For Novak Djokovic it came down to three