Father Federer

Sadly, the Tennis Gene Pool is Shallow

Not since world-beaters Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf tied the knot in ’01 has the impending birth of The Next Great Tennis Champion been so eagerly anticipated.  When Roger Federer and Mirka Vavrinec welcome their first child in the coming weeks, tennis junkies across the globe will no doubt launch into speculation as to whether we’ve witnessed The Second Coming.  After all, it’s not often that that a child comes into this world with such a gleaming tennis pedigree (don’t forget that Mirka, a jeweler’s daughter from tennis-happy Slovakia, is a former touring pro herself).  Think of the DNA.  Think of the possibilities.

Although Andre and Steffi’s five-year-old daughter, Jaz Elle, is reportedly playing tennis three or four times a week (ironically, under the supervision of Andre’s dad, Mike), it was recently revealed that the couple’s seven-year-old son, Jaden Gil, has more of a baseball bent.

Of course, there’s still a shot for Sampras’ sons – Christian, 6, and Ryan, 4, who enjoy the occasional hit with Pistol Pete.  But we’ve seen too many tennis offspring turn away from the sport.  Jimmy Connors’ kids – Brett and Aubree Leigh – didn’t inherit their famous father’s legendary competitive drive. At least not on the court.  None of Johnny Mac’s considerable brood – neither Kevin, Sean, Emily, Anna nor Ava – appear to have the gumption to attempt to follow in the footsteps of their SuperBrat dad.  (Who could blame them?)  Three of Ivan Lendl’s five daughters – Marika, Isabelle and Daniela – are making inroads in the world of sports.  Unfortunately, they’re doing it not on the tennis court but on the golf course.  Yannick Noah’s 6-foot-11 son, Joakim, chose basketball over tennis.

There are a few success stories: Hall of Famer Fred Stolle’s son, Sandon, enjoyed a successful career in doubles, collecting 22 titles, including the ’98 U.S Open. The Maleeva sisters – Manuela, Katerina and Magdalena (mom Yulia Berberyan was the top Bulgarian player in the ’60s) collectively gathered 11 WTA Tour titles.  And Aussie Phil Dent’s serve-and-volley son, Taylor, was briefly a top-25 presence and recently launched a comeback.  Others have enjoyed more marginal success – Prakash Amritraj (Vijay’s son excelled at USC and now represents India in Davis Cup play), Allison Bradshaw (Val Ziegenfuss’ daughter reached the third round at the U.S. Open in ’00), Holden and Carling Seguso (both are playing at UCLA), Kaes Van’t Hof (the son of former player/coach Robert tore it up at USC), Zach Gilbert (Brad’s son is now a junior at Cal), etc.  But when are we going to see an elite player follow in the footsteps of his/her parent?

It happens in baseball (think Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Cal Ripken Jr., etc.).  It happens in football (Peyton and Eli Manning, Anthony Dorsett, Brian Griese, etc.).  It happens in basketball (Kobe Bryant, Luke Walton, Jon Barry, etc.).  It happens in motor sports (the Unsers, the Andrettis, the Earnhardts, etc.). Heck, it even happens in boxing (Laila Ali, Floyd Mayweather, Jr., Marvis Frazier).  But where’s the legacy in tennis?  Where are the bloodlines?

Maybe it’s a statement on just how astronomical the odds are of making it on the ATP and WTA Tours, especially in successive generations.  Like father, like son?  Not likely.  Like mother, like daughter?  Nope.  But perhaps it’s even more telling.  It may just be that, in general, the top players are hesitant to push their kids into a sport that’s demanded so much of them, a sport that continually calls for sacrifice.  Maybe it’s too much to ask, too big a price tag.

“The toughest price was the childhood part,” Agassi once told Inside Tennis.  “It wasn’t normal.  I knew from an early age that the path I was going down was different and it was hard to be away from home during those very developmental years.  I missed out on the normal things.  Any time you separate yourself from what most people do, you’re leading your own life.  It has wonderful points, but there are painful times.”

For now, we’ll stay tuned as the Swiss population rises by one.  Maybe this will be the one.


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