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Program Examines Parental Pressure : Television: Fox newsmagazine profiles families of young tennis players to illustrate disturbing trend.

August 28, 1993|DANA HADDAD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an effort to expose a disturbing element in junior tennis, Fox Broadcasting will air a one-hour program tonight about the driving forces behind some future stars: their parents.

Front Page, Fox's one-hour newsmagazine patterned after CBS's 48 Hours, will focus on three families at 9 p.m. on Channel 11, including the Burton family of Agoura Hills.

David Corvo, the program's executive producer, said that the show tells the story of Noel Burton, a once-promising 18-year-old who said she turned to drugs and alcohol when pressure from her father became too great.

The program also examines Matthew Wolfe, 13, of Houston, who spent the summer at a tennis camp after his parents decided his game needed improving, and chronicles a day in the lives of Angela Haynes, 8, and her brother Dante, 11, of Los Angeles, who train for several hours before and after school.

Corvo said Front Page will address the age-old concern of parents attempting to control the destinies of their children.

"Tennis is just the metaphor," he said. "We could do the same for the Little League dad or the stage mom. I've never seen a story like this on youth tennis. It's a story I've always wanted to do because my family has been involved in tennis and I've witnessed these things over the years.

"My brother-in-law (Ron Willins) was a national age-group champion who became a coach. Over the years, he's told me many horror stories."

Most tennis parents treat their children responsibly, but it is not uncommon for a child to be pushed against his or her will, Corvo said. The results in extreme cases can cause serious damage in family relations--as the show attempts to illustrate by Burton's story.

Burton, said a friend, no longer lives at home but stays with a Woodland Hills family that supports her in her recovery from substance abuse. She could not be reached for comment. Corvo said George Burton, Noel's father, refused to be interviewed for the program.

"We were able to get intimate enough with three families to see how much pressure they're under," Corvo said. "You'll see it up close."

Cases such as the Burtons are uncommon but not unknown, said Desi McBride, a teaching pro at Calabasas Park Tennis Club who has instructed top juniors in the area for several years.

"I know of a kid who got punched by his dad on a break between sets," McBride said. "I coach a girl whose dad is verbally pretty hard on her. And I've told him to back off."

In the Front Page show, top pro Michael Chang asserts that some parents want success more for themselves than for their children. Fox assigned cameramen and reporters to the Southern California Tennis Assn. sectional championships in Fountain Valley in June to document the relationships in action.

Several ranked players, including Jason and Nicholas Weiss of Tarzana, Mike and Bob Bryan of Camarillo and Erin Boisclair of Agoura Hills, were filmed and interviewed but the material was omitted from the show.

Jerry Weiss, the mother of Jason and Nicholas, is a single parent who once competed on the UCLA diving team. She said she allows her children to make their own decisions about sports.

"There's a fine line between encouraging and pushing," she said.

Front Page kept its cameras rolling on Dante Haynes, Nicholas Weiss' former doubles partner and a boy who, Jerry Weiss said, does not share the "normal existence" of her children.

"Dante is certainly on a tighter schedule than any 11-year-old I've ever seen," she said. "It's 100% tennis."

Jim Hillman, director of the SCTA Junior Development Program, said that only about 2% are problem parents. He nevertheless advocated a penalty system under which a parent's courtside behavior could result in a loss by default for the child. The rule was implemented by the U.S. Tennis Assn. seven years ago.

"Sometimes it's too hard emotionally for parents to handle the pressure in tournaments," Hillman said. "Especially if they think their kid is getting cheated or getting bad line calls. I've had to call the police to remove a father."

The highly charged topic of parental pressure has been showcased during the current trial of former Calabasas residents Lyle and Erik Menendez. Their former tennis coach, Charles Wadlington, testified last week.

The brothers are charged with first-degree murder in the Aug. 20, 1989, shooting of their parents, Jose Menendez, a wealthy entertainment executive, and Kitty Menendez. The brothers say the killings occurred in self-defense after years of mental, physical and sexual abuse.

Wadlington, appearing in Van Nuys Superior Court, described Jose as unusually intense and overbearing in pursuit of making sons great players.

McBride, who coached Erik Menendez for six months but has not been asked to testify, said Erik behaved as if following Jose's orders.

"I'd say Erik wouldn't have played at all without his dad pushing him," McBride said. "He was a nice kid who didn't have his heart in it."

McBride went on to say Mother Nature has more to do with making champions than any amount of money, support or instruction.

"You see kids who were nowhere in the 10s shooting to the top in 16s and 18s because they're better athletes," he said. "My philosophy is that a coach or parent shouldn't have to motivate a kid.

"You talk to most pros, they say as kids they loved to play."

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