Monthly Archives: July 2005

Sports Kids Moms and Dads

Here are three things that make a champion: genetics, training and will. Let’s talk about genetics.

Lance Armstrong’s heart is 20% larger than a normal person’s heart. Formula One racer Ayrton Senna had a reaction time 20% shorter than the average person. He still died in a racing accident, which tells you how dangerous that sport is. Andy Roddick has unusually flexible ribs and spine enabling him to arch his back and rotate his arm 44% more than the average professional tennis player. That explains why he can hit a 155 mph serve. You can read about the genetic qualities of these and other athletes in an article by Sam Walker here.

There is another part to genetics: parental involvement. My great-grandfather was a composer, my grandmother was a piano teacher and my father was eleven years old when his first musical composition was performed publicly. I was raised by an adoptive family. My adoptive parents bought a piano but didn’t pay for lessons. Knowing my lineage, maybe they thought I could sit down and spontaneously throw down Beethoven’s Fur D’Elise. I played the violin in elementary school but I practiced in the basement and I remember breaking a string that my parents took their sweet time replacing. Can’t blame them, I suppose, screechy violin sounds are not very soothing after a long day at work. My father might well have become a composer under any circumstances but the process would have taken longer. As it was, his family moved to Rome so that he could study at a music academy there.

If you have precocious talent and accomplished parents, you’re in good shape. But what if you’re a skinny eight year old with a football mad father who is determined that you’ll become an NFL player?

I watched an episode of Sports Kids Moms and Dads on Bravo last week. The show follows a number of families who are pushing or accompanying their kids to mastery in various disciplines. One mother coaches her daughter’s high school basketball team. Another mother chaperones her young daughter to dancing competitions. A father, Craig, plans the future NFL career of his eight-year-old son, Trenton.

On Trenton’s birthday we see him open package after package of football paraphernalia. If he isn’t pulling one of many football jerseys out of a box, he’s opening a book about the history of the NFL. I didn’t expect to see a pair of ballet slippers but it would have been nice to see at least one non-sports video game or other non-football related item among the gifts.

When Craig says, “His future and my future are tied to his dream of being an NFL football player,” that’s the first clue that there might be a problem here. The second comes when the camera shows him at his day job. His wife has just announced that she is pregnant with their third child and he’s delivering pizzas for a living. No wonder he wants the kid as a gravy train.

Andrew Bynum, the seventeen-year-old first round pick of the Los Angeles Lakers in this year’s NBA draft, has played only twenty-five high school basketball games. Maybe this can happen in basketball but you can’t start playing tennis in high school and expect to become a professional tennis player. Roger Federer was playing in tournaments when he was ten years old.

A ten-year-old would not obsessively hit forehands for hours at a time day after day. They need a coach and they need parents willing to pay for that coach and all of the other related expenses. A sixteen-year-old player who hopes to become a tennis pro practices on the public courts where I play. His father pays $36,000 a year for his son’s tennis dream.

If you have precocious talent and accomplished parents, you’re in good shape. But what if you’re a skinny eight year old with a football mad father who is determined that you’ll become an NFL player?

The parent’s job is to nurture talent and desire so that the child has an opportunity to be the best at what they do. When does it go so far that the child is damaged?

Marv Marinovich is often presented as the stereotypical bad sports parent. He groomed his son Todd for the NFL from an early age. Todd was on the front page of Sports Illustrated as a high school football player as an early example of sports parenting gone too far. Todd did make it to the NFL but he didn’t last long. He spent time in and out of jail dealing with a heroin addiction and was recently arrested yet again with heroin paraphernalia in a public bathroom.

I worked out at Marv Marinovich’s facility in Orange County about five or six years ago. Todd was training there at the time. I’d like to say that Marv and Todd got along famously but clearly there were unresolved issues. I remember Marv asking Todd to put the hurdles up for a running drill one day. “Isn’t that your job?” he asked sarcastically. Humans are born with their own personalities. Todd’s addictive personality is not his father’s fault. We can blame him, however, for ignoring Todd’s personality and forging ahead with boot camp football training from an early age. Todd is a sensitive artist type. The NFL was his father’s dream. It may not have been Todd’s dream.

The whole youth sports atmosphere has blown up since Marinovich trained Todd. My niece and nephews are on traveling teams. Their parents regularly drive three and four hours for weekend competitions. As soon as the varsity season ends, the summer leagues begin. Sidney Crosby, the first round draft pick in this year’s NHL draft, has had a personal trainer since he was thirteen years old.

