Taking care of business

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 January, 2007, 12:00am

Tennis can be the most solitary of pursuits. First comes the countless hours spent pounding balls in practice with little more than thoughts for company - the net separating you from your coach or practice partner as surely as it does from the rest of the world.

And where does this all lead? In the end, come match day, you have to head out there on court, one player - alone - against another.

So maybe that's why, more than any other sport, tennis has long been a place where family comes first as well. When you are alone, there is no better place to turn. Look left of centre court at any tournament in the world and you will see, gathered in the stands and back rooms, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters. It's as though players - faced with the solitude of the craft - react by surrounding themselves with familial security as soon as the last ball has bounced.

This week's Watsons Water Champions Challenge was a case in point. Maria Sharapova only had to glance a little to the left to see her father, Yuri, watching her every move. Kim Clijsters could be seen laughing with her mother, Els, while she signed autographs. And Elena Dementieva could often be caught on the outside courts, grinding her way through practice sessions with mother Vera close at hand.

For those three players - with a combined 25-odd years on the WTA Tour - the routine has by now been firmly established. They know these are people they can rely upon, opinions they can trust, shoulders they can lean on.

For those starting out on the WTA Tour, though, things are a little different. The families of youngsters Caroline Wozniacki and Nicole Vaidisova are still very much learning what it means to have a family member involved in the tennis circus. And as the annals of tennis history have shown, there is a very fine line between influence and interference.

'Once they go out on the court to play, there is nothing more we can do,' says Anna Wozniacki, whose 16-year-old daughter won the junior girls title at Wimbledon last year and is now about to embark on her first year on the WTA Tour.

'Our relationship with her is a difficult thing to explain. For us the most important thing is she just plays, and plays well, and enjoys what she does.'

Alex Kodat is Vaidisova's stepfather as well as her coach. And in the past year he has watched the 17-year-old climb to a career high 10 in the world rankings and make her first grand slam singles final, at last year's French Open.

'You have a relationship with any player you coach,' he says. 'But it is entirely different if they are part of your family. You are obviously closer but you have to be more careful as well. In the end, whatever happens, you will still be family and you can not destroy that.'

Anna says it was obvious they had someone special on their hands almost from the moment Caroline stepped on to a court. An active family - Anna played international volleyball for her native Poland and husband Victor was a member of the Polish national soccer team - they involved Caroline in all their after-work sporting exploits.

'Her talent was obvious to us from the beginning,' says Anna. 'Things always came very easy for her and sports have always been something she has enjoyed. I think the first time she beat me she was about eight or nine. She just started hitting balls past me.

'But I wasn't hurt by this. I was proud. We practised together and she would get tired because she was a little girl, but she could hit the ball and I was surprised. Surprised but very happy to see she had this talent.'

Next came the problem of how to harness this talent. Kodat had found himself in a similar position with Nicole and wanted to avoid going the same way as some of tennis' more notorious family affairs.

For every special parent-child relationship you see - such as the obvious strength of the bond between say Dementieva and her mother - history has thrown up one that is destructive, as a glance through the Jelena Dokic case file will attest.

'You want to shield them from the pressure and let them live their lives,' he says. 'But still you have part of you that sees the opportunities that are in front of them. But no matter what you say or do, the desire to play has to come from her.'

Anna agrees, saying there would be no point facing up to the pressure of the WTA Tour unless there was a inherent desire in Caroline to simply play the game of tennis.

'Yes, it is exciting,' she says. 'But it is hard work too and she has always been willing to do the hard work. There is no pressure on her. It has always come from her: 'I want to go play tennis. I want to go play tennis'. We got that all the time.'

For both parents, part of their role is to take away the worries that might distract from what their children have to do out on court.

'My husband takes care of the business side of things and what we want her to do is simply play tennis, have fun,' says Anna. 'It is very important to us that she enjoys her life, she has as normal a childhood as she can.'

Kodat agrees. 'Tennis is a sport where sometimes you just have to let the player get on with the job,' he says. 'Once they are out on the court, they are all alone. But we can make sure they have to worry about nothing but the match they are playing.'

Meanwhile, Caroline flies out from Hong Kong today to start out on her great adventure - her first year on tour. And while she is aware that whatever happens out on court comes right down to her, she is safe in the knowledge that her family will be there nearby.

'Now she is in the women's events everything will depend on her performances,' reflects Anna. 'We are going to Australia [for the Open] and we will see how she goes. But we know we have to take it easy.

'We are going for the grand slams to see how she goes but we want no pressure on her. She is still young and she has time. Everything will come in time. She knows she just has to enjoy it as we are living only this one time.'