Sofia Kenin and Caroline Garcia deserve respect for finding strength to split from father-coaches
Caroline Garcia and 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin have both recently announced they are ending work with their coaches, who are also their fathers. Caitlin Thompson applauds their decisions while reflecting on the strained relationships, and worse, that can develop from this kind of dynamic.
Sofia Kenin of the United States of America leaves the arena following defeat in her Women's Singles second round match against Kaia Kanepi of Estonia during day four of the 2021 Australian Open at Melbourne Park
It was a big week for emancipations of the player variety, with both the WTA’s Caroline Garcia and Sofia Kenin announcing splits from their long-term coaches, who, in both cases, came in the form of fathers. Anyone watching either WTA player in years past would have been forgiven for assuming both had endured difficult arrangements with their dads, with their moments of joy and success overshadowed by clearly anguished dynamics with the parent sitting in their player box.
Kenin’s father, Alexander, has come under more scrutiny because of his daughter’s recent success - a title at the Australian Open in 2020 presaged a run to the finals at last year’s delayed Roland Garros. The Russian-born dad came to the US with infant Sofia to create opportunity for his daughter, and began coaching her knowing nothing about the sport. His ever-present and anxious displays at her matches raised eyebrows, while Kenin’s triumphs made her among the top prize-money earners in the game.
Despite Garcia’s prodigious talent, she has been viewed as one of the game’s underachievers - gaining success at Slams in doubles events and representing France in team competitions, both places where the influence of her father Louis Paul, who has coached her since juniors, is diluted among other voices. Their split came after she announced she would be training at the Rafael Nadal Academy in order to contend for big titles, something she hasn’t credibly done since peaking in 2018.
Anyone who climbs the ranks as a junior tennis phenom has encountered the tennis parent - an overly invested, sometimes borderline abusive presence at competitions, lessons and even practice matches. Often these parents have traded their own careers and drawn on their own (alarmingly often, self-taught) understanding of the game to ensure their progeny’s path to fame and glory, as well as their own self enrichment, natch.
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Tennis is by no means the only sport rife with parents taking it all way too seriously - the professionalisation of junior sports generally and explosion of career opportunities, for women in particular, have meant the issue transcends this sport. But team sports by nature have a built-in mechanism to distribute both responsibility and success, and save for the occasional mom or dad with a clipboard, most junior sports place authority and responsibility for a player’s development on a coach outside the family structure.
Neither of these are the default options in tennis, where parents can hang onto the job well into a player’s career - in the case of Caroline Wozniacki, for the entirety of it. And for every Wozniacki, whose father Piotr played pro football for Denmark and who coached his daughter to world number one and a Grand Slam, or Richard Williams, whose legacy as a coach speaks for itself, there are myriad examples of tennis parent coaching going horrendously wrong.
Stefano Capriati, coach and father of the turbulent Jennifer, was such a disruptive presence in his daughter’s career that he got her kicked off the US Fed Cup squad in 2002. Bernard Tomic’s father was banned by the ATP after headbutting his son’s hitting partner in Madrid, but retained his job as coach. Jelena Dokic and Mirjana Lucic both described physical abuse at the hands of their father/coaches, but it’s perhaps Jim Pierce, whose daughter Mary won a handful of Grand Slams after retaining a restraining order against him, who is most notorious. His abhorrent behaviour, which involved physically beating his daughter, choking relatives in the stands and emitting a constant barrage of verbal attacks against her and others, motivated the sports governing bodies to introduce the “Jim Pierce Rule,” which allowed an abusive parent to be permanently banned from the sport.
It’s perhaps not a coincidence that these stories all involve dads, not mums - though much has been made about the presence of Tessa Shapovalova, Denis Shapovalov’s mom, in his entourage, and Andy Murray endured years of questions about his mother, Judy, before announcing he’d be employing Ivan Lendl and then Amelie Mauresmo, then others, as his coaches. Fathers tend to retain a power imbalance with their kids, especially when those kids are girls, well into adulthood - not only because they are more physically imposing, but also because of things we know about ingrained male leadership styles in sport.
When healthy boundaries don’t exist between player and coach, complicated by family relations, much can go awry. It’s all the more admirable, then, that two of the sport’s most gifted athletes in Garcia and fiercest competitors in Kenin, both found the incredible reserves of strength to draw those boundaries with their own kin. With massive respect to the self-made parents who’ve gotten a player to the big leagues, the constant need to evolve - both as a player and a person - disqualifies most parents from continuing on. Good for both of them.