INDIAN WELLS — Patty Schnyder did not pose for Vogue, Rolling Stone or GQ last year. Of the highly hyped teens on the women's tennis tour, Schnyder won more tournaments--five--in 1998 than Venus and Serena Williams and Anna Kournikova combined. She beat Steffi Graf at the U.S. Open and rival Martina Hingis at the Grand Slam Cup.
Then, she turned 20.
In one of the stranger stories--even by tennis standards--Schnyder has cut all her ties to her former life, pledging allegiance to German guru Rainer Harnecker, a 42-year-old self-styled alternative medicine practitioner at clinics in Bavaria. Before traveling here for the Evert Cup, the Swiss tennis star and Harnecker went on a sports program on Swiss national TV on Saturday, declaring themselves to be a couple.
Four weeks ago, Schnyder fired her coach of three years, Eric van Harpen, dumped her longtime boyfriend and moved out of her parents' home in Switzerland. Her parents are consulting with a Swiss expert on cults.
Harnecker is under investigation in Germany for alleged violations of practicing medicine without the legally required permit. He claims he can cure cancer and AIDS with his methods, according to a former protege, Sylvia Plischke of Austria.
The Schnyder-Harnecker alliance has been front-page news on a daily basis in Germany and Switzerland for the past month. Schnyder's image in Switzerland was of a model athlete, a good girl who never got into trouble, which is why the story has captivated the country, according to Swiss reporters.
In Europe and California, the couple has constant company from the tabloid press. Schnyder agreed to an interview with an American reporter and changed her mind the next day.
Harnecker is usually available to the Swiss reporters. "You want to give me questions?" he said to The Times on Thursday. "Not at the moment. One hour, 6:30, you have to ring me."
An hour later, he does not want to talk and said to "try tomorrow."
There is no shortage of concern on the women's tour, as Schnyder has dropped to 12th in the rankings with a series of subpar results and her lively demeanor has changed, friends said. Schnyder's father, Willy, flew to Australia and tried to intercede and made another attempt at Hanover, Germany, last month. Plischke, who broke away from Harnecker after the Australian Open, is befuddled, as is former coach Van Harpen.
"Of course, she is in danger," he said. "All the people who love her and who are looking after her--like her boyfriend, me, her parents--they are all out. She has no wire to the base anymore.
"Everything was fine. She was No. 8 in the world. Everything was perfect. Maybe it was too perfect."
Van Harpen rues the day he introduced Schnyder and Plischke to Harnecker, at his tennis camp in Mallorca, Spain, in December. Plischke, at first, was the primary focus before the Australian Open. Van Harpen became concerned when he saw him with Plischke in Brisbane.
"We think nothing can happen, then suddenly, he started to eat the brain of my first player, Sylvia Plischke," Van Harpen said. "She was most open for his ideas. . . . Then he saw after two days that Patty is the much more interesting player--to give him much more publicity. Two days later, Patty was gone. I saw it all coming. Love was in it. I couldn't do anything."
Plischke is relieved she listened to friends and other players from the tour about Harnecker.
"In Australia, I was lucky--other people came up to me and told me, 'You've got to be careful,' " she said. " 'This guy is a little bit weird. You should be careful and not believe everything he is telling you.' He told us he can cure AIDS and cancer.
"He said he cured cancer patients. After working with him half a week, we asked, 'Can you cure AIDS people as well?' And he said, "Yeah, with this system it's not a trouble.' "
Van Harpen said Harnecker has changed lately under the scrutiny.
"The guy now acts different," he said. "He knows he can't talk about healing, Scientology. He knows he can't talk about his Master. He said [before] he has to phone his Master in China. He knows now these are very dangerous things for him [to say]."
Should charges of practicing medicine without an appropriate license be brought against Harnecker, he could face up to two years' imprisonment and as much as $11,000 in fines, if convicted. It remained unclear, however, whether prosecutors would consider the health and nutrition advice Harnecker offers to be the practice of medicine.
He devised a new program for Schnyder, including a fundamental change in nutrition: Schnyder became a vegetarian who also rejects eggs or milk, living on fruit and vegetables and supplemented by more than two liters of fresh-squeezed orange juice a day.