There are difficult complications for fathers of athletes in general but it can be especially hard for fathers with a sports background who have daughters playing in this instance, tennis. The question is how to manage their own 1) competitive instinct 2) knowledge of sport and 3) role as a father. At dinner one night with the tennis legend Fred Stolle and his wife Patricia, Fred was talking about the success he had with son Sandon and how different it was with his daughters Monique and Nadine. How do you teach your daughter to be a stone cold killer and still be a sweet demure feminine young lady. Not an easy task!
It's an interesting study traveling to tournaments with sport icons and their daughters. The relationships they have is unique. It was amazing to witness the dynamics of parent child interaction from a sideline at for example the Bardmoor Club in Florida (home of the great Harry Hopman). Daughter Nicole Robinson was pitted in a tight doubles against Rasheeda McAdoo the daughter of Bob McAdoo NBA Hall of Famer. Bob was growling strange noises and was doing more body gestures than Michael Jackson. He came over and said "when I played basketball I never showed any emotion, I was an iceman! I watch 10 minutes of tennis and I'm a basket case.. How do people do it?" This is "the "suffer club" where even the most composed implode. Another great example is Jim Kiick legendary Miami Dolphin and hardened tough guy. He would hunch in an almost fetal position while he watched his daughter Allie play. He would groan, "Oh Allie!" then there would be a growl and he'd say, "Oh my Stomach! Running through NFL linemen was easier than this."
It was quite a sight to sit with Ivan Lendl watching his daughters at a tournament in West Palm Beach. If you remember how he looked stern and steadfast when he played well that was nothing compared to this look of complete helplessness when watching his daughters play. It was a huge moment to get a smile out of him. Ahh the "Suffer Club" its not for the weak of heart.
Today we speak with Rick Keys, father of one of the new young superstars in tennis Madison Keys. Rick is a polished sufferer! He often gnawed on knuckles or engage in the tense lip-bite. He found a spot, dug in, and bravely stood his ground as he tried to look cool and collected. Lawrence Taylor could take a full run at him and he wouldn't budge. He'd occasionally blurt out the odd "why?" Or "what the?" but for the most part very controlled.
This somewhat composed braveheart mentality is the only way to survive the "killing fields" of junior tennis. Bob McAdoo calls it a gladiator sport. This is true and don't forget this is also done over an extended period of time and is defined as "long term suffering." Richard Williams, Jim Pierce, Yuri Sharapova, and many more should be commended. Special note; We lost one of the great tennis dads, Stefano Capriati who recently died of cancer. It is an honor to acknowledge their significant role in the success of their amazing daughters.
Rick welcome and thank you for giving us an inside look at your amazing tennis journey.
Rick where are you located and how did this great journey begin?
"Our hometown is Rock Island, Illinois, a small town known mainly for basketball,baseball and football. It all started when Madison came to us out of nowhere and said she wanted to play tennis. She had seen Venus Williams on TV in a pretty dress and decided that's what she wanted to do. Madison was a dancer but we wanted to support her so we got her a racquetball racquet and she started to hit on the wall. She would hit all day long. Her passion was evident so we got her into local clinics. Soon she was beating everyone in sight so we needed to look for a more challenging environment. While on vacation in Florida we took her to the Evert academy where she commented, "Dad, I feel so normal and happy here." This obviously was a big moment because she knew she belonged with these talented young stars. We thought this was nice and we would come to Evert when we could but John Evert said that the ages 10 to 14 were critical for development and if we didn't go all in now we would miss our window of opportunity. I called many other top pros and they all agreed if you were going pro these years are the most important. Well ! we were now all in. We had to get a place near Evert academy, made arrangements to move kids there and still maintain a place in Rock Island to take care of business. It was a whirlwind and a monumental investment that we knew nothing about. At a local clinic in Rock Island soon after Madison was practicing when one of the pros shouted to the kids. 'Don't take things so seriously none of you will ever be pro.' That really pushed a button in me because at Evert they saw the sky as the limit and pro was a real possibility. If we stayed in Illinois the dream would die. There was no looking back."
Who were the significant influences in her development?
"Everyone at Evert was helpful and I have to thank John as a key contributor but the main influence and most significant was Mandy Wilson. Mandy really sat down and mapped out Madison's future and explained how. This was very important and she really was there with the follow thru. This is hard to find. Of course as things developed the USTA got involved and now Lindsay Davenport so we've been in good hands."
Can you just give us a movie trailer version of Madison's journey from start to present?
"Madison had significant results in junior tennis winning ITF events and had good wins in international tournaments. The experience in juniors was valuable but our goal was pro so we used junior tennis more for development. A loss in juniors meant nothing to us it was more about learning the skills necessary to win at the highest pro level. I think this is a mistake a lot of tennis parents make. They are too concerned about that instant gratification rather than long term goals.
What has is been like for you to see Madison achieving these exciting accomplishments and do you go to many of her matches?
"It's been a thrill to see her achieve great things. Watching her beat players like the Williams girls along with many top 10 players are all checks in our goals achieved. There's still a lot of hard work to do and stay focused to stay consistent and have a long successfull career. I get to the matches when I can or cheer from here.
How are people reacting in your hometown and how does it feel to get all this attention?
"I can't go grocery shopping or to a restaurant without people stopping me and saying they love to watch my daughter. This is not a tennis town so to get people watching tennis is a huge milestone. It's always been basketball, baseball and football. The attention is a great reward for an athlete. Acknowledgement of success is big for anyone. It develops a higher sense of self worth and fuels your drive to reach your goals."
