AN UGLY PROBLEM IN A BEAUTIFUL SPORT
by Michael Mewshaw
For decades female empowerment has been integral to women’s tennis. It may have started as a slogan – “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!” – but it soon became a reality. Tennis is the foremost female sport in the world. Thousands have gained fame and fortune. But, like the little bug that undergirds the most beautiful butterfly, tennis has long hidden under its glamorous exterior an ugly truth. Women’s tennis is a petri dish of sexual abuse.
In the past year, deeply troubling events have forced the secrets of the circuit into the headlines. First, the former world No. 1 doubles player, Peng Shuai, posted an internet accusation that Zhang Gaoli, the retired Vice Premier of China, had assaulted her and coerced her into a sexual relationship. That she then disappeared and belatedly recanted her accusations did nothing to kill the controversy. Quite the contrary. The WTA cancelled all its tournaments in China until it could speak directly to Peng Shuai and verify her safety.
Subsequently Pam Shriver added powerful revelations about inappropriate relationships on the women’s tour. Winner of 22 Grand Slam doubles titles, Shriver has stayed close to the game as a TV commentator. She recently spoke out about her distressing experience of sexual abuse. Now 59 and the mother of three, Shriver revealed that from the ages of 17 to 22 she was intimate with her long-time coach, Don Candy, a married man three decades her senior. Shriver said that at the time she regarded the relationship as consensual; she didn’t see herself as a victim. But as years passed and she received therapy, she concluded that there had been a serious boundary offense and a violation of professional ethics on Candy’s part. She compared what happened to her to sex between doctors and patients, lawyers and clients, and even guards and prisoners. Because of the inherent power imbalance, no underage tennis player is in a position to give informed consent.
Shriver told Inside Tennis that she’d been aware during her career of girls who’d suffered the same or worse experiences than she had. She mentioned a Wimbledon champion who had been raped in early adolescence by a coach, who then went on to work with other women. Tragically, many coaches are serial offenders. When Isabelle De Mongeot, a prominent French player, accused her coach, Régis de Camaret, of sexual assault, a dozen other girls claimed that they too had been molested by de Camaret. Justice was ultimately served and de Camaret was jailed for eight years.
Shriver spoke off the record about current players and coaches who she suspected of inappropriate relationships. To stop the cycle of abuse, she emphasized that there needs to be more and better education and rules that are strictly enforced.
A few days before Shriver’s interview at Roland Garros, Matt Futterman of the New York Times published an extraordinary, detailed article about Adrienne Jensen, a once promising junior whose career was cut short by a predatory coach, Rex Haultain. Offering her a place at a tennis academy in Kansas City, Haultain began by grooming Adrienne’s parents, praising her talent and convincing them he was trustworthy. The Jensens decided their teenage daughter was safe to travel overnight with her coach – reminiscent of Shriver’s parents, who felt confident she was safe with Don Candy.
Haultain soon started intruding into all aspects of Adrienne’s life. He didn’t just praise her game, he praised her beauty and sexiness. He texted her a picture of his penis; he coerced her into sending him nude photographs. He demanded secrecy and swore she’d be ruined in tennis if she betrayed him. Ashamed and guilt-ridden, she kept silent until after Haultain manually penetrated her at the USTA Winter Championships in Arizona. Petrified at the idea of an upcoming trip to Portugal with Haultain, Adrienne confided in her sister, who told their parents.
The Jensens’ instinctive response was to fire Haultain as her coach but to try to deal with the issue privately. Her father felt he was protecting his daughter against the trauma that so many sexual abuse victims suffer when they go public. In retrospect, he realized he should have reported Haultain to the police. This was precisely what a teacher at Adrienne’s school did when he learned of her assault. In fact, he was legally obligated to report the case.
Rex Haultain accepted a plea deal and did time in prison. After his release he was deported to his native country of New Zealand. Adrienne went on to play college tennis, but regrets that her greater dreams were derailed. As she told Futterman, she wonders why she wasn’t warned about predatory coaches and why various tennis organizations didn’t do a better job of protecting her. Pam Shriver makes the same point, which amounts to an impassioned plea: tennis has to start educating players and coaches about sexual boundaries and legally punishing coaches who violate them.
– Michael Mewshaw is the author of 22 books, among them Ladies of the Court: Grace and Disgrace on the Women’s Tennis Tour, which is now available as an e-book.
MARIN’S THE MAN: Marin Cilic has been a kind of forgotten man. The 2014 US Open champion, who led Croatia to the 2018 Davis Cup title, reached as high as No. 3. Nonetheless he never gained great international glory, due to the dominance of Roger, Rafa and Novak.
Plus, coming into this year’s Roland Garros, the 33-year-old father of two had won only two matches in three years. But now he’s telling the world, “Don’t forget about me.” Seeded No. 20, he sailed through an inviting draw, and in the fourth round crushed No. 2 Daniil Medvedev 6-2, 6-3, 6-3 to score his 35th win over a top ten player.
Then came another stern test against another considerable Russian, No. 7 seed Andrey Rublev. Despite losing an hour-long first set, Cilic raced to a two-sets-to-one advantage. But the Russian bravely saved a match point in the fourth and forced a deciding set. The gripping 4:10 marathon ended in a final-set tiebreak that Marin dominated 10-2. With the earlier exit of No. 3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, he’ll next face Norwegian Casper Ruud or Dane Holger Rune.
PEGULA FALLS AGAIN TO SWIATEK: Jessica Pegula, the pride of Buffalo who moved to Boca Raton, has had a fine year. She won a doubles crown in Doha with Coco Gauff and reached the Madrid Open final. She’s wealthy, having earned $4.3 million – a bit less than her dad, Terry. The Buffalo Bills’ owner is worth $5.8 billion. The 5’ 7” Jessica is talented. Her athletic baseline game has her rising in the rankings. The determined, hard-working 28-year-old started the year outside the top 100, and Monday she’ll probably be in the top 10. For a while here in Paris she was lucky. She reached the Roland Garros quarters without facing a seed.
Then she got unlucky. She faced the world’s best woman player – Iga Swiatek. As at the Miami Open two months ago, Pegula lost to the Pole. The score was 6-3, 6-2 – not that close. Then again, Iga’s on the third best winning streak of this century. She’s won 33 straight matches, and, since February, five straight tournaments. When she drops a set, tennis shakes. Sixteen times this year, Swiatek has won a set 6-0. BTW: about the only thing Iga got wrong today was writing on a TV lens that she was celebrating her 22nd birthday instead of her 21st.
Iga will face Daria Kasatkina in the semis Thursday. Kasatkina beat her fellow Russian, Veronika Kudermetova, 6-4, 7-6 today.
A VOICE IN THE CROWD: At Roland Garros, chants and cheers tend to have a French accent. But our favorite yell came during Jessie Pegula’s doubles match. A distinctly American voice called out, “Let’s go, Buffalo!”
GRILLING THE NEW BOSS: The French Open’s new tournament director Amelie Mauresmo faced a blistering assortment of questions in the morning press conference. Reporters asked about the new and very problematic night sessions that begin at 8:45 PM. And nine of the ten night matches featured men. Plus, there are issues relating to a senseless lack of press access and questionable TV coverage.
AMERICAN WATCH: Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula prevailed in three sets in their women’s doubles quarterfinal and will face their fellow Americans Madison Keys and Taylor Townsend in the semis.
OUR ROLAND GARROS SNACK OF THE DAY: At Roland Garros you can get a galette – that’s a tasty buckwheat pancake with trout and spinach.
– Also reporting Vinay Venkatesh