'Til Death Do Us Part: A Tennis Marriage Primer


Buzz (Wedding1)The wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton delighted billions. And why not? It was a fairy tale like no other. Well, no other since William’s mother and father — Lady Di and Prince Charles — did their royal thing. Of course, at times like this, tennis is far from the radar screen. Except, in this case, Middleton happens to be a huge tennis fan, and shortly before their wedding day, she and her groom relaxed by going on court for a hit. Now it’s said that Kate may become a high-profile regular at Wimbledon.

In tennis, weddings and marriage have drawn many a comment. Writer Bruce Jenkins said that a young Monica Seles was just like “the perennial giddy teenager at her first wedding reception, working on her third glass of champagne.”

Many have applauded marriage.

“The first key to a great sense of balance,” contended Andre Agassi, “is having a great wife. Without a support system, it wouldn’t be possible.” Mardy Fish, whose results soared after his marriage to model Stacey Gardner, said that after his wedding he had more to play for than just himself, adding, “Happiness off the court translates to clear-mindedness.”

But when Dutchman Paul Haarhuis was asked whether plans for his upcoming wedding would adversely affect his play, he replied, “I hope not — otherwise there’s going to be a divorce very fast.” Similarly, John McEnroe predicted, “Marriage probably is going to ruin” Pete Sampras‘ tennis. “He hasn’t been able to really play [well] since he got married.” (Shortly thereafter, Sampras scored his signature farewell win over Agassi at the ’02 U.S. Open.

The biggest weddings in tennis history were in the East. Sania Mirza‘s two-nation, six-day Islamic wedding drew 5,000 of her closest friends. It took her five hours to get through the reception line. Six thousand guests witnessed Mahesh Bhupathi‘s nuptials.

The most opulent tennis wedding in the West was probably Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario‘s first wedding to sportswriter Juan Vehils. But when the marriage proved to be short-lived, Pam Shriver quipped, “Some of Aranxta Sanchez Vicario’s rallies lasted longer than her marriage” The next big wedding in tennis will probably be between Maria Sharapova and New Jersey Net Sasha Vujacic.

Years ago, the big marriage tennis anticipated was between Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors. But they called it off. So, by far, the union of Agassi and Steffi Graf is — ranking wise — is the greatest sports marriage ever. Speaking of Agassi, few have revealed so extensively how doomed they felt about a pending marriage. Agassi wrote that as he was proposing to Brooke Shields, who was to become his first wife, he thought, “I’m kissing her and thinking, ‘I really wish I thought this through. Is this the person Andre Kirk Agassi is supposed to spend the next 99 years with?’ ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ ‘Wait,’ I think. ‘Wait, wait, wait.'”

Then, on his wedding day in Carmel in ’97, he reported that within the sweltering chapel, as helicopters hovered overhead, he thought, “I’d give anything for a puff of fresh air…My body and nerves are shot. As the priest drones on, sweat drips from my brow, from my chin… Everyone is looking. They’re sweating too, but not like me.” Agassi eventually would report that the collapse of his marriage to Shields led to his use of crystal meth.

McEnroe and actress Tatum O’Neal‘s wedding in ’86 in Oyster Bay was rather like Agassi’s. Mac recalled, “It was unbelievably hot in the church, and with all those people outside and helicopters flying overhead, I just couldn’t relax.” McEnroe’s second wedding, in ’97 to Patty Smyth in Maui, reflected his view of the media: “It was pouring rain that day, which made me smile inside, because I knew it made the photographers’ lives miserable.”

Selling wedding pictures (by players from Bjorn Borg and Lleyton Hewitt to Roger Federer and Janko Tipsarevic) has long been a standard practice. Few more so than Boris Becker. The British magazine Hello! ran dozens of stylish snaps of his Swiss mountain chapel wedding. Ten million viewers dialed into the event’s TV broadcast. But in a curious dispute, a court ordered Becker to pay $2,000 to pay the minister. Still, our favorite media dispute came at Borg’s wedding to Italian rocker Loredan Berte, where a brawl broke out between photographers who had and had not paid to snap the official pics.

Our favorite media-player dialogue came last year, when a reporter asked Robin Soderling, “I know you’re recently married, so talk about how that’s helped you? The Swede replied, “I’m not married.”

•The trans-Atlantic marriage between Chris Evert and Britain’s John Lloyd was both one of the best intra-tennis marriages ever and perhaps the most notable British-American marriage since the controversial partnership of King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson and, before that, Winston Churchill‘s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, and American mother Jennie Jerome.

•Sometimes marriage impacts athletic performance. All three of Evert’s former husbands — tennis’ Lloyd, skier Andy Mill and golfer Greg Norman — surged after marrying Chrissie. Evert said she hoped her marriage to Lloyd would win over the British press, who had dubbed her an “Ice Maiden.” Czechoslovakian Hana Mandlikova married restaurateur Jan Sedlak, seemingly to attain Australian citizenship.

•After their marriages, the performances of both Borg and McEnroe suffered. Nonetheless, Todd Martin insisted, “It’s absolutely inane, insane and asinine, to think that somebody could be adversely affected by a decision to make themselves more complete.”

•Some are blasé about marriage. Tipsarevic said his marriage “wouldn’t change anything.” Anna Kournikova sighed, “Weddings and marriages, whatever — it’s not something very important to me. I believe in people being together and just having fun.”

Of course, for many traditionalists, marriage is key. But it can also be critical for non-traditionalists, too. Countering critics of same-sex marriage, Martina Navratilova said, “Apparently, gays are the greatest threat to culture ever. The Iraq war, that’s not a big problem…Kids being obese and 50 million Americans uninsured, that’s not a problem, but gay marriage is…Immigration doesn’t work, and blacks and Jews, that’s all gone, so now it’s gays. We’re the last minority it’s okay to pick on.”

Not surprisingly, Kim Clijsters offered a nuanced view on marital matters. “I have a lot of friends who it’s really made their life a lot better,” she reported. “But I also have friends who have gotten divorced quickly. It all depends if you finally get the right guy…But I’m not a marriage counselor.”

As for the leader of our era, Federer got married in an intimate service at the registrar’s office in Basel in ’09. His bride, Mirka, wore an Oscar de la Renta dress to hide her pregnancy. Later, when he was reminded that marriage hasn’t always been a boon for players, Fed quipped, “That’s why I waited 10 years.” Then he compared the role of marriage for relatively sedentary soccer players and nomadic tennis players, saying that tennis players “cannot get married that early. And if we do, you’re not going to see the other person maybe for over 50 percent of the year. It’s hard to keep up a good relationship. I was lucky.”