As a father and an accomplished athlete yourself how have you managed your connection with Madison's development. Do you like to have hands on the reigns or do you feel its better to pass them on? There is an interesting quote from Roger Federer who was trying to show his daughter some technique in tennis. His daughter said "That's not how our coach told us to do it" Roger just said ,"Ok you better do it his way" This is a difficult thing for a father to relinquish the destiny of a child. Thoughts?
"I have no problem with trained professionals doing what they are trained to do. The key is to find the right people. As I said earlier the pros we were associated with up north did not have the same insight as we found at Evert Academy. You have to be smart and get a little lucky."
The road to greatness has common stepping stones in most sports. It was interesting to listen to Janet MacDonald who is this sister of Dave Dan and Don Maloney who were NHL superstars. She grew up in an intense household where development and accomplishment were a must. Her father lived and breathed hockey. Their idea of a vacation was the family would go look at Bobby Orr's house. She saw the ground work that her father put in to develop his sons and her question was when do you hand the athlete off? Very poignant but true. Her father had to relinquish the reigns of his sons. Eventually you have to let them fly on their own. The big question is when? You've handled all this well. Where does this come from?
"I was raised by a single mother who worked tirelessly to give us a good life in a nice neighborhood so that we saw life as an opportunity. She instilled good values in us and taught us that if we were prepared to work hard we can achieve anything in life. I like to think this life philosophy is something we have passed on to our kids and is the reason Madison succeeded when others faded. I still don't know how my mother did it. I appreciate more every day her dedication and the sacrifices she made for her kids. We pass on what we can. It's now up to her to learn as she goes and to apply the lessons learned from the great pros she's connected to.
What does Lindsay Davenport bring to the table?
"At this point Madison has developed the tools to compete but Lindsay has the experience to keep things on a well directed even keel. Maintaining a positive attitude, good work ethic, how to handle the press and block out negative influence are all part of it. Good schedule, smart travel plans, eating right and proper down time all critical components. You need someone like Lindsay to navigate those waters."
How would you describe your role?
"I have to spend most of my time in Rock Island In order to keep the dream alive. I have to take care of business here which was something Christine and I used to do together. Her role in Florida was mother, chauffeur, cook, support team, school etc. Mostly on her own. We both had to make sacrifices and take on significant roles to make it work."
That must have been difficult but you guys ham and egged it very well. You produced a pretty significant omelette named Madison. If there is one thing you would change what would it be?
"The separation was difficult for me. I am a family man and it was hard to be away from my loved ones as much as I was. If I could change one thing I would have found a way to do business in Florida so that we could all be together. It wasn't an option for us at the time and it's a part of my life a can't retrieve. I hope success creates an opportunity to make up for lost time."
Can you give us a few of your favorite memories or highlights so far?
"I'm ecstatic to see Madison winning WTA tournaments and beating the worlds best but I'm most satisfied to see that she is happy. For me success will be fruitful long career with all the great experiences that go along with that."
With this success are you getting involved with programs to help other young athletes find the path?
Madison has always given back. Whether she is traveling the world or here at home she is always involved in something that will contribute to a better environment. She does clinics and exhibitions or specials events for the less fortunate. It's great to see."
This is a long and very difficult path to get to where Madison is today and according to Serena Williams she is going to be #1. What are the key building blocks in your mind that young tennis players should embrace? Advice to Fathers and tennis players alike.
"I think it's most important to have long term goals. It's great to have a winner on your hands but Rome wasn't built in a day. Be patient there will be hills and valleys but the rewards will be there waiting. Let's hope Serena is right. We are going to definitely give it a full fledged effort."
As young girls at 12 years of age playing in exhibitions like the one for the Laureus Foundation with Bud Collins commentating must have been fun and exciting. The girls made a big impression and got treated like little princesses enjoying a Yacht ride to the match. Pros and celebrities alike couldn't believe how hard these young girls hit it. How important is fun and downtime and what do you do to keep it that way.
"It's absolutely critical to have fun. Madison is a happy healthy young woman who completely enjoys what she is doing. I really shake my head when people ask me if she is happy and go on to say what about all the pressure and how she missed a childhood. Madison has been traveling the world since a very young age staying in the best hotels spending time with her best friends all while developing amazing skills and getting a good education. It's an amazing life one that i would have never wanted to deprive her of."
The fathers of tennis daughters are an unusual breed. They can be too tough or not tough enough. Jim Pierce, father of grand slam winner Mary said, "You can never be too tough, whining and quitting is for wimps." Football star Jim Kiick got banned from going to matches. He says is probably better for everyone involved. CEO's of Fortune 500 companies have been hauled off properties by security. Russian mafia trying to help daughters make line calls. Unfortunately, there are parents screaming at children in parking lots. What are your thoughts on that? How much give and take?
"Whatever you do has to be sustainable. If you are too hard on your kids you will bully them out of the sport. It's a long journey and it's got to be enjoyable or the flame will fade away. Encourage, support and teach the values and ethics that every parent passes on but not through force. Patience is the key and the hard work will seem like just a necessary ingredient to reach your goals. Settle in and enjoy the process."
Rick thank you so much for your time. Priceless are the days hunkering down at the junior tournamentst. The battles, playing at the pools, the dinners and the great environments were all to be enjoyed. There's something special about the process. All that chase excellence will find it. Some in their respective sport others in business and all in the worldwide social network that they weave. Win or lose enjoy the ride, not even Disney can touch the thrill of this rollercoaster.