Sunday, April 20, 2008
People, I am throwing options out there, a viable alternative to married life.
Born to serve: Andrea on court at the age of 16
Why I became a nun, by former tennis star Andrea Jaeger
By PETER ROBERTSON
She was a troubled young girl ... and the finest tennis player of her generation.
At the age of 14, with her teeth still in braces and her hair in Brady Bunch pigtails, Andrea Jaeger dominated the courts, frightened of no one and confident in a talent that outstripped even Chris Evert and Billie Jean King.
By the age of 16 she was No 2 in the world yet famously appeared to throw her 1983 Wimbledon final against Martina Navratilova, losing 6-0, 6-3 in less than an hour.
Two years later, after a shoulder injury, Andrea left the game forever, debilitated and disillusioned with a world she had grown to despise.
Andrea wanted neither fame or fortune. She retreated from public view and put all her winnings into setting up a charity, The Little Star Foundation, for children suffering from terminal cancer.
It was a decision that few of her former colleagues or family could understand.
Love all: Andrea Jaeger today says she finds happiness she never knew on the courts
Now, The Mail on Sunday can reveal details of Andrea's latest remarkable journey. She has become Sister Andrea after being ordained into the Order of Dominican Nuns.
In a moving interview, the former tennis prodigy explains how her new life in the Episcopalian Church has helped reconcile a past that left her deeply troubled.
Pushed by her father, Andrea lost her childhood and struggled with the ruthlessness of the professional circuit.
It is only now, she says, that she is at peace and has finally found the fulfilment that tennis could never give her.
Speaking from the headquarters of her foundation in Colorado, Andrea, 42, says: "I've always felt called to help those in need. It's just been in my soul since I was a child.
"I think that's why I struggled so much on the tennis circuit because you have to be selfish to succeed in an individual sport.
"My parents didn't go to church. We didn't have a Bible in the house but, for whatever reason, I feel God gave me a gift of faith.
"I always said my prayers when I was little. No one told me to. I didn't learn in school or from TV.
"I just knew that God existed and that we were friends and had a personal relationship. None of my family knew I prayed every day of my life.
"In August 2006, I received an associate degree in Ministry Training & Theology. Then I entered a Dominican Sisterhood Programme.
"It's a strict discipline. I wake at 4am, do my prayers and my spiritual study, then I start work at 5am or 6am fund-raising, scheduling programmes and running those programmes.
"We have something happening for children somewhere in the world every day.
"How often I wear the nun's habit depends on what I'm doing. I have three of them. They get dirty pretty fast. I keep getting the robes stuck in buses and escalators. Once I jumped in a cab and left half of it outside the door.
"The first week I wore it, at a huge global conference in New York City. A bird went to the bathroom on me.
"I thought that was God's way of saying, 'Maybe it's OK to be a little muddy on the edges – you're the one who used to dive for balls on the tennis court.'
"I believe I'll always be a Sister. I have a joy and love of life and it's easier to express that in this field."
Andrea was born in a run-down part of Chicago in 1965. Her German-born father, Roland, was a former boxer and bricklayer who ran a bar and restaurant with her mother Ilse.
The little girl used to watch her parents playing tennis – until she was old enough to try it for herself.
Andrea says: "I wasn't pushed. I actually had to push my family to let me play because I was so bored watching them.
"At nine when I played my first tournament, my parents thought I was too young, but I won. At 13, I was winning collegiate tournaments.
"I saw my parents counting quarters and dollars on the table from their jobs and I thought, 'I'm winning all these tournaments and we're not able to take the money,' so I turned pro."
Giving something back: Andrea with Chris Evert during a visit to a children's cancer ward in America last year
Within 18 months Andrea had become the youngest seeded player in Wimbledon history and reached the semi-final of the US Open.
But with such success came inevitable problems.
With her father as coach, there were temper tantrums on court. He was an extreme disciplinarian and ferociously competitive.
He sometimes physically beat his daughter and once, when she lost a match at the US Open he didn't even let her shower, but packed her into the car and drove 1,000 miles home, berating her all the way.
She says now: "It's very difficult having any parent be your coach because you lose the parental side.
"Dad was German-bred and people growing up in Germany in Dad's era had a different form of discipline. He grew up being beaten by a belt. He wanted to teach me morals and values.
"I learned those from God; I didn't need to learn them from a beating.
"If I did something wrong I'd get in trouble with my father, but I wasn't scared of him. I don't know if I've ever been scared of anything."
Andrea is often cited as an example of classic "burnout". In fact she quickly realised that she hated the competitiveness of professional sport. It was also difficult being so young and yet so sure of herself in an adult world.
She says: "Was I a victim of players' or staff ignorance relating to drugs and other situations on the circuit?
"Did I know players who talked to me about having cocaine and could give me some? Yes. I never took anyone up on that offer.
"Was I told by a trainer that they could get me steroids and who they gave them to already? Yes. Did I take them or request any, ever. No.