When I was doing improvisational dance, I met a man who worked with abused children. He helped them in two ways. First, he encouraged them to play. Children make up their own games when left to their own devices. Through play they develop a sense of themselves and learn creative solutions for everything from building sand castles to ways of inviting or excluding prospective playmates that ask to join their game.

He also helped them learn how to exert control in their lives. He played a game called “push and pull”. He’d take their arm and pull but he’d let them decide how hard or soft to pull. Then he’d let them choose the direction he should pull in. Then he’d let them do the pulling. He was teaching them to take control in small ways so that they could start on the path of regaining control over their lives.

The danger of endless sports leagues is that you never have time to play. Instead, you are constantly instructed. Add a parent who has controlled your life down to the last minute in an effort to fulfill their own stunted sports dream and you have a child in a tough situation with no skills to deal with it.

If you think sports parents are bad here, look at China. The government is the sports parent. Children who show genetic potential live in dormitories studying and training with other young athletes working towards winning an Olympic gold medal. We have the capitalist model – parents pay instead of the state.

Tiger Woods is one of the most competitive beings in the universe. His father, Earl Woods, tried to downplay the importance of winning when Tiger was a child but gave up when Tiger told him how much he enjoyed winning. Venus and Serena Williams are happy and successful on and off the tennis court. They love and respect their father and he is their tennis coach to this day. Michelle Wie may well win her PGA tour card.

There are plenty of good and bad examples of parental support but the bad examples are likely to increase as parents see the heights reached by some of the current sports prodigies.

Charlotte Cooper won five straight Wimbledon singles championships from 1895-1908. She lived a short distance from the Wimbledon courts with her parents. After she won her first title and returned home, her father asked here where she’d been. She said she’d been playing in the Wimbledon final. He asked her how she did. “I won,” she said. “I’m so glad,” he replied.

It might be light years into the future before we hear another conversation like that.

news from around the world – the incredibly shrinking Mercedes Benz Cup

Let’s start with Menonomie, Wisconsin. This is where I am, not home in Los Angeles where I could be at the Mercedes Benz Cup tournament. Instead of watching Andre Agassi (USA) beat lucky loser Jean-Rene Lisnard (FRA), I’m sitting on a swinging bench next to the Red Cedar River watching bugs try to swim upstream and walleyes roll.

This is a small but very interesting town. Across the street is The Himalayan Institute, a Hindu education center run by a Trinidadian that houses disadvantaged students from Nepal and Tibet. Japanese is taught at the high school. Members of the Bridge Builder’s Club are trained to help fellow students who are facing difficulties in their lives by being good listeners and directing them to available resources. They never had anything like that in my high school. I could barely think about anything but my own difficulties.

Minnesota and Wisconsin have a large Hmong population. The Menomonie farmers’ market consists mostly of Hmong farmers’ produce. The Minnesota Thunder, a United Soccer League team, recently signed the first Hmong, Chou Yang, to a professional contract. In the U.S., that’s a sure sign of assimilation.

There are no Hmong players in the ATP top fifty but there are Argentine players, seven of them, and six Spanish players. Only Juan Ignacio Chela (ARG) is playing in the Mercedes Benz Cup and he’s reached the quarterfinals once in his last twelve tournaments. Only one player in the top twenty-five, Agassi, is entered. Taylor Dent (USA) dropped out after retiring in Indianapolis last week due to heat exhaustion giving Robbie Ginepri (USA) his first title of the year. Greg Rusedski (GBR) never made it, he’s injured.

In the first round, third seed Nicolas Kiefer (GER) lost to wild card James Blake (USA). Sixth seed Mario Ancic (CRO) lost to Paradorn Srichaphan (THA) who has been having a bad year. Seventh seed Sebastien Grosjean (FRA) lost to Ricardo Mello (BRA) after winning the first set 6-1.

Eight seeds, two injuries and three first rounds losses later, a thin tournament gets thinner. There are only three seeded players left. I’m sure the tournament director is not happy about that.

This is the second men’s event in the US Open Series. Things should improve when the rest of the world arrives.

open season on Roddick – the RCA Championships

Today we’re going to watch the top ten play the bottom one hundred in the quarterfinals of the RCA Championships. Andy Roddick is ranked number four in the world. Robbie Ginepri is ranked number ninety-eight. Ginepri is one of the American players who arrived on the tour at the same time as Roddick but haven’t kept up with him. Ginepri has been ranked as high as twenty-five but he’s having some problems with his confidence at the moment.

Don’t look for too many Spanish and Argentine players in Indianapolis this week. They’re still in Europe racking up more clay court titles. Rafael Nadal won his eighth title of the year and 34th straight match on clay in Stuttgart. Fernando Gonzales beat Agustin Calleri to win in Amersfoort. They might want to get themselves to the United States pretty quickly. Indianapolis is the first tournament in the U.S. Open Series: ten hard-court events for men and women leading up to the U.S. Open in late August. The player with the most points at the end of the series doubles their U.S. Open prize money. That could be two million dollars – not a bad payday at all.

Tennis is a big sport in Europe, not so in the U.S. We only pay attention during the grand slams. The idea behind the Open Series is to increase our attention span by offering a large payout to attract top players, getting a regular television slot on ESPN – finals will be televised every Sunday in August at 3 and 5pm – and increasing television coverage.

Oh, and one other thing. Every tournament in the Open Series will be played on a blue hard court surface. For a minute there I thought I was watching a Boise State football game.

Roddick is still recovering from Wimbledon, he had to play the entire two weeks unlike Ginepri who lost in the first round. It’s a good start as he wins the first set 6-4. Ginepri doesn’t usually get to the quarterfinals, he might want to thank those clay court players for staying in Europe, so I haven’t seen him play very much. He’s a baseliner who moves well, hits the ball very hard and has a good enough serve. If you took Roddick’s first serve away you’d get Ginepri except that Ginepri is in better shape and attacks more. His main problem is patience. When he’s pulled wide he tries to hit a winner as if it would be beneath his pride to hit the ball safely to the middle of the court. I can relate. I also think I’m a much better player than I am.

Things are even in the second set until Roddick gets a break point in the third game. Roddick gives away one then another break point then screams at himself. He might not have the energy to go three sets today, he wants to close out now. Ginepri doesn’t help himself with another difficult shot from an impossible position. But Ginepri is smart. Roddick stands way behind the baseline to receive serve and Ginepri is spinning the wide serve sharply enough to push Roddick into a lot of return errors. Ginepri finally hits an extremely sharp angle off a high looper to get a game point then wins the game with a good forehand approach. He has just fought off three break points to avoid going down a set and a break. A huge lift for a player with confidence problems.

Despite a few more ill-advised shots, Ginepri gets into the second set tiebreaker. Ginepri’s hold in the third game was crucial because Roddick now looks tired – he’s hitting balls into the net. A tennis match is made up of waves of momentum. One player gets tired or dejected and goes through a low point. The opponent sees this immediately and bells go off. Here’s an opportunity! Their confidence goes up and they rise with it. Ginepri takes the opportunity. He hits two winners and finishes with two aces to win the tiebreaker 7-2.

Clearly a champion should be able to recover from an egregious error and win a match against the ninety-eighth ranked player. But I’m sympathetic. This is a situation begging for the introduction of Shot Spot technology.

Serving at 3-3, 15-30 in the third set, Roddick pulls Ginepri wide then gets passed by a beautiful backhand passing shot that snakes around him and drops into the corner. That point tells Ginepri that he can beat Roddick today. Not necessarily a good thing. Ginepri is unnerved by the thought. He gets the break but then he plays a loose game and gives the break right back. He’s on a walkabout at the moment, one of those low points. He puts balls into the net and over the baseline and hangs his head. Serving at 4-5, he double faults to give Roddick his third match point. Ginepri manages to pull himself up long enough to get a game point when all hell breaks loose.

Ginepri serves wide for an ace but it’s not an ace. It’s clearly out. Roddick is furious. He scratched and crawled his way to three match points on a day when he doesn’t have his best stuff only to have a lineperson gives a crucial game to his opponent. It’s not like it was a Pete Sampras serve either, there’s no excuse for that call.

Now it’s Roddick’s turn be unnerved and it costs him the match. He wins only two more points and Ginepri gets to the semifinals with a 4-6, 7-6 (2), 7-5 win.

This is an old problem for Roddick. His meltdowns have cost him grand slam matches. Even when he doesn’t have a meltdown, he can’t beat players like Lleyton Hewitt. Roger Federer has more game than Roddick. Hewitt doesn’t. He’s just mentally stronger. Clearly a champion should be able to recover from an egregious error and win a match against the ninety-eighth ranked player. But I’m sympathetic. This is a situation begging for the introduction of Shot Spot technology.

As for Ginepri, winning in a competitive environment takes luck and skill. He lucked out with the bad call but he also pulled himself through a walkabout and three match points to get the most important victory of his career. This is the kind match that can change a player’s mindset. Next time Ginepri will feel comfortable with the thought of beating a top five player and that might be enough to lift him into the company of the seeded players on tour.

Ginepri went on to beat Taylor Dent and win this tournament. He’s on his way.

Roscoe Tanner falls again

When I wrote about Roscoe Tanner in December 2004, I got the highest number of comments of any column I’ve written. People who grew up with him or people for whom he was their hero all hoped that Tanner had finally reached a point where he could stay in one place and take responsibility for his actions.

It looks like we all have to wait a little bit longer. Tanner was supposed to appear in court for a child support hearing. Instead he took off in a car leased with the owner of the tennis club where he was teaching, no doubt an arrangement designed to help Tanner out, and finally turned up at a club tournament in England. It’s not only repeated bad behavior but it’s the same bad response. Tanner has disappeared before while on the run from an arrest warrant or the fallout from a bounced check. A man who received a bad check for $39,000 from Tanner next learned about his whereabouts when he popped up at a tennis tournament in Germany.

It’s a small world made all the smaller with the security response to ever increasing terrorist attacks. It’s not like you can shove off for a small island and hide away for the rest of your life. Tanner can’t even do this right. Where is the first place you might look for a fugitive tennis player? Let me guess, a tennis tournament? Where would he run to? Let me see, a country that has an extradition treaty with the U.S.?

I have a lot of sympathy for the guy. Clearly he wants to get caught else he would have been a lot smarter. He has a problem and can’t or won’t do anything about it. Unfortunately, it might be harder to find the help he needs in jail.

Hewitt & Coria – World War Tennis

Late one night I was driving around Hancock Park completely lost when I took an illegal u-turn and found my car pointed at a tennis court I’d never seen before. I thought I knew all the tennis courts in town. Next to the court was an old vine covered building. It looked like there might be one or two courts at most. Turns out that I had discovered the Los Angeles Tennis Club, an institution with great importance in the west coast tennis world. It has sixteen courts, not two, and a membership costs $12,000 up front.

Back when tennis was a totally white bread upper class sport and tennis players were amateurs, the LATC was the place for the chosen to play. Jews and other outsiders had to play cross-town at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. The coach at Beverly Hills was tennis great Pancho Segura, a superbly talented brown-skinned Ecuadorian.

Jimmy Connors grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois. His mother and grandmother raised him to have a chip on his shoulder. He was from the wrong side of the tracks and anyone who dared to step between him and victory was taking away his God-give right to the American dream. Never mind that his grandfather had been the mayor of East St. Louis and his mother had been a successful tennis player.

In his book, Jimmy Connors Save My Life, Joel Drucker recounts a story from Connors’ juniors career. An opponent was concerned because he’d heard that Connors cheated on line calls. He decided to wait until Connors actually cheated before he called a linesman. While he was warming up for the match he heard Connors’ mother ask Jimmy, “We hear this guy cheats. Do you want me to get a linesman?”

Connors’ mother chose a coach for her son who had an outsider status she could relate to: Pancho Segura.

We know where Jimmy Connors learned to win tennis matches by any means necessary but what is Lleyton Hewitt’s excuse? His parents seem to be perfectly nice people. They don’t run onto the court after a match like Maria Sharapova’s father, they haven’t been banned from tournaments like Jelena Dokic’s father, they don’t hold up signs during the match or make incendiary comments to the press like Richard Williams. What is Lleyton’s problem?

He applauds his opponent’s errors, plays to his fanatical fans and ignores his opponent, he celebrates with the lawnmower and he flashes the vicht. Opponents have spat at him and tried to drill him on the fly with their serve. Even a gracious competitor like Andy Roddick took an illegally long clothing break in a grand slam semifinal to piss Hewitt off.

Didn’t work. He’s a runt. He’s the kid who is too small and slams and smashes his way to the top to prove everyone wrong. He has the same attitude as Connors: there is my crew and there is everyone else. And everyone else is the enemy.

He is supremely combative, fighting drives him. Here is a guy who was the youngest man to reach the number one ranking, at age 20, dropped all the way back to a ranking of seventeen and recreated his game to get back to a solid number two. Before, he had to spin his serve wide to find an ace. Now he regularly busts aces down the middle. The only player in the top ten with more aces is Andy Roddick. He used to be allergic to the net. Now he attacks regularly.

Let’s see how he gets into it with Guillermo Coria of Argentina in the 2005 Davis Cup quarterfinal in Sydney, Australia.

It starts out innocently enough. Serving at 1-1, 15-0, Hewitt hits a running passing shot down the line and lets out his first “come aaaaawn”. Coria applauds the shot. Coria is pissed off but not at Hewitt. The Aussies have laid down a grass court on top of the Har Tru court and it’s damp so Coria is slipping. He also probably doesn’t appreciate the drug paraphernalia on the t-shirts worn by Hewitt’s Fanatics, a reference to the suspiciously high number of drug tests by South American players, including Coria.

Hewitt is making a lot of errors and loses his serve in the fifth game. He may be feeling pressure because he’s the only good Aussie player. His teammate, Wayne Arthurs, is not likely to beat Davide Nalbandian. Sad to say, given its illustrious history, Australia has only two players in the top 100.

Serving at 5-4, 0-15, Coria hits a ball into the net and Hewitt comes out with another “come awn”. Applauding an opponent’s error, uh oh, the battle begins. Hewitt wins the game to get the break back and the set goes to a tiebreaker. At 4-4 in the tiebreaker, Hewitt approaches with an inside out forehand then hits a deep volley that forces Coria to put up a lob. Hewitt tracks down the lob and hits a passing shot down the line but Coria hits a beautiful slicing volley beyond Hewitt’s reach. Coria immediately turns to the Argentinians in the crowd with a fist pump and a primal yell. No doubt to annoy Hewitt. Coria is a fighter, a willing combatant.

Hewitt wins the next two points then hits an inside out forehand that Coria can’t return. The little guy has won the first set and here comes the lawnmower, the next maneuver in Hewitt’s arsenal. Coria is disgusted, he was up a break and had four break points to go up 5-2 and has nothing to show for it.

The battle escalates early in the second set when Hewitt gets a break point in the first game with a beautiful drop volley and breaks out the vicht. In the second game, Coria gets a break point off his own on a cross court volley and celebrates by mimicking the lawn mower. Hewitt wins both games. He serves well, attacks frequently and hits only one unforced error to win the second set 6-1.

Even with his newfound attacking style, Hewitt is still not the kind of player to force the issue. He plays the same relentless game no matter what the score. This is a good thing if he’s down, it means he never gives up. But it also means that he doesn’t have another gear. He’s up two sets, he should be tightening the noose. Instead, inexplicably, he can barely get the ball over the net. The crowd goes to sleep, there is a lull in the battle. Coria cranks up his game and takes back a set, 6-1.

I think I’m getting the picture here. If no-one is lobbing grenades at Hewitt, he falls asleep.

Coria should know by now. The more combative the match, the better Hewitt plays.

In the fourth set, the players are even at 2-2 when Hewitt shouts out another “come awn” at a Coria error. On the next point, Hewitt mimics swinging at a Coria ball that is long. Coria doesn’t appreciate it and they have words. Doesn’t he know he’d be much better off if he doesn’t feed Hewitt any more ammunition?

If there is any doubt that Hewitt thrives on adversity, it is erased by watching the best game of the match. With Hewitt serving up a break at 3-2, 15-0, he hits a winning drop volley then stands at the net and salutes with the vicht again. Coria wins the next point with a lob that lands just inside the line then does his own vicht. At 40-30, Coria hits a great return down the line. Hewitt barely gets it back to Coria who hits drop volley. Hewitt reaches the ball and pops it up to Coria who smashes the ball right at Hewitt.

Coria exults and turns to the baseline before realizing that he should turn back towards Hewitt and put his hand up to apologize. We are not convinced. Hewitt then serves an ace wide, dismisses Coria with an upturned hand and tells him to f-off. Coria should know by now. The more combative the match, the better Hewitt plays. Hewitt wins the game and goes on to win the fourth set and match 7-6 (5), 6-1, 1-6, 6-2.

You can see why most of the tennis world calls Hewitt a jerk. Don’t look for him to mellow out any time soon, though. Like Connors, he derives a great deal of motivation from pretending that the world is against him. It’s driven him to a number one ranking and a very good Davis Cup record. Why stop now?