Rallying With God

Pro tennis was a path to a higher calling for Andrea Jaeger.

Almost two decades ago, as she was recovering from yet one more painful shoulder surgery, Andrea Jaeger had a dream. "I was in a wide-open field," she recounts. "Groups of people were gathering around, calmly conversing."

When she began to leave, she continues, "my stepping away from the crowd caused people to react with disapproval...To my dismay, several people decided to chase after me...When I glanced back and saw that the crowd was looking to harm me, I started to run. I recognized many faces; a few were from my tennis past...The group of people following me had weapons, bats and clubs. Their facial features were distorted, and their menacing looks and screams of horror frightened me. It was all very real and disturbing."

Andrea Jaeger serves the Lord, not tennis balls.
Andrea Jaeger serves the Lord, not tennis balls.

Why do some people continue to find Andrea Jaeger so compelling? Her record as a professional tennis player doesn't really hold up to the test of time -- certainly not when compared with the best of her contemporaries, such as Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.

Perhaps it's because Jaeger was such a novelty. One of the pioneers of a sports trend that continues to anoint ever-younger athletes, she was, at fifteen, the youngest player to have made the finals at Wimbledon at that time. She also climbed as a teen to the semi-finals of the U.S. Open. (The rules have since been changed to limit the number of matches a tennis phenom can participate in.) The pigtails and braces, the way she ran between side changes: It was all so refreshing, a change of pace for a sport tired of bad behavior.

Or maybe it was her startling rise to the top of women's tennis. An old lady by today's standards of toddler starts, Jaeger didn't enter her first tennis tournament until she was nine -- an age when present-day court divas are already veterans of several Bollettieri summer camps and countless junior competitions. Within five years, she had turned pro. By fifteen, she was ranked number five; eventually she would work her way to number two in the world.

Yet Jaeger was a flash, a footnote more than a force. While she hung around the sport for a half-dozen years, she played only three full seasons on tour, from 1980 to 1983. She never won a grand-slam tournament. And then, just as quickly as she'd arrived -- poof! -- she was gone, a burnout barely beyond her teens.

In the decades since, Jaeger has surfaced in tennis conversations -- when she does at all -- most commonly as a cautionary example, a reminder of what can go wrong when little girls are pushed too hard, too soon. Her father, Roland, a German immigrant and frustrated athlete, was a gifted coach but a strict disciplinarian, an early prototype of boorish parent/managers who were to become all too common in gymnastics, tennis and beauty pageants.

"My dad was definitely very strict," Jaeger says simply. "He was a disciplinarian with a purpose. I knew that if I didn't do something right, his form of discipline was maybe harsher than others, but not as harsh as some."

It is a gauzy memory, more respectful than accurate. There was plenty of yelling -- and, occasionally, beatings. On the eve of Jaeger's biggest match in 1983, against Navratilova at Wimbledon, Roland locked his daughter out of their rented house, unwilling to hear her plea that she'd injured her thumb. Coincidentally, Andrea ended up wandering into Navratilova's house, which happened to be on the same street.

The two pros, who twelve hours later would meet on Centre Court, commiserated. Eventually, Roland permitted Andrea to come home. Jaeger was thrashed the next day, losing in less than an hour. Yet is it any wonder the lost teenager would be unable to beat the only adult who opened a door for her the previous night?

The following year, at the French Open, Jaeger felt something stab into her back -- "like a shark bite" is how she describes it. The shoulder injury was not just a passing pain; she couldn't twist the tops off of bottles or open car doors. Later, she dropped out of college because the pain was so great that even taking notes proved impossible.

Unable to accept that he'd pushed her too fast, too hard, and that all his work and teachings were slipping away so quickly, Roland refused to acknowledge Andrea's injury, much less offer his sympathy. "I remember sitting at the dinner table, just trying to be a normal daughter, and it wasn't working," she recalls. She'd try to make conversation with Roland; he'd storm out of the room. Her mother noted that Andrea was getting fat just sitting around and not playing tennis.

Under intense pressure from home and hangers-on to continue playing, she attempted a comeback. In 1984 Jaeger was named to the Olympic team. She won her opening round but was forced to forfeit the second; the pain was too much.

Oddly, she didn't seem bothered by the performance. In an interview following her withdrawal, Arthur Ashe noted that Jaeger didn't look all that disappointed. She smiled; the truth was, she wasn't.

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