting images of this year’s Wimbledon was of a tennis father being led away by the police. Damir Dokic, a burly, bearded, heavy drinking man with a foul temper, is the father of one of the game’s best teenagers, Jelena Dokic, but he has joined a long list of parents who negate much of the good they do their off spring with their anti-social and sometimes violent behaviour.

It makes headlines because the media love to dwell on the dark side of human nature. Which is a pity because, of all sports, tennis is a family game. And the true tennis families have brought a disproportionate amount of success and joy to the pro tour. Mention the first dozen names one thinks of -- Amritraj, Lloyd, Sanchez-Vicario, Williams, McEnroe, Black, Lapentti, Jensen, Gullikson, Maleeva, Stolle, Krishnan -- and you are immediately talking about 30 players who have either made their mark at the highest level of the game or are about to.

What a debt tennis owes the parents of these players. And all the more so because, in several cases, the children’s tennis development seems to have been instigated by a mother or a father deciding right at the outset that their kids would become top players -- long before there was any certainty that they would take to the sport with the required skill and enthusiasm.

What was it that connected the wife of an Indian Railways executiv in Madras; a women’s national champion in Communist-controlled Bulgaria and an entrepreneurial black man living in a Los Angeles ghetto other than this strange conviction that their children -- eight of them in all -- would,become tennis champions?

By the time Venus Williams secured the family’s second Grand Slam title by winning Wimbledon in July -- younger sister Serena was already holder of the US Open title -- most of the sporting world knew of Richard Williams’ somewhat eccentric methods. Announcing to an unsuspecting public that his two youngest daughters would become tennis champions before either had reached their tenth birthday was, to put it mildly, going out on a rather long limb. The sound of buzz saws was heard frequently during the years that followed as critics who regarded Richard as something of a rogue derided the way he kept his daughters out of all junior tennis after their eleventh birthdays. When Venus walked on court to face Shaun Stafford in the WTA Oakland event at the age of 14, she had not played a competitive match of any description for three years. And she won.

But for all his outlandish claims and bizarre behaviour during matches when he holds up placards with quirky messages written on them, there is no longer any point in trying to dilute the magnitude Richard Williams’s achievement. With his wife, Brandi, sharing the travelling duties, the pair of them have produced two well-educated, well-spoken young ladies who have already proved themselves to be magnificent tennis players.

In Madras, Maggie Amritraj made much the same claims for the three sons she produced with her husband, Robert. Maggie had been a good standard club player at the local Gymkhana Club but she set her sights a great deal higher by the time her third son was born. “They will all become Indian champions and play at Wimbledon!” she announced with a firmness that no one dared question. And, lovingly but with great single-mindedness, she literally drove them to the top -- driving behind them in to make sure they completed their early morning runs and then driving them all over town for
coaching sessions and tournaments. The result? Anand held the Indian junior title for three years and then handed it on to Vijay who did likewise before making way for Ashok. For nine years the junior Indian title bore no other name but Amritraj! And, in 1974, all three walked through the Fred Perry Gates at the All England Club with competitor’s badges swinging proudly from their racket bags. And the dynasty is far from finished. Vijay’s eldest son, Prakash, played at Junior Wimbledon this year and frequently finds himself facing Anand’s boy in the finals of tournaments in California. Maggie’s dream may simply go on re-inventing itself.

It may not have been easy for the Amritraj’s but the idea of a housewife in Sofia producing three daughters who would all go on to be ranked in the world’s top ten, with all three earning more than a million dollars in prize money, was too far fetched to contemplate. But that is what Julia Maleeva achieved with Manuela, Katerina and Magdalena -- coaching them, feeding them, travelling with them and generally creating a tennis tradition in a country that had never had one all by herself. She should derive considerable satisfaction from the fact that there were two Bulgarian boys in the last eight of the Boys Singles at Wimbledon this year. Bulgaria may be known for its weight lifters every time the Olympic comes round but this small, quiet and very determined woman is the real heavy weight achiever in Bulgarian sport.

Denis Lloyd has been deeply involved in tennis all his life, both as a player and coach in Essex but it took something special for he and his wife, Doris, to produce three sons who would emulate the Amritraj’s by all playing
at Wimbledon. Tony, the least known, has become a top coach at various clubs owned by his eldest brother, David, who played Davis Cup for Britain along with his more talented brother John, briefly the husband of Chris Evert. Until politics intervened the Lloyds set a new standard for tennis families when David was appointed captain and John the coach to Britain’s Davis Cup team.

