In her own words, the American tennis great breaks her silence on sport’s unspoken scandal and why she believes it is still rife.
When the pandemic cut back my work schedule last year, I realised I couldn’t put it off any longer. I finally found the courage to visit a therapist and address my experiences as a young tennis player. Now, another year on, I have decided to share my story publicly.
The short version of this story is that I had an inappropriate and damaging relationship with my much older coach, which began when I was 17 and lasted a little over five years. I’ve set out the details of my painful and emotional journey below. It hasn’t been easy to rake over what happened, but it needs to be brought out into the open.
Don Candy and Pam Shriver arrive in Sydney in 1982.Credit:Antony Matheus Linsen
My main motivation is to let people know this still goes on. I believe abusive coaching relationships are alarmingly common in sport as a whole. My particular expertise, though, is in tennis, where I have witnessed dozens of instances in my four-and-a-bit decades as a player and commentator. Every time I hear about a player who is dating their coach, or I see a male physio working on a female body in the gym, it sets my alarm bells ringing.
It’s not only women who suffer from abusive coaching relationships, but they make up the majority. Sometimes it’s young girls and much older men.
Sometimes the ages are similar, and you could argue that two consenting adults are entitled to do what they want. But mixing your personal and professional lives creates all sorts of extra tensions, especially in the pressurised world of sport.
For any player or athlete who might be reading this, I want to emphasise the downsides of blurring personal and professional boundaries. My experience suggests that, when you separate these two parts of your life, it’s not only your emotional wellbeing that improves but also your performance on the court. Which should be an incentive to break the cycle.
Candy and Shriver in 1980.Credit:Antonin Cermak
My story began with a Christmas stocking, in the winter of 1971. At the bottom, I found a gift certificate for a tennis lesson at the Orchard Indoor Tennis Club – the same old barn where my mum used to play social doubles twice a week. When I showed up, the coach was a guy called Don Candy. He was Australian – a proper player who had won the French Open doubles title in the mid-1950s – and he was 42. I was nine years old.
I remember Don being very funny – hilarious at times – with a typical Aussie sense of humour. I had a great time, and although I didn’t go back for a couple of years, we began working together in earnest when I was 11 or 12. Thus began a decade-long journey that would shape my life in so many ways.
My next memory is like a scene in a movie, the way it sticks so clearly in my mind. I must have been 13, and Don had just told me that he and his wife were going home to Adelaide for a few months (Baltimore is not known for its hospitable winters). I went back to the house and got in the shower.
And then, to my own surprise and shock, I started sobbing. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was just entering puberty, and I was starting to fall in love with him.
“Yes, he was cheating on his wife. But there was a lot about him that was honest and authentic. I loved him. Even so, he was the grown-up.”
At the start of 1978, I began playing on the tour, aged 15 and a half. Now, my parents were pretty traditional. My dad had his own small insurance company, while my mum was a housewife, and she couldn’t realistically travel with me because my sister was so young. Don became my chaperone as well as my coach. He was with me for virtually every match I played over the next seven years.
I was still in my debut season, still an amateur, when I beat Martina Navratilova in the semi-finals of the 1978 US Open. The final, against Chris Evert, was close, but she edged me out 7-5, 6-4. At that point, I returned to high school to complete my senior year. But it was tough for me in 1979, going back out on the road as a US Open finalist. In an echo of Emma Raducanu’s recent acclimatisation issues, everything had happened so fast that I wasn’t prepared. After I got knocked out of Wimbledon, I went five months without winning a match.
In the middle of my rough patch, Don and I found ourselves sitting in a rental car outside an indoor arena in Minneapolis. I had just lost yet another first-round match, and Don was talking to me about things I could have done differently – the usual sort of coach-player conversation. I just started sobbing. I can remember very clearly saying, “There’s something else here.” He said “What?” and I said, “I’m falling in love with you.” I was 17 years old. He was 50.
This is where things could and should have taken a different turn. If Don had been better informed, he might have been cannier about the potential complications that come with coaching an adolescent girl. Clearly, he wasn’t a predator. When I spoke up in the rental car, he didn’t know what to do. But he had this great prospect, a US Open runner-up at 16, and he didn’t want to let me go.
Shriver won 22 major doubles titles and also made the final of the US Open in 1978.Credit:Antonin Cermak
I still have conflicted feelings about Don. Yes, he and I became involved in a long and inappropriate affair. Yes, he was cheating on his wife. But there was a lot about him that was honest and authentic. And I loved him.
Even so, he was the grown-up here. He should have been the trustworthy adult. In a different world, he would have found a way to keep things professional. Only after therapy did I start to feel a little less responsible. Now, at last, I’ve come to realise that what happened is on him.
My relationship with Don was a traumatic experience for me. The after-effects lasted far beyond the time we spent together. Our affair shaped my whole world view of romantic life. It stunted my ability to form normal relationships and set certain patterns which would recur: my ongoing attraction to older men, and my difficulties in understanding how to maintain healthy boundaries.
The next five years were a time when everything got blurry, when lines were crossed. I was so young, I didn’t know how to ask for help. I didn’t understand what I was getting into, and I’m not sure he did either. The relationship started to get physical, to get intimate. We didn’t actually have intercourse until I was 20, two and a half years after our conversation in the rental car in Minneapolis. But we did share rooms. We did virtually everything else that two people who are attracted to each other can do.
