One summer day in 1983, Roland Jaeger stood at the portals of the All England Lawn Tennis and Cricket Club, gazing at the genteel hubbub that is Wimbledon. The grass was green, the breeze was mild, and his daughter, Andrea Jaeger, was the third-ranked tennis player in the world. Here in the bosom of tennis tradition, a father could be forgiven a moment's pause to consider his daughter's ultimate place in the history of the game.
Though she was very young, very talented and very rich, there was talk that summer about Andrea Jaeger abandoning "the life" for a college education at Stanford.
Most parents would be thrilled at such a prospect, Roland Jaeger was told. "She can go to college in five years," he replied. "If she can still remember her ABCs."
Three years later, after a one-semester interlude at a community college in Florida, Andrea Jaeger is back on the tour. She is neither the player she once was nor the student she wanted to be. She is a casualty of the game, of what Karen Stabiner calls "the perilous road to women's tennis stardom."
This is the subject and subtitle of "Courting Fame," a persuasive, intelligent and ultimately damning indictment of life in pursuit of fuzzy, optic-yellow fame.
The story is told through the eyes of Debbie Spence, the No. 1 player in the highest echelon of junior tennis for 1983, a young woman caught in the vortex of pressures generated by her talent and her need to succeed. Stabiner chronicles her nomadic existence, her temper tantrums, her nutritional excesses, her wins and losses as she lurches toward the inevitable decision to turn pro. The pages are filled with the details of an empty existence.
This is not so much the story of oneendcol player but of the system that makes and unmakes her. Andrea Jaeger and Tracy Austin, whose careers have been "short-circuited" by injury and burnout, appear as ghostly reminders of the precarious success craved by Debbie Spence and thousands of other little girls with big backhands and bigger dreams.
But, as Stabiner points out in the introduction, this is not simply a book about women's tennis. "A promising tennis player is a distant cousin to any child who ever showed early promise, and what happens to her and her family along the way happens, to some degree, to every family with a talented child."
But talent does not suffice in a cutthroat world where everyone is searching for the next blond bombshell with a winning record and a winning smile. "The fifteen-year-old with the killer backhand and the ruffled underpants is just the sort of charming contradiction who wins popular acceptance," Stabiner writes. "More than any other woman athlete, a young tennis star can be sold."
Stabiner is most effective and pointed in describing the process that turns little girls into commodities. She is less sure-footed in describing the athleticism that spawns the process. Debbie Spence, her friends, her family, come alive as real people caught in a snowballing system beyond their control. But there is virtually no attempt to portray her athleticism or her game.
For girls like Spence, the pressure to succeed increases in direct proportion to the investment made in them by parents, coaches, agents. The external pressures are matched only by those generated within. Debbie Spence plays sick and tired and hurt because she is taught from day one to give the proverbial 110 percent.
Her success reinforces her compul-endcol sion. It also makes her feel special in ultimately destructive ways. What 15-year-old is likely to retain or attain any real sense of self when grown-ups dote on her every word? "The girls always look at themselves as being very great and special," says Spence's coach, Robert Lansdorp. "They're a bunch of bitches, that's what they are." "They have no sense of reality," says agent Chuck Bennett. So it is not so hard to understand Debbie Spence's ordering her mother to pick up a dropped racket or her despair when, one morning after a particularly bad loss at the U.S. Open, she began to whine about the quality of a particular cup of hot chocolate. "She had reached her tolerance level," Stabiner writes, "both for being alone and for being unhappy."
Stabiner points very few fingers. The process is the villain here: not the players, not the parents who want the best for their children. Stabiner's greatest accomplishment may be in showing just how difficult it is within this environment to make wise decisions about the future.
"I've always looked at it as if, if I just make it, I'll be rich and I won't need to do anything else," Debbie Spence says. "Now I don't really know. I have to wait and see if I will be rich and won't have to worry. If not? I'll marry a rich man. If I play tennis, I've got to meet some guy with money."
Perhaps, like Andrea Jaeger, you have to be No. 3 in the world, physically debilitated and emotionally spent to see the point of college.
Debbie Spence is currently ranked 44th in the world. Andrea Jaeger is 113th.