Serving up the dark side of tennis


Catherine Tanvier was one of the most promising tennis players of the 1980s, but domestic pressure and the strains of the game took their toll. She tells ALISON HEALYhow she survived

MOST 15-YEAR-OLD girls spend their time fretting about friends, clothes and boys. But when Catherine Tanvier was 15, she had other things on her mind. She was France’s number one tennis player – and the family breadwinner after her father left home.

Catherine was known as “Little Borg” because her blonde hair and headband make her look like Bjorn Borg’s little sister. She beat legends such as Billie Jean King and frequently played when injured because her family needed the money. When she was 19, she bailed her father out of his tax debts by giving him 300,000 French francs.

Her troubled home life only became publicly known in France when her frank memoir, Déclassée: De Roland-Garros au RMI(which loosely translates as “Withdrew: From the French Open to the Dole”), was published two years ago. Now Irish writer and academic Dr Redmond O’Hanlon has almost finished translating that book into English.

A US publisher has expressed interest in the story and, judging by the praise heaped on it by the French critics, securing a publisher won’t be difficult.

Tanvier was in Dublin this week to work on the translation with Dr O’Hanlon, an enthusiastic tennis player himself. He wrote to her after reading her memoir. His translation work is “remarkable”, Tanvier says. “And it’s nicely surprising for me to read myself in the language of James Joyce.”

The book is unflinching about the darker side of tennis, and tells of alcohol and drug abuse, depression and sex abuse. It talks of how her father tried to have her involuntarily committed. It brings into focus the risks parents take when they entrust their talented child to a coach.

Tanvier estimates that 90 per cent of coaches fantasise about their female players, and says this is only human, but she believes that at least 20 per cent of these coaches act on their fantasies. Girls may believe they are consenting but they are easy prey as they are often far away from home and are emotionally confused. The relationships so casually violate the strict coach-player relationship that they are unquestionably abusive, she says.

“The problem is, when you are entering such an adult world, people will take the best from you. They will take the best from the tennis player, not from the human being.”

ACCORDING TO TANVIER, the solution is simple. “The best idea is to work in a group. Take three good girls at the same level and share a coach, share the fees. It happens more now.”

She also feels strongly that parents should remain their children’s greatest supporters, not their coaches. “You see more and more coaches being fathers. Fathers who never knew about tennis find themselves coaches suddenly. That scares me because they have no clue but they think they know everything.”

She worries that fathers take their anger out on their daughters after a defeat. “Some girls get beaten, for sure,” she says. “It’s sick, it horrifies me. I’ve heard them screaming at their girls. I’m not saying they are all bad. There’s a minority.”

Tanvier cannot say when she last spoke to her own father. The book doesn’t refer to him as her father, just as Jacques Tanvier. “To be a father you have to deserve it and the guy just disappeared. It was so hard for mom, for myself.”

When her parents divorced after a violent marriage, the teenager found herself as the sole breadwinner for the family of five. “I was winning the salary of an adult person in a week, but travelling is expensive, paying fees is so expensive.”

A few years ago, her mother confessed that Billie Jean King had offered to become Tanvier’s coach after the then 19-year-old had beaten King in the Australian Open. Her mother did not tell her at the time, struck by the fear of losing her daughter and her income and by the thought that someone else would know about their family life. “She was trying to keep the family from disaster, but at what price, the price of my wounds?” she says.

Around that time, she was rescuing her estranged father from his tax difficulties. Six years later, the tax man would come to her own door. She was a mystery to the revenue collectors, she recalls.

“I was the very first professional living there. All the males were living in Switzerland or London, so no tax. Tax people didn’t know how to tax a professional tennis player.”

But because she was giving her money to her family, she had no nest egg set aside. The tax collector looked for $500,000 – her entire winnings. “Of course I didn’t have the money. They came to my place. They took everything, except that it wasn’t my furniture, it was my mom’s. They wanted to humiliate me.”

SHE DECIDED TO get away from France and came to Ireland because of her love of Irish music, Sinead O’Connor in particular. She lived here for several months in 1991 and 1992.

“I even went to the French consulate because I wanted to take Irish nationality. I didn’t want to be French anymore.” However, a knee injury forced her to return to France for treatment, and the plan went no further.

She describes Sinead O’Connor as her wake-up call to write. “She was screaming, saying ‘express yourself’. She was someone who pushed the button and said ‘yes, you can talk this way, you can say that’. I had this very classical education from my mom and I thank her for it, but I didn’t know we could yell and be like that.”

Her knee problems forced her to give up singles but she later returned to play doubles until 2001. A few months after she retired, she began writing her memoir and last year she brought out a novel Le Tour de ma Vie (“The Journey of my Life”).

She has also tried her hand at acting after Jean-Luc Godard asked her to take a role in his latest film, Socialisme, which is due for release next year.

Finding an Irish translator for her memoir was “the icing on the cake”, she says, as it gives her an excuse to come back here. She would love to come here more often, perhaps to coach.

Women’s tennis leaves her cold at the moment. “I have a problem with it. I find it very boring. They all look generic, play the same, only boom, boom, it’s boring,” she says. But she singles out the Williams sisters “for their great personalities. They are entertaining players, quite fascinating to watch and the tennis quite spectacular too.

“I only see that perfect tennis in the men now. I even had a long chat with Martina at the French Open and she’s like me, saying ‘It’s awful, I can’t watch it any more.’ ”

But for all her bad experiences, if she was five years old again she would still take up the tennis racket.

“I was born to be a tennis player. If I was my own coach, the player I wanted to be, I could have reached the top five.”