Saturday, August 23, 2008

Fathers, daughters, and tennis ambitions

Anna Chadvetadze first came to my attention when news broke in December 2007 of her Moscow home being invaded by six men who tied up the tennis player and her father and robbed them of over $300,000. I remember wondering idly at the time where her mother was and how she had managed to escape this trauma.

Chadvetadze (right) is Russian with Georgian roots on her father’s side. But don’t ask her anything about that because she will assertively put you in your place and r
emind you that she is here to talk tennis thank you very much. You can however ask her about her tennis ambitions. She plans to become world #1. And she is going to do this with her father’s steady and unequivocal support.

Chadvetadze’s father is usually present at her matches. And she spends the entire match glancing up at him for apparent validation of her performance. Today, against Caroline Wozniaki – who
won the Pilot Pen finals, and who should not be confused with the Canadian Wozniak who also seems to be having a good year – Chadvetadze looked to her father to confirm that a shot was out, even though he was seated clear on the other side of the arena. She looks to him constantly. And he is always looking right back.

Chadvetadze has admitted that growing up, she used to look up to Anna Kournikova. I wonder if this is why she wears her hair in a similar braid and often attracts similar questions about a
future career in modeling. Kournikova became famous after her father sacrificed by sending his wife and daughter to America where he would later join them, and thereafter remain a visible presence in
the stands. I have always wondered at what point he became aware of his daughter’s involvement and later alleged secret marriage to the wealthy hockey player, Sergei Fedorov, who is 11 years her senior.

Like Anna Kournikova before them, tennis appears to have become for many attractive female players a means to a financial end. And fathers often seem to play a critical role in promoting their daughter’s ambitions.

And I don’t mean to give the impression that this is a uniquely Russian experience. There is no difference between these fathers and the African-American Richard Williams who, after watching a runner-up collect a check for $30,000, apparently persuaded then wife, Oracene Price, to have two more daughters who would become the source of a financial windfall. Having achieved his goals, Richard has been able to let go and allow his daughters to live their own lives, confident that they will never want for money.

Contrast th
is with many male tennis players whose fathers barely even attend their matches. Indeed, cases of emotionally enmeshed fathers are so few that they stand out. Agassi has been open about having to find a healthy balance between his father’s aspirations for him and his own ambitions for himself. Mark Philippoussis and his father have shared loud public screaming exchanges. But these stories stand out because of their infrequent occurrence.

Tennis fathers for the most part seem to have no difficulty separating from their sons. But with their daughters some often become far more clingy.
Take for instance Yuri Sharapov (below). Have you ever seen a match involving Maria Sharapova at which he was not a hovering presence? I have not. I can’t tell you what Maria’s mother looks like because she is never there. But Yuri remains a constant presence, often sitting alone, interacting with no one. Come rain or shine, he is there to support h
is daughter’s unimpeded success.

And Sharapova, with earnings of over $26 million, has enjoyed success like few others. Indeed, she is currently the world's highest-paid female athlete. By the time she won Wimbledon at age 17 in 2004, she had already been signed to promoting Nike and Prince. [Because she was underaged, these deals would have had to have been signed by a parent]. The adult Maria has since inked deals with Canon, Colgate-Palmolive, Sony, Motorola, and Tiffany. (I have to admit that I became suspicious of her decision to pull out of the Olympics. It may not have been a good time to remind the world that a Russian player has attracted the kind of offers that American athletes would kill for.)

Some fathers are more brutal in their pursuit of their daughter’s tennis success. Will anyone ever forget the ugly events surrounding Evgenia Simonovna Linetskaya whose father allegedly beat her up after the Acura Classic in November 2005? At stake was reportedly her prize money of $250,000.

And before Linetskaya, there were ugly incidents involving Damir Dokic [father of Jelena Dokic], and Jim Pierce [father of Mary Pierce], both of whom were allegedly abusive to their daughters. Both were eventually banned from attending WTA events. Steffi Graf’s father was imprisoned for not paying taxes on his daughter’s earnings.

And while Monica Seles’ father was apparently a much more supportive presence, her emotional dependence on him seemed to border on the bizarre. His death from cancer would be emotionally devastating for her. She coped by wearing his wedding ring on a chain around her neck.

As a psychologist, I am intrigued by this father-daughter dynamic that has influenced success for so many tennis players while simultaneously causing so much pain. It seems to be the rare parent who is able to strike a healthy balance between emotionally supporting his daughter’s aspirations, while allowing her the space to define and pursue her own separate developmental strivings. Perhaps there are fathers who fear that letting go would mean that their daughters would end up as self-destructive as Jennifer Capriati or as lost as Patty Schnyder. Enmeshment is not however a healthy resolution.

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