Damir Dokic was lying in the middle of a road in Birmingham, England, stopping traffic. This was after he had been thrown out of a tennis tournament in which his daughter, Jelena, was competing for shouting abusive language at officials from the stands.
The police finally got him to leave the street--he was detained but never arrested--but the damage already had been done. The story shot around the sports world, and a few weeks later the 16-year-old Dokic found herself answering questions about her father's behavior instead of talking about her dramatic upset of Martina Hingis in the first round of Wimbledon.
A tennis parent had struck again.
"Tennis parents? Oh boy," Pam Shriver said, flashing a wry smile. She knows the phenomenon from the inside, as a child tennis star herself in the 1980s, and from the outside, in her current role as a television commentator.
"There's all sorts of tennis parents, and I've seen the whole gamut. Sometimes it fails miserably and sometimes it works out amazingly well. But we sure tend to hear about the ones where it doesn't. It's like I said a few years ago, that Lindsay Davenport's parents were my favorite tennis parents because I'd never met them."
As long as children have headed to the courts with their rackets, their parents have been there to drive them to their lessons, pay for coaching and help guide them if they turn professional. But in the past, only a few parents were recognizable to anyone outside the tight-knit tennis circuits. Now, as the amount of money available from tournament purses and endorsements has risen, more parents are becoming as well-known as their child prodigies, often for the wrong reasons.
The behavior of Mary Pierce's father, Jim, became so overbearing he was banned from his daughter's matches in 1993 and is still not allowed to watch her. Steffi Graf's father, Peter, was jailed for tax evasion on her income; Mirjana Lucic fled from her native Croatia after accusing her father, Marinko, of beating her for losing matches.
Other parents' behavior has been more salacious than dangerous: Venus and Serena Williams's father, Richard, raised eyebrows by calling another player "a big, white turkey." Alexandra Stevenson's mother, Samantha, has drawn fire for criticizing the WTA Tour. Other parents, like Davenport's, have drawn attention just for being normal.
"Fortunately, I love to say that my parents have a life," Davenport said. "If my parents said the things that some of the other parents said, I would never let them come back.
"I think [the problems] probably grow with the money. And the parents want to be the ones that are in control, whether it's so they can control the money or control the kids."
Many tennis players do have low-profile parents like Davenport's. The parents of players such as Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jana Novotna and Chanda Rubin rarely are seen at events, and even those who do often travel with their children, such as Anna Kournikova's mother, Allah, or Monica Seles's mother, Ester, rarely do more than sit in the stands and smile.
Rockville native Paul Goldstein, who made it to the third round of the Australian Open and Wimbledon this year, often has credited his maturity and even temper to his parents, Clark and Patti. Clark Goldstein once wrote an article for Tennis magazine on how to be a good tennis parent, complete with such rules as "don't sit on the court and watch your child take a lesson" and "don't live vicariously through your children." Still, he thinks that part of being a good tennis parent depends on circumstance.
"The bottom line is that there are good parents and bad parents just in life in general, so of course you're going to see that in tennis, too," he said. "And really, every parent out there cares for their child. It's not as simple as it seems.
"People are critical of Jennifer Capriati's parents because she turned professional at 13, but how many parents out there--good, noble parents--would honestly turn down the $5 million or so being offered to their kid at that age and say 'no endorsements and no pro matches, we'll just play in the 18-and-under championship for the next five years.' There's no one who values his college education more than Paul, [who went to Stanford,] but I truly wonder what he would have done if someone had come along earlier and offered him millions of dollars to play tennis."
Now 23 years old and back on the tennis circuit, Capriati's experiences often are used as a cautionary tale to young players and their parents. A stunning talent at a young age, Capriati turned professional shortly before her 14th birthday. But by the age of 18, both her career and personal life were in shambles, punctuated by an arrest for marijuana possession. Capriati's parents, Stefano and Denise, declined to be interviewed, but Shriver, who was around for much of Capriati's rise and fall, said there were several responsible parties.