“Many years later, I told my father about my relationship with Don. I never told my mother.”
Don never abused me sexually, but I would say there was emotional abuse. I felt so many horrendous emotions and I felt so alone. The worst would be my anger and jealousy when his wife came to tournaments. In fact, Elaine was lovely. I don’t think she ever knew what was going on. If she did, she kept it to herself. But every time she showed up, we had to completely flip the way we were coexisting.
It was horrible. I can’t even tell you how many nights I just sobbed in my room – and then had to go out and play a match the next day. Very often, Elaine would arrive just in time for the slams: Wimbledon or the US Open.
Now I can see that my most disappointing results often correlated with these moments. So, even from the most pragmatic perspective, I look back and think, “Jeez, was this good for your tennis?”
Despite all the emotional upheaval, my game recovered pretty quickly after my wilderness season of 1979. I spent eight straight years among the world’s top 10 singles players. I teamed up with Martina, in a doubles partnership that landed 20 major titles. But the strength of my results only made me more afraid. If I stopped the coaching relationship, what would happen to my tennis? I was terrified my game might just go away.
What made it worse was that I had nobody to talk to. I didn’t feel I could tell my parents. Nobody in the locker-room knew – or, at least, I didn’t think they did. Then, in 1980, we were in Montreal and Virginia Wade came marching up to me and said – straight out – “Are you and Don having an affair?” Classic Virginia! I was so uneasy, I actually felt sick, and I just denied it. But gradually, over time, it became an open secret on the tour.
You might ask why nobody reached out to help me. At that time, though, there were a lot of other blurred relationships on the tour. Love affairs between players and coaches had become normalised. I just had to deal with this messed-up situation as best I could.
It took me until the end of 1984, when I was 22, before I realised it was time for a change. I knew I couldn’t do it while still playing, so I took a four-month sabbatical. I told only my closest friends the real reason; to everyone else, I was just burned out. I knew I couldn’t see Don at all for a while, so I started searching for a new coach. In the end, I began working with Hank Harris – a relatively inexperienced coach who had played college tennis at the University of Virginia.
Shriver eventually split with her coach Don Candy in 1985.Credit:Fairfax Media
The lines never crossed with Hank, nor with Eric Riley (who became the last of my three coaches in 1990). I actually kept using Don as a coaching consultant because he was so insightful about my game. But neither he nor I ever tried to rekindle anything – a mercy for which I’ll give credit to both sides.
I spent my first year on my own – 1985 – writing my book Passing Shots. It was a cathartic exercise, which helped carry me through the first phase of separation. When I flick through the pages now, I see many references to the turbulent emotions of touring life – although I never revealed to my readers what was actually triggering those emotions.
The next four seasons, after I broke up with Don, were the best of my career. I collected 15 singles titles and won more than 80 per cent of my matches. Meanwhile, back home in Baltimore, I was starting to date a few guys. It’s interesting what happens when you end a relationship that is causing so much stress. Finally, I was beginning to experience some normalcy in my personal life.
Many years later, I told my father about my relationship with Don. I never told my mother. But now I’m making this story public because I hope it will make a difference.
Our first and biggest obstacle is the culture of silence. If we’re going to protect tomorrow’s athletes, more people need to speak about their stories.
We’re talking about pitfalls that affect many, many people. The whole issue needs to come out of the dark places of sport. But are the authorities ready to listen?
Previous opportunities have been missed. In 1993, the investigative reporter Michael Mewshaw wrote a book – Ladies of the Court – in which he suggested that tennis “needs to advise players about the potential for abuse [and] warn coaches that exploitative behaviour will be penalised”.
His reward for trying to blow the whistle was to see his book banned from the grounds of tournaments. I hope we can do better in the year 2022.
As far as solutions go, I think it’s possible to educate young athletes, but you probably have to start before they even reach puberty: maybe when they’re 11, 12 or 13. By the time they graduate to the main tennis tour, many patterns have already been set.
And then there are the coaches. The best way to protect their charges is to put them through an education process before they arrive on tour. The same goes for other credential-holders: physios, fitness trainers and so on. The point has to be made very clearly: these kinds of relationships are not appropriate, and there will be consequences for those who cross the line.
This is a widespread problem, and we need a broad-spectrum alliance if we’re going to address it. One of the most crucial organisations is going to be the International Tennis Federation, because they organise the junior events. But everyone must come together – the WTA, the ATP and the four grand slams – to improve tennis’s safeguarding practices.
I can think of at least one encouraging precedent. Back in the mid-1990s, the women’s tour asked a panel of experts how it could protect very young girls from over-exposure. The age-eligibility rule has since extended careers, taking lessons from the early retirements of Andrea Jaeger, Tracy Austin, Jennifer Capriati and others. Today, it’s time for a similar expert panel to address the topic of coaching abuses.
My sensitivity to these issues is only growing as my three children move into their late teens. I’d love to protect them and their contemporaries from the trauma of toxic relationships. And thus from needing the sort of therapy I went through last year.
Pam Shriver was speaking to Telegraph Sport’s Simon Briggs. Listen to Pam Shriver’s story in her own voice on The Tennis Podcast
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