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Sister Acts

Former tennis star -- now an Anglican Dominican nun -- Andrea Jaeger

May 31, 2009|Liz Clarke | Clarke is a writer for the Washington Post

WASHINGTON — It's a long way from Wimbledon's Centre Court to southwest Colorado. For Andrea Jaeger, the spiritual journey has been even longer.

At 14, she was a pig-tailed phenom, brandishing every stroke in the tennis repertoire with a swagger that rivaled Jimmy Connors's.

Most times, nothing thrilled her like winning -- especially if she felt she had a point to prove. Other times she was so tortured by the cost of success that she didn't try -- including, she says, intentionally losing the 1983 Wimbledon final.

Now 43, Jaeger rarely picks up a racket or reflects on the era when she toppled legends of the game but had no friends, traveling the world with a father-turned-coach who believed that discipline, often in the form of a firm whack, was the most effective teacher.

Today, the teen once ranked No. 2 in the world and on track to unseat Chris Evert atop the sport is an Anglican Dominican nun, ordained in 2006, and devoted to helping children with cancer.

They are the reason she has given away every dollar she earned, shed her possessions and devotes her days to raising money to bring them to a Colorado ranch to ride horses, play Ping-Pong, perform in talent shows and, if only for a few days, share a childhood otherwise denied.

If Sister Andrea thinks about professional sports at all, it's of the prodigies like herself -- children whose uncommon gifts have thrust them into an adult world. Whether Michelle Wie, Freddy Adu or a 75-pound Olympic gymnast, today's phenoms have teams of advisors she never had -- agents, business managers, publicists, trainers and nutritionists.

But who, Sister Andrea wonders, takes care of their souls?

Jaeger wasn't the first prodigy in women's tennis; she was preceded by Tracy Austin, the Southern Californian whose pinafores and bows accentuated her pre-pubescence.

But Jaeger, who turned pro in January 1980, at 14, was different. Daughter of a German bricklayer, bar owner and former boxer, she learned the game on Chicago's hard courts and played with bravado. To say that her on-court demeanor was impudent would be kind. Nothing riled her like a bad call, and she let linesmen know. Some called her a brat; others, "the female Ilie Nastase."

"She was young and cocky and plucky, like a little boxer" says tennis commentator and former pro Mary Carillo, who was 23 when Jaeger burst onto the tour.

Looking back, Jaeger believes she never should have inhabited this world as a minor.

But at 14, all she wanted was to play tennis.

So when an agent came to her home to discuss turning pro, it was Andrea, then in eighth grade, who made the decision.

She remembers the adults sitting at the kitchen table, where she had watched her parents count quarters to pay for her lessons and indoor-court rentals. Andrea sat on the floor playing with Matchbox cars while her mother fretted about the rigors of international travel and her father argued that turning pro was the only way to keep their daughter challenged.

She had won age-group titles practically in her sleep and trounced top collegians. Now she was winning pro events but being forced to return prize money her family desperately needed because of her amateur status.

Back and forth they went, until Andrea blurted out: "Really, it's not a big deal. Let me just turn pro. I'm OK with it."

But she wasn't.

Most matches, Jaeger was all fight. She crushed Billie Jean King in the 1983 Wimbledon semifinals after hearing her tell the ball boy that she wouldn't need a towel, explaining, "I don't plan on sweating much."

So Jaeger clocked her, 6-1, 6-1.

There's no guarantee Jaeger would have beaten Martina Navratilova in the women's final that followed. Then the tournament's three-time and defending champion, Navratilova claimed a record nine Wimbledon singles titles before retiring.

Still, Jaeger had won their only previous meeting on grass. Plus, she didn't get rattled in big matches as Navratilova famously did.

But what should have been a compelling match started unraveling the day before, according to Jaeger, who first acknowledged throwing the match to a British newspaper last year.

It started over an empty potato chip bag.

Then 18, Jaeger wasn't allowed to eat potato chips -- and certainly not during the two weeks of a Grand Slam, when her father restricted her diet even further.

So when he found the empty family-size bag stashed in her closet on the eve of the final, he stormed out of the room. Jaeger muttered a cuss word, thinking he was out of earshot. He wasn't. Now, she was sure to get disciplined.

So she ran -- a bra stuffed in one pocket, her wallet in another -- and started banging on the doors of other players' rented flats until one finally opened.

"He was chasing after me," Jaeger recalls, "and I just didn't feel like getting hit on that day."

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