It may not say much about me but one of the great pleasures of my life is reading Sports Illustrated as soon as it arrives at my door. In this week’s issue I saw a quote from a Mongolian beach volleyball player (there are no beaches in Mongolia) then a picture of the World Elephant Polo Association’s championship tournament in Nepal (for some extremely odd reason, Scotland won the championship. Are there elephants in Scotland that I’m unaware of? Evidently there are because earlier this year a scientist theorized that the Loch Ness monster was actually an elephant from a traveling circus taking a swim in the loch. I suppose the Sean Connery character in the The Man Who Would Be King could have taken a few elephants back from Afghanistan after he escaped. Wait a minute, the Afghanis killed the Sean Connery character didn’t they? And Connery is Scottish but his character was British. Actually, I think Rudyard Kipling was inspired by an American adventurer when he wrote that story. Never mind.).

This was not a reluctant child-athlete fulfilling her father’s dream; she was well suited to the task. At least that’s how it looked on the surface.

After that I read the annual Sportsman of the Year article (basketball player Dwyane Wade. I know he had a very difficult life and I know he married his childhood sweetheart when she got pregnant, that alone should nominate him for sainthood in the NBA Father’s Hall of Fame, but Shaquille O’Neal never won the award and Kobe Bryant never won it. And, hello, one championship does not a legend make. Instead, how about winning three out of four grand slams, how about reaching six straight grand slam finals, how about winning more than ninety matches, how about winning twelve titles, and how about winning both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open for the third straight year? If you got here because you were googling elephants or Afghanistan and don’t know who I’m talking about, it’s Mr. Roger Federer. Oh, I forgot, Roger is a foreigner. I found 4 foreigners in 53 years of handing out the S.I. Sportsman/woman of the year award. Doesn’t Sports Illustrated cover the world of sports? I’ll get back to that issue in a future post. It begs for more comment.)

And then I saw something that looked like a spoof but, I think, is not, though it’s so odd that I understand why I thought it was: former tennis phenomenon Andrea Jaeger dressed as a nun complete with wimple and white collar.

In case you don’t remember her, she was the original young tennis terror with a pushy father who turned pro at the age of fourteen (in 1980) long before Martina Hingis, Mary Pierce, Jennifer Capriati and their pushy parent did the same thing. A picture of Jaeger in her playing days shows her long blonde hair and headband. At first I thought it was Steffi Graf and now I was concerned that she had converted too but I don’t think convents take children.

If you’d known Jaeger at age 14, you’d never guess that she would end up in a habit. She was a rough and tumble player with a solid competitive streak who reached two grand slam finals. Instead of going to her seat on the game break, she’d “march to the baseline and stand there, one hand on her hip, tapping her foot, glaring at the umpire as if to say, ‘If this chump can’t come out for the next round, why don’t you just stop the fight.?’” (1) This was not a reluctant child-athlete fulfilling her father’s dream; she was well suited to the task. At least that’s how it looked on the surface.

But on the inside, she knew at age 14 that she would end up doing God’s work and this is where the short interview get’s interesting. She didn’t tell anyone because “how many people wanted to hear that? Sponsors didn’t. Management groups didn’t.” So here she was a teenager trying to maneuver everything from puberty to management groups all the while knowing that tennis was not her purpose in life.

This is the main argument against the pushy tennis parent. A child, and they are children, agrees to undergo the tortuous regimen required to become a professional tennis player. The child has more talent and desire than 96 or 97% of the rest of the population but is tennis what they really want to do? How does a 9 or 10 year-old know what they really want to do?

Andrea Jaeger knew but she couldn’t extract herself from tennis until she was 19 years old when she suffered a debilitating shoulder injury. The injury was so bad that she had 6 different operations and still had difficulty lifting objects five years later. Subconsciously she may have been praying for the injury. How else could she get out of tennis because she actually says in the interview: “I would never have left on my own, because of sponsors and family.” Wow, I’ve never read a comment that so perfectly expresses the dependent position of young athletes.

She went on to create a foundation for children dealing with serious illness and now has taken the ultimate step towards service by becoming a nun. But life could have been much easier for her. It shouldn’t have been necessary to suffer a debilitating injury just so she could maneuver an exit from something she didn’t want to do.

(1) Peter Bodo, Courts of Babylon, 1995 (get it, one of the best books on tennis ever written. I don’t like his characterization of the lesbian community – and that begs for a future post too – but the psychological insight is invaluable. Everything from Bjorn Borg’s sad ending to the incongruity of Stefan Edberg’s psychedelic tennis clothing)

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