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Wednesday, June 23, 1999 Published at 17:30 GMT 18:30 UK


Too much too young?

Martina Hingis looks unhappy after her Wimbledon defeat

Forget the stage Mrs Worthington, it is the professional tennis circuit you should worry about.

The BBC's Kevin Gearey reports on famous young tennis burnouts
Noel Coward's celebrated lyrical request of over-zealous parents, not to force their children towards stardom, has renewed resonance.

The defeat of the 18-year-old women's number one seed Martina Hingis, in the first round of Wimbledon on Tuesday, has highlighted the plight of sporting prodigies who are pushed too far.

Miss Hingis, until a few weeks ago the epitome of charm and good manners in the ego-fuelled world of professional tennis, has started to show another side.

[ image: Miss Hingis's mother and coach Melanie Molitor]
Miss Hingis's mother and coach Melanie Molitor
In the final of the French Open, the young winner of five Grand Slam tournaments was hissed and booed by spectators for her shocking on-court conduct.

Whilst losing to Steffi Graf, who Martina Hingis had described as "too old and too slow", she served underarm on match point, trespassed onto her opponent's' side of the net and skulked off court in tears when finally defeated.

Wimbledon had been her chance to promote a more mature face, and, for the first time, she opted to play a match without her mother in the crowd.

Her opponent, Jelena Dokic, became the lowest ranked player to defeat a top seed in a Grand Slam event.

Commentators begun to ask if Miss Hingis, who says she had decided on some "distance" from her mother, was facing a personal break point.

The world of women's tennis is littered with famous young names who burned out, often the victims of parental pressure.

  • Tracey Austin, who won the US Open aged 16.
  • Mary Pierce.
  • Andrea Jaeger, a one-time world number two who "retired" at 16.
  • Jennifer Capriati, ranked in the world top 10 by age 14, she then rebelled against her father. She is back at Wimbledon this year.
  • Venus and Serena Williams, still going strong, have tried to spread their wings away from their father and coach Peter Williams.

Other sports also have their quota. Diego Maradona was spotted by talent scouts at 12 and taken to doctors for secret drugs to build up his muscles.

[ image: Dejected: Maradona was fed drugs]
Dejected: Maradona was fed drugs
Sonny Pike may, one day, be as famous as the Argentine striker - the young British star was called the most promising adolescent since George Best.

But by the time Sonny was 14 the pressure had already ruined his parents' 22-year-old marriage. Father Mickey pushed him further in the sport while his mother, Stephanie, pressed for a more normal upbringing.

Last year snooker player Ronnie O'Sullivan, 22, was ordered to take a long rest, to get over physical and mental exhaustion. Ronnie O'Sullivan, who at 17 had been the sport's youngest champion, had previously said he would not mind if he never picked up a cue again.

Perhaps the most "celebrated" case is that of the American Olympic gymnast Dominique Moceanu who sought a "divorce" from her parents.

Pre-natal career planning

Dominique Moceanu's path to success was plotted by her father Romanian gymnast, Dumitru Moceanu, even before she was born.

By the age of two she was swinging from the washing line and at 10 she was being driven hundreds of miles to a specialist trainer. At 14 she had an autobiography and in 1996 the elfin star was the youngest member of the USA's "magnificent seven" Olympic gymnastics team.

[ image: Ronnie O'Sullivan: Said he never wanted to see another cue again]
Ronnie O'Sullivan: Said he never wanted to see another cue again
Last year, at 17, it had all gone sour and she sued her parents for exploiting her.

"I never had a childhood," she said at the time. "It was always about the gym. I would think: 'Don't you guys know anything besides gymnastics? Can't we go for ice cream? Can't you be my mom and dad?"

Professor Stuart Biddle, a sports psychologist at Loughborough University, says there is a fine line between supportive parents and pushy parents.

"We generally like to see supportive parents because being involved in sport needs good support - driving to training and competitions, financial support," he says.

Who is it all for?

"The dividing line could be when a parent is doing it not just for the child, but for themselves."

The theory that pushy parents are trying to relive their own failed careers through their offspring is not new, and Mr Biddle is not convinced by it.

But in the case of a parent who doubles up as a coach, the risk of fallout is even greater, he says.

"The child may not be mature enough to know when mum or dad is acting in a professional or parental capacity."

The pressure cooker atmosphere plays havoc with hopes for a "normal" upbringing.

Lacking social skills

In the case of Martina Hingis's outburst, Mr Biddle offers a sympathetic diagnosis.

"What's likely to happen is that the child has not had any opportunity to develop other psychological or social skills. So if the parent has made all the decisions, some of the benefits like learning to compete, interact, accept defect in sport, may not get through to the child."

And the arguments must be considered are a powerful rebuff to those who criticise Britain's underachievement on the global sporting stage.

If we follow the lead of countries such as the US, Sweden, Germany and Australia, and "hothouse" tennis stars from a young age, we have to be prepared to accept the consequences, says Mr Biddle.

"It's a philosophical issue. If we want highly successful tennis champions in Britain, coming through year after year, you have to be prepared to accept the consequences."

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