By Bill Simons
One of the more curious tag lines in tennis is “bad dad.”
In an era of problematic fathers, the phrase rings true. But, at the same time, it’s far too simplistic. Life’s complicated. It’s easy to judge.
Yes, the term capsulizes a phenomenon in tennis: pushy, relentless pops who, in order to produce a champ, go over the top, and inflict verbal, emotional or even physical abuse. Andre Agassi wrote at length about his dad, a frustrated Iranian boxer who “coulda shoulda” been an Olympic champ, until judges robbed him of the fame he thought was his due. He subsequently dangled a tennis ball over his son’s crib, long before Andre lifted the Wimbledon trophy.
Steffi Graf‘s dad went to jail – tax evasion was the charge. But there were other issues, too. The father of Croatian Jelena Dokic was an abusive drunk. She suffered dearly.
“Bad dad” stories – mild or maddening – abound. Bernie Tomic‘s Dad, angered when his son was repeatedly called for foot-faults, yanked him off the court. Eight-year-old Anastasiya Korzh was ejected from a New Zealand tournament when officials discovered she was wearing a radio earpiece to get instructions from her father. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni told writer Wayne Coffey that her dad regularly beat her with a shoe, and after she defaulted from an event when she was 14, he beat her in a bathtub for 40 minutes. When he was done, he gave her money to go buy ice cream. More recently, Timea Bacszinsky cut all ties with her controlling dad.
Yuri Sharapov, Maria’s Dad, was obsessed. He came to America with 700 bucks and would take his kid to lessons on the handles of his bike. Now Maria has millions. He was intense and full of bravado, but there was no evidence of abuse.
Pam Shriver said her favorite dad was Lindsay Davenport‘s. Her reasoning was devastating: she never once saw him.
The late Stefano Capriati was intense. Sadly, he forced his teenage daughter to do an exhibition match in Tokyo right after playing in Australia.
Outstanding money, not-so-outstanding parenting.
Eventually Jennifer would endure many more woes, including burn-out.
In contrast, when a promoter approached Jimmy Evert with a briefcase full of money for a proposed exhibition featuring his young daughter, he threw the guy out out of his house.
The elder Evert, who passed recently at age 91, was a master teacher who taught his kids on a public court in Ft. Lauderdale. All five excelled, but his second daughter, his beloved Chrissie, was No. 1 in the family, No. 1 in the world and No. 1 in many a heart.
Like other legendary tennis parents – Richard Williams, Michael Agassi and Gloria Connors – the late Evert had Illinois connections. And, like others, the Notre Dame product migrated to the Sun Belt to succeed. Unlike many a tennis parent, Evert was a bravado-free zone. I once saw him enter a West End theater in London with his wife Colette.
“Wow,” I thought, “There’s the legendary coach who shaped a star.” But there was no swagger. The Everts emanated nothing but humility. On second glance, they were just like any other baffled American tourists wondering where the heck their seats were in row J.
Virtually every day, Jimmy Evert took mass in Fort Lauderdale’s St. Anthony Church. On August 26, the place was packed, to celebrate the life of a unique and gentle man.
There have been other good fathers in tennis. Wayne Bryan loves the game with every fiber of his soul, and I always liked the late Karolj Seles, a hilarious Yugoslavian cartoonist who drew doodles to lighten the heavy load on his daughter Monica’s slim shoulders. He spoke with a heavy accent. I barely understood a word he said – still, I relished listening. The man adored his daughter. His glee was clear, his paternal pride sweet and deep.
There was good reason for Jimmy Evert to be proud. All five of his children were state champs, and all reached the finals of national championships. And, permit us to ask: has there been a more beloved champ than Chrissie?
When she spoke to that packed Florida church, in the presence of Martina Navratilova, Mary Carillo and Pam Shriver, she said it was “probably the most important speech I’ll have to give in my life.”
Chrissie wasn’t known for her aces, but she aced her remembrance, noting that “ten hours a day, seven days a week, for 49 years,” he taught tennis at the humble Holiday Park in town. He was married for 62 years to Colette and “not once did I hear them fight – not once. They called each other ‘Sweetie.’ They held hands at 85.” Her Dad had won the Canadian Open, but Chrissie only found out when she, too, captured the tourney and discovered her dad’s name on it.
Chrissie stated the obvious; “The father-coach role is tricky,” she said. “[But] never did he put pressure on me to perform. Never did he get mad if I lost – only if I didn’t try.”
Writer David Hyde noted, “We root for the good guys in sports. We root for dignity. We root for modesty. We root for those who understand the importance of winning and losing – and of what’s more important…Tennis, Jimmy felt, wasn’t instilled in his five children to breed a champion…The bigger ideal was to instill goals, teach lessons and most of all keep the family together.”
Jimmy felt that emotions should be held tight. It was not only the right thing, it was perplexing for foes. No wonder that, until she evolved, Chrissie was called “the Ice Princess.”
Evert said, “[Dad’s] legacy, really, was the way he lived his life.”
“It sounds like a Jimmy Stewart movie, the life Jimmy Evert led,” noted the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. “He slept, worked, prayed and molded a champion all in a half-mile radius. He was eulogized where he prayed, by a family that grew up here, too.”
And, of course, much of tennis grew up with Chrissie, thanks in large measure to a good dad – a dad named Jimmy.