"Besides I was looking for a way out, not a way to stay longer.
"My father died never knowing the many difficult things I encountered on the circuit.
"I have received two apologies in the past few years from people who were on the circuit. I was labelled "the brat", yet in reality I was the one suffering.
"There are a lot of things people didn't understand about me. I was a child who was having to process a lot of information and yet having no one to share it with.
"I didn't enjoy locker-rooms. I got in trouble at Wimbledon because I'd hang out in the third players' locker-room when I was supposed to stay in the seeded players' locker-room but I didn't like it up there.
"Everyone seemed to be happier in the lower players' locker-room. They weren't thinking about the semis or the final and weren't focused just on tennis. They were just happy to be at Wimbledon.
"The worst thing was walking in after a match when somebody had lost. I didn't feel good about beating people.
"The second pro tournament I ever played in, I was 14 and beat a few seeded players, one of whom, Wendy Turnbull, took out a bottle of wine in the locker-room and asked me for a corkscrew.
"I thought, 'Oh, she's having a drink because I beat her – I've upset her – I don't want to have to deal with this all the time.'
"That haunted me my entire career. Every time I played her from then on, I tried to give her the match because I felt so bad.
"At Wimbledon in 1983, Billie Jean King beat Wendy Turnbull and whoever beat Wendy, I always had to beat them because it bothered me so much.
"When we were going on Centre Court for our semi-final, a lady offered her a towel and Billie Jean said, 'No, I won't need one. I'm not going to sweat in this match.'
"I thought, 'Not only did you beat Wendy, now you've said this so I have to try hard.'
"So I went out and beat her 6-1, 6-1. And I was through to the final to face Martina Navratilova, who I'd beaten before."
Andrea lost 6-0, 6-3 and there were persistent rumours that she'd thrown the match. No one can ever say whether she would have won had she tried harder, not even Andrea.
Yet she has no regrets and openly admits that she didn't even try to win.
She explains: "The afternoon before the final, I got in a fight with my father. He was going to discipline me and so I ran out knowing he wouldn't do anything in public.
"Martina was staying in the flat next door and I went there to try to order a cab. Martina's trainer got the phone book out for me, but Martina turned and looked at me then turned away again. She didn't get out of her chair.
"It hurt me that a match the next day was much more important than seeing if a kid was going to be OK.
"But it suddenly dawned on me: 'Oh my gosh, she's in her killer-instinct-focus-on-the-match mode and I've just broken her concentration.'
"I felt so bad that I'd interrupted her preparation that I felt I couldn't even go out and try. I even didn't arrange a warm-up so I wouldn't start well.
"Martina's been asked about it in interviews, and she says she saw no reason why I didn't try.
But she's in an awkward position because if she says she knows I didn't try, they'll ask why and where does she go from there?
"Does she say, 'Well, she was afraid her father was going to hurt her that night. My trainer helped her get a taxi, but I didn't get out of my chair'? There's nowhere for her to go that feels good."
The following year Andrea suffered a shoulder injury at the 1984 French Open and by 1987 her career was over.
She saw it as a blessing rather than a burden.
She had already been volunteering in hospitals and in 1990 set up her foundation. It is now an international charity which helps more than 4,000 children a year.
John McEnroe, Pete Sampras and Cindy Crawford are all supporters.
Andrea says: "My first children's hospital visit was when I was a teenager on the circuit.
"The kids there had an appreciation of life that I didn't see on the circuit.
"I had millions of dollars. I had a Mercedes Benz at 17. Who needs a Mercedes Benz at 17? I sold it at 19 and gave the money away and used it to buy toys for kids in hospitals.
"My parents were shocked. For six months they thought I was joking. I put all my tennis earnings into the foundation.
"I had enough that I didn't ever have to work again but now I don't have any left.
But she is, she says, happier now than she has ever been.
"For 18 years now, we've worked with children's hospitals including Great Ormond Street and throughout the US.
"Our programmes are at no cost to families or hospitals. We also have a facility in Colorado where kids come for a week and go horseback riding, white-water rafting, play tennis, have talents shows and do arts and crafts.
"The whole thing is to get these kids into an environment, a peer group that's similar to what they're going through."
And as for her spiritual calling, she says: "I was already in the service field. For me to enter a sisterhood was a natural progression.
"I already had the heart to help others. First and foremost I follow God and heed his call, regardless of anything else. For me it was just taking another discipline to a higher level."
Her new life has its own challenges but is ultimately more rewarding.
She says: "I don't have an easy role. Fundraising is not easy. My life was so much easier before: I had a gift for tennis, I trained hard, I won matches, people applauded me and loved watching me play. I got all this money and commercials and praise, but it wasn't fulfilling.
"If you've brought joy to a child, or protected them in their need, if you've lent a hand and put them under your wing, for me there's nothing that compares.
"When I was on the tennis circuit, I wish someone had done that for me: taken me under their arm and said, 'Look, you're great at this sport and talented, but I'm going to help teach you about life, not just about tennis.'"