ME TOO – Can It Take Hold in Tennis?

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Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images for LTA

By Michael Mewshaw

On the first day of Wimbledon, in a major interview for the London Guardian, Judy Murray, mother of Andy and doubles champ Jamie and former coach of the UK Fed Cup team, voiced concerns about women’s tennis whose culture she characterized as “entirely dysfunctional.” What worried her most was “the abuse of teenage girls.” Asked whether tennis would have its #MeToo moment, she said, “I think anybody would tell you that there are examples.” But she believed that fear kept girls quiet and thus the subject of sexual abuse simply hadn’t come out yet.

Judy Murray deserves a debt of gratitude for courageously raising a difficult subject and advocating that anybody “who has been the victim of abuse in [a] coaching relationship speak about it.” But she did not exactly reference the past 25 years players, coaches and journalists have gone to great lengths to point out the problem. Pro tennis remains the Teflon Sport. Sadly it has often ignored evidence, dismissed eyewitness accounts, intimidated victims, brushed off expert opinion, failed to report crimes to the police, and punished journalists who wrote about the seamier side of the game.

In 1991 while researching Ladies of the Court: Grace and Disgrace on the Women’s Tennis Tour, I interviewed Gregory Briehl, a practicing psychologist who had treated a number of female players who had been sexually abused by their coaches. He cited the case histories of adolescent girls who had been coerced into sex by coaches at academies, on national squads, on Fed Cup teams and at the Olympics.

As I followed the tour, I spoke with dozens of players, coaches, parents, agents and insiders, all of whom had stories about coaches and older players preying on young girls. The now-retired teaching pro Denis Van der Meer once estimated that 90% of the coach/player relationships on the circuit were sexual in nature. How many of them constituted sexual abuse, he said, was a matter of legal judgment. But the police and legal authorities were never notified. Instead, the tour continued checking juvenile girls and adult male coaches into the same officially sanctioned tournament hotels, and it allowed young players to receive massages and physio from male therapists without requiring a third party to be present.

No authorities ever denied that coaches were having sex with underage players. In one especially memorable interview, One observer suggested this was no different from college professors sleeping with their students. But most universities have rules governing faculty/student relationships, and that given the age of many girls in tennis, the problem was actually comparable to a high school gym teacher having sex with someone in his class.

My book Ladies of the Court came out in the lead-up to the 1993 Miami Open on Key Biscayne, and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel broke the story about the book’s discussion of sexual abuse on the circuit. The tournament immediately cancelled my press credentials and revoked its permission to sell copies on site. It’s hard to imagine a more emphatic signal to other reporters that this was a subject they covered at their peril.

In subsequent years, under pressure, authorities passed a rule forbidding even consensual sex between coaches and players under the age of seventeen. This led the French Federation to fire coaches Patrice Dominguez and Loic Courteau for having affairs with girls on the national junior training team. But then within a few years Courteau returned to coaching, and Dominguez was rehired in 2005 as a technical director by the French Federation. Associated Press requested an explanation of this turnabout, but not a single official would comment. After Dominguez died in 2015, there was a celebration of his life and career on Court Centrale during Roland Garros.

When a rumor spread that a former Wimbledon champion claimed she had been raped at the age of 16 by a coach who was still on the tour, I arranged a one-on-one interview with her. The player agreed to speak to me, but the WTA sent along a minder. The instant I mentioned the coach and asked about his behavior, the minder interrupted, objecting to the question. I complained to WTA officials, including then tour director Bart McGuire, that the minder had clearly signaled the player not to discuss sexual abuse. And indeed the former Grand Slam champion never spoke about her alleged abuse.

In 2007, at Roland Garros, Isabel Demongeot, formerly a top-ranked French player whom I had interviewed for Ladies of the Court and who later coached Amélie Mauresmo, told me she had written a memoir, Service Volé, about her coach, Régis de Camaret. He had started sexually molesting her at the age of 13. Frightened and confused, Demongeot stayed silent as Camaret went on to rape her and subject her to sexual outrages that destroyed her emotionally and ruined her as a player. Finally she filed charges against Camaret, and more than a dozen other girls came forward to testify that Camaret had also sexually assaulted them. Ultimately Camaret was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in jail.

I attempted to spread word about this case, but American and British journalists observed that it was difficult to generate interest in a French player. It might be different, they said, if she had ever won a major title. This reminded me of Mary Pierce and her physically abusive father Jim. That story had interested no one until Mary’s ranking improved and her father threatened the life of a reporter for the New York Times. The takeaway seemed to be that sexual abuse or violence against lower-ranked girls simply had no traction with the press. But Isabel Demongeot’s greatest disappointment was that officials showed so little interest in her case. Since she had traveled to tournaments around the world with Camaret, she suspected that authorities knew about their relationship. But no one had offered help then or welcomed the input she offered about how the tour should handle sexual abuse cases in the future.

The subject of sexual abuse is squalid – unpleasant to write about or read about – and almost inevitably it prompts retaliation. But as the bravery of women in the #MeToo movement proves, a culture of indifference and corruption can be changed if victims speak out and if the press takes them seriously. So like Judy Murray I’ll close by calling on men and women, current players as well as retired veterans who still work as coaches and commentators, to step up and tell their stories. They know what’s going on. In many cases, they recall what happened to them and how hurtful it was. Why not join the world-wide movement to shame offenders publicly and make the tour a safer place?

Michael Mewshaw’s Ad In Ad Out, a collection of his tennis essays, is now available as an e-book, as is his ground-breaking book on the men’s tour, Short Circuit.

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