Successful father-coach combos rare
The year was 1998. Sweat poured down my sunscreen-slathered face as I battled a junior tennis nemesis on the hard courts of a public park in Orlando, Fla. My mother was a fixture on the sideline during my junior tennis days in Florida, calmly reading a book or jotting down to-do lists between points.
But on that steamy spring weekend, my father accompanied me to my 16-and-under tournament. A tennis pro by trade, he taught me how to play the game that I grew to love, spending countless hours expertly molding my strokes. Though I trained at a tennis academy with several instructors, I always considered my dad to be my primary coach -- the only one who could truly fix my shot.
The more this particular match wore on, the more restless my father became, pacing incessantly beside my court. Even at 15 years old, I rarely looked to my supporters on the sideline, but deep into the second set, I caught unusual movement out of the corner of my eye.
A quick glance to my right confirmed my dad was running sprints on the adjacent soccer field. He was so closely tied to what I was doing on the court that he simply could not handle watching me compete. Instead of clapping, yelling or punching the tree next to him, he decided to run it out.
Though we laugh about that episode now, it highlights how difficult it can be to simultaneously serve as father and coach. French star Marion Bartoli and former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki are two successful WTA tour players who have made the arrangement work, but it hasn't always been pretty. In 2011, Bartoli made headlines when she kicked her dad out of the stands after she lost the opening set of her third-round match at Wimbledon. Wozniacki's proud pop, Piotr, yelled at a chair umpire a few months ago in Doha, Qatar, after a controversial call that didn't go his daughter's way.
Last year, Wozniacki dipped her toe in the nonpaternal coaching pool, working with Ricardo Sanchez and Thomas Johansson. The experiment was short-lived, as Piotr returned to the helm of his daughter's professional tennis ship by the start of 2013.
Proving it can be a rocky road, just before the French Open, Piotr announced he and his daughter were once again in search of an outside coach. The change can't come soon enough for Caroline. She has won just two matches since the beginning of April.
At 28, Bartoli has been more steadfast in her loyalty to her father. Walter Bartoli abandoned a medical career to coach his daughter full time, reading books on the sport to aid in developing her unusual, two-handed style of play. Their bond resulted in Bartoli's eight-year absence from Fed Cup play; the French Tennis Federation wouldn't allow Walter to coach his daughter during team competition, and Marion refused to play otherwise. So when news broke in February that the former world No. 7 was seeking a new coach, it raised a few eyebrows.
Bartoli's first move A.D., After Dad, was to join forces with former Wimbledon champ Jana Novotna before the BNP Paribas Open in March. After reaching the quarterfinals with a win over Svetlana Kuznetsova, Bartoli reportedly ran to hug Novotna in the stands. To many, the gesture symbolized Bartoli's fresh start -- until she fired Novotna a week later. Bartoli hired French coach Gerald Bremond next, a partnership that also ended after one tournament. Post-split, Bremond did not mince words.
"I stopped the cooperation," he said. "I quit. Marion, in my opinion, has one coach: Walter Bartoli, her father."
It's likely Wozniacki and Bartoli know an outside perspective could be just what they need to take their games to the next level. But the father-daughter relationship is comfortable, like that worn, unflattering pair of sweatpants you just can't bring yourself to throw away.
For those who think it should be easy to jettison Daddy's dead weight, think again. Walter Bartoli taught his daughter how to play with a technique that baffles opponents and commentators alike. Her bizarre service motion and flat groundstrokes are not exactly the stuff instructional videos are made of. Imagine how hard it would be to trust an outsider with a style of play he or she has never seen up close.
In hindsight, I pity the coaches who followed in my father's footsteps. As a female player with a one-handed backhand and a tendency to serve and volley, my technique was more Jack Kramer than Maria Sharapova, which never failed to impress the over-60 crowd at the local tennis club. I bristled when coaches tried to make "adjustments" to the unique style I learned as a kid.
No matter how much I resisted, my dad was right to push me out on my own. But to this day, he knows my game better than anyone else.
Though Wozniacki and Bartoli seem fairly well-adjusted, many father-daughter coaching relationships have ended in burnout or worse (see Jelena and Damir Dokic). For every father who releases tension by running suicides on a soccer field, there is one who will mercilessly berate his daughter for missing a shot on the practice court or losing a tournament match.
Spectators see only the successful coaching arrangements showcased on the international stage, which encourages and inspires overzealous fathers to get in on the game with their own would-be Wozniackis. But make no mistake: The sporting landscape is littered with parent-child relationships gone wrong. Some of the resulting rifts are never righted, carrying on from peewee sports to adulthood.
The undeniable truth is that fathers are best being fathers, comforting and supporting their children off the court while the coach pushes them from one tournament to another.
In order to effectively make the transition from father as coach to father as just plain father, you need a parent who can truly let go and a coach who isn't afraid to take the reins. Venus and Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Steffi Graf are just a few women fortunate enough to have experienced the benefits of that magic combination.
Some fathers have the ability to sculpt their own little athletes, gifting them with a forehand like Roger Federer or a serve like Serena Williams. But fathers who call themselves coach should prepare early on to one day let go of the player they helped create. If they can do that successfully, then everyone's a winner.