Michelle Kaufman: Abusive parents an ugly part of junior tennis

12/06/2012 12:01 AM

12/06/2012 12:42 AM

You think the jerk parents yelling at the ref at your kid’s soccer games are bad? Try hanging around a high-level junior tennis tournament sometime.

The Orange Bowl International Championship is going on this week at the Frank Veltri Tennis Center in Plantation. It is one of the most prestigious junior events in the world, and the tennis is absolutely fabulous. The moment you step out of your car in the parking lot, you can hear the force with which these teenagers are whacking the ball, and it is mind-blowing.

Equally mind-blowing is the behavior of some of the parents.

On Saturday during the qualifying rounds, Plantation police were called to the site to investigate whether a father had whacked his daughter on the head with a racket after she lost a match. According to the police report, the player who won the match heard her opponent cry out, and when she turned around, the girl was holding her head with a bleeding laceration over her left eye. The father was walking way holding a racket.

He denied hitting her, and suggested she was hurt by falling or running into a post. The girl said she did not know how she got hurt. None of the eyewitnesses actually saw the father hit the girl, so no charges were filed and the man and his daughter walked away, on to the next tournament, where the same thing might happen again.

News of the alleged incident spread around the grounds over the past few days, and nobody seemed all that shocked. Disgusted, yes. Shocked, no. Abusive parents have been part of the scenery on the junior tennis circuit for a long time. Just ask Mary Pierce and Jelena Dokic. But as the money grows, the stakes get higher, the agents get more aggressive, and the parents get crazier.

In the warped world of junior tennis, it is considered perfectly normal for parents to quit their jobs and relocate their entire families to another state — or another country — to chase an elusive dream with their sons and daughters.

Tennis prodigies are routinely home schooling by sixth grade, and focused almost entirely on tennis, even though they have a very slim chance of becoming Roger Federer or Serena Williams. Heck, they probably won’t even crack the top 100.

Consider the winners of the Orange Bowl boys 16-Under titles from 2000 through 2005: Brian Dabul, Floria Mergia, Jose Luis Muguruza, Donald Young, Emiliano Massa, Gueorgui Roumenov Payakov. They are now between 23 and 28 years old. The only recognizable name is Young, who got as high as No. 38, is now No. 189, and his best showing at a Grand Slam was the fourth round at the 2011 U.S. Open.

Jessica Kirkland won the Girls 18s Orange Bowl title in 2004. She was tall (5-9), a terrific player, full of promise. She spent seven years on tour, got as high as No. 151, and made $187,373 before retiring. She would be considered a success story. Most girls never get that far.

And yet, parents obsess, and, in some cases, abuse. I once saw a kid put in a valiant effort in the Jr. Orange Bowl 14-Under final, only to have his father storm off and refuse to watch his son receive the runner-up trophy. Afterward, the dad berated the boy in front of a group of kids. It sickened me so much I alerted USTA officials.

“You hear those stories all the time, parents yelling at their kids, shoving their kids,’’ said former University of Miami coach Rodney Harmon, now at Georgia Tech. Harmon spent many years working as a youth coach for the U.S. Tennis Association. He said even well-intentioned parents don’t realize the damage they do.

According to one South Florida coach, two parents got into an altercation at a junior match six months ago at the Royal Palm Tennis Club in Pinecrest and had to be separated. A few weeks ago, the coach said, two parents at a junior tournament in Tallahassee were yelling at each other and chasing each other around the grounds.

“Tennis parents can really get out of control, and, unfortunately, we see it all the time,’’ said University of Miami men’s coach Mario Rincon, who was scouting at the Orange Bowl event. “It’s the ugly part of our sport nobody likes to talk about. Something should be done. Over the years, we have come across many really good players with crazy parents, and we pull away because the last thing you want to see on your campus is someone like that. It’s so sad.’’

Here’s hoping that someday the only hitting being done in junior tennis is by the players.

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