In a way it was a shame that they were not still in charge the week end after Wimbledon this year when Britain met Ecuador on No 1 Court in a Davis Cup relegation battle -- but at least the new captain, Roger Taylor, had a former family connection. He had been married to the sister of David Lloyd’s wife! The Lloyds, however, would have recognised the basic strength of the Ecuadorian team which, in line with our theme, was based very much on the family. Nicolas Lapentti rose like a rocket to reach the world’s top ten last year and cut his teeth in Davis Cup play alongside his cousin, Andres Gomez, the former French Open champion. But, at Wimbledon, Nicolas was
only half the story. In the doubles, which Ecuador won with embarrassing ease, he was partnered by his younger brother, 17-year-old Giovanni. The tall left handed teenager, who may possess more natural talent than Nicolas, was then pitched into the fifth and deciding rubber where, incredibly, he won the tie for Ecuador after trailing Arvind Parmar by two sets to love. And Giovanni had never stepped on a grass court before he played in the ATP Tour event at Halle in Germany a month before!

And there was another Lapentti watching the action unfold. Little Leonardo is not yet ten but when asked if he wanted to emulate his big brothers, he did not hesitate. “Oh, yes,” he said with his eyes shining proudly, “very much!” And so it is not impossible that another family might produce a trio of tennis stars. Certainly the Lapenttis are already one of the most
famous sporting families in South America which is hardly surprising because they virtually beat Britain on their own.
That, unfortunately for the country that invented the modern game, is not the first time the national team has been beaten by a family. In 1997, at Crystal Palace, Byron and Wayne Black of Zimbabwe, had defeated a
weakened British team 4-1 in a Davis Cup Zonal tie. The Blacks, who first played on the family’s grass court at their farm outside Harrare, have a sister, Cara, who is now ranked in the top sixty on the WTA Tour after an outstanding career as a junior and are really a second generation tennis family as Don Black, their father, played at Wimbledon in the fifties.

So the Blacks are rarities in another way, too. Very few sons of good players -- and virtually none who have great players as fathers -- become highly proficient themselves. Jack Kramer, with five sons, Ken Rosewall, with two, John Newcombe, Rod Laver, Alex Olmedo, Lew Hoad, Manolo Santana, Pancho Gonzales and several more all failed, for whatever reason, to pass on their ability to play top class tennis to their sons.

There have been two exceptions. The outstanding one at the moment is Sandon Stolle, now one of the world’s top doubles players whose father, Fred, was ranked No 1 in the world in 1967 after he had won the US title at Forest Hills. But, as Fred will admit, he needed to step back and allow Sandon to make his own way before the youngster could really find his feet.

Another Australian who has brought his son up in America, Phil Dent, may be about to prove that fathers can develop top players from their own family. Taylor Dent, raised as a true serve and volleyer, blasted the first set 6-2 off Andre Agassi at Wimbledon before getting injured and there are high hopes that he will develop into the new star American tennis desperately needs.

The other father-son combination of note involves another family from that great tennis city of Madras, or Chennai as it is now called. Ramanathan Krishnan was one of the great tennis artists of his age, twice reaching the Wimbledon semi-final in the sixties. And his son Ramesh also excelled at the game, helping India reach the Davis Cup final in 1987 against Sweden in Gothenberg after securing a historic fifth rubber victory over Australia’s Wally Masur in Sydney. The Krishnan’s have a court that lies right outside the living room at their house in Madras. Both father and son grew up hitting on it but, significantly, it was not Ramanathan who taught Ramesh. It was Ramesh’s grandfather who laid the basis of his game and that may explain how the youngest Krishnan escaped the problems that can arise when an awe-struck youngster is told what to do by a man, his father no less, who has already done it all.

Inevitably the Amritraj’s and Krishnan’s often played each other in tournaments around the world but, on checking a result recently, I came across an instance when family connections collided in unusual fashion. In Bombay in 1977, Anand Amritraj defeated Ramesh Krishnan and Tim Gullikson before losing to Tim’s twin, Tom, in the next round. And Vijay
Amritraj won the tournament!

As twins, the Gulliksons, of course, were even more special and both proved themselves to be fine players before developing their careers as coaches. Tim guided Pete Sampras through his early years and had become Pete’s best friend before tragedy struck. Tim developed brain cancer and died little more than a year after Sampras, having just heard the diagnosis, wept his way through a match against Jim Courier at the Australian Open.

Luke and Murphy Jensen are a pair of brothers who have made a different kind of impact with their fun loving approach to the game that has done so much to popularise it with kids. Luke has gone on to make a name for himself in the television and radio booths and both boys careers have been carefully mapped out by a mother with a big enough personality for the both of them.

Kay McEnroe also had much to do with the development of John and Patrick, both of whom have proved to be as skillful behind the microphone as they were with a racket. And as John now has five children of his own don’t bet against another McEnroe emerging in the future.

Marisa Sanchez-Vicario is another mother who must take full credit for founding a tennis dynasty. Arantxa, a three time French Open champion, is obviously the best known but Emilio and Javier had long and fruitful careers on the ATP Tour while another sister, also Marisa, played for Pepperdine University in California.

How good would any of these players have become had they not had a brother or a sister to play with, to compete against and to support? In many instances probably not half as good. It was the family environment that created the perfect atmosphere for advancement and so, before we hear any more stories about the parents from hell, let’s acknowledge the parents from heaven -- the Mums and Dads who enriched the game by getting it right.