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Listen to D.C. politicos, and you’ll think tennis is right up there with warm chocolate chip cookies and a hug from Mom on the checklist of what every kid needs to make it in this cruel, cruel world.
Pushing for taxpayer funding of Cora Masters Barry’s proposed Southeast Tennis and Learning Center, District Mayor Anthony A. Williams has talked up tennis’s value in teaching sportsmanship. His fellow grown-ups have gushed right along with him: At a 1998 fundraiser for the project, Hillary Rodham Clinton told supporters that the game teaches “the kinds of values we want our children to have.” Ward 8 Councilmember Sandra Allen testified at a September council hearing that it “enriches the lives of our children.”
You might have been able to make a pretty good argument on that point—back when Williams was lacing up his first pair of Keds. After all, 30 years ago, Arthur Ashe was winning the U.S. Open, tennis was shedding its exclusionary trappings, and young radicals like Marion Barry were taking to the game. But apparently D.C.’s chattering class hasn’t checked the sports pages lately.
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The prototypical tennis role model has gone from gracious to grandstanding. In an age when former bad boy John McEnroe is a broadcaster, anyone who thinks tennis teaches sportsmanship must be smoking something from Jennifer Capriati’s secret stash. Hell, tennis players were perfecting the selfish-athlete pose back when Dennis Rodman was still pushing 6 feet tall. Teamwork? These days, most doubles teams can’t even get along.
And as D.C. foists tennis on its kids, you could argue that the District is sowing trouble far beyond the court. You don’t have to be an ESPN devotee to know that the sport puts the city’s collective sanity at risk: Beyond its on-court liabilities on the childhood-development front, tennis breeds maniacal parents, unrealistic expectations, and emotionally
Just take a look at the pros. Recreation Wish List committee members might point to Richard and Oracene Williams, the parents of tennis It Girls Venus and Serena, as positive role models, especially for African-American families. But did his love of the game—or any of those other “values” Clinton was citing back when she visited the Southeast site—propel the Williamses to encourage their daughters to pick up racquets?
In a word: No. Richard Williams began scheming to build a fortune off his daughters’ athleticism when he saw tennis TV commentator Bud Collins present a $48,000 check to the winner of a women’s tennis event. “At that time, I was making $52,000 all year long, so I said if someone can make that type of money in four or five days, I’m in the wrong business,” Williams recalled in a recent interview. “So I went to my wife and said, ‘Let’s make two more kids and become millionaires.’”
At least the Williamses haven’t ended up in court. During last year’s U.S. Open, Mirjana Lucic and members of her family told a Croatian newspaper that father Marinko often beat his daughter for poor play. The 17-year-old now has a restraining order against her father.
Likewise, American tennis star Mary Pierce resorted to legal action after accusing her father, Jim Pierce, of verbal and physical abuse. The Women’s Tennis Association banned Pierce from attending his daughter’s matches. “Tennis parents have been nightmares from Day One, and from what I’ve seen they continue to be nightmares except they’ve just taken it to a new level by living off their children,” former tennis star and now coach Jimmy Arias told the Washington Post’s Rachel Alexander. “A lot of parents pushed before, but they didn’t quit their jobs and live off their kids, which is a lot sicker.” Family-values advocates take note: Tennis tears families apart.
And what about that other Ashe-era good cause, racial harmony? Well, after Romanian Irina Spirlea made an unsportsmanlike bump of daughter Venus at a tournament, father Williams responded, calling Spirlea “a big white turkey.” He later apologized.
Of course, helping kids improve their futures is also part of the argument for Barry’s proposed tennis center. Recreation Wish List members maintain that their motivation is less to produce stars than to garner college scholarships for the kids. But since it’s a largely individual sport, there are fewer scholarships in tennis than in other sports played by District youngsters. When was the last time you turned on ABC to see Michigan and Ohio State squaring off in tennis? Pushing this sport is almost as lucrative, scholarship-wise, as pushing swimming or cricket.
And even the pot of gold sometimes ends up a Pyrrhic victory. Take Steffi Graf’s father, for example: He served almost two years of jail time for evading more than $7 million in taxes on his daughter’s tennis earnings. A used-car salesman, Peter Graf started nurturing his daughter’s career when she was 3.
Let’s face it, D.C.: The sport of bratty stars and psycho dads these days is about as good for the kids as a Quentin Tarantino film school. Why
not just go back to the drawing board? How about, say, recruiting Dominique Mocianu to set up a kids gymnastics center? —Elissa Silverman