"It's not like there is a pamphlet out there on the right way to raise a gifted child," she said. "I really think Denise and Stefano tried to do the right thing, but it was uncharted territory for them. You can't point to one place where everything went wrong for Jennifer, but I think everyone had a part--the WTA Tour, her agents, her parents, the media. This was a 14- or 15-year-old girl, and the pressures on her were tremendous."
Shriver also was a prodigy, reaching the U.S. Open final as an amateur at age 16. She said her parents, Sam and Margot, were very careful to encourage and support her without disrupting her training or interfering in her life, often staying behind in Baltimore while Shriver traveled with her coach. Most important, her father kept his job, as opposed to a number of tennis parents who give up their careers when their children begin making money on tour.
"I try to imagine what would have happened if my dad had left his job and I became the breadwinner of the family," she said. "As it was, there was so much pressure on me coming back to the U.S. Open at 17 after going to the finals at 16 that I almost had a nervous breakdown. I can't imagine if I also felt I had to win it because I was the one in the family making the money. I don't think I would have made it through."
Former star Jimmy Arias, who now coaches Seles, was more blunt.
"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," Arias said. "A lot of parents pushed before, but they didn't quit their jobs and live off their kids, which is a lot sicker. The bottom line is that you have to figure out what kind of relationship you want with your kid, and obviously some parents just don't care if it's not a good one."
For some tennis parents, their child is their job. Vince Spadea, Jan-Michael Gambill, Fabrice Santoro and Taylor Dent all are coached by their fathers. Three of the top nine women's players are coached by one of their parents, including Hingis, who is coached by her mother, Melanie Molitor. Hingis and Molitor had a brief falling out after Hingis lost to Steffi Graf in the French Open final--Molitor did not accompany Hingis to Wimbledon, the first time she has missed a major event--but is back with her daughter at the U.S. Open.
In some instances, the parent-as-coach situation seems to work: except for their troubles this summer, the partnership between Hingis and Molitor has been met with general praise, as was the relationship between Seles and her father-coach, Karolj, before he died last year. But in many cases problems flare, and players such as 19-year-old Russian phenom Marat Safin are troubled by the trend.
"I see a lot of parents that think their kids are the best in the world, and they come in and tell the coach that the kid has to work on the backhand or he is not serving right," Safin said. "You have to leave your son or daughter alone. If you are a lawyer, how do you know anything about tennis? Does the same coach come to the lawyer and say this is how you should be in the courtroom? Of course not."
Samantha Stevenson agrees that her daughter's development should be left to professional coaches, although she does travel with Alexandra. Her comments in England, which included that she was there "to protect Alexandra from the other girls," have made her unpopular with some players, including Davenport, who recently said "I've always had a problem with her mom. The things that she says are a little bit outrageous. Speaking out for the players, she offended almost everyone in women's tennis at Wimbledon." But Alexandra has consistently defended her mother, as well as Richard Williams, a family friend she described as "an interesting character."
"My mom has always been there, and she kept me normal in school, always making sure I had Halloween carnivals and birthday parties," Stevenson said. "Now, if I didn't have my mom on tour, I'd be totally lost. Maybe that's the problem with some of the other girls, that they don't have their parents with them.
"Really, tennis parents definitely get bashed a lot, and they shouldn't because there are only a couple who aren't very nice people. There are a lot of moms out there, and they are all pretty good and they take care of their kids."
In the end, the greatest offense most tennis parents are charged with is being pushy or overbearing. And while it's a reality that can be unpleasant for some of the other players or even the public, some believe that as the tennis world becomes more lucrative and competitive, it may also be a necessary evil.
"Now most of the good players come from pushy parents, because they are the ones grinding their kids, making them practice out on the courts for six or seven hours a day," said Brad Gilbert, a former player who coaches Andre Agassi. Gilbert's 10-year-old son, Zach ,is interested in tennis, but Gilbert does not coach him.
"That's why tennis has the worst bloodlines in any sport," Gilbert said. "Players who were pushed themselves don't want to do that to their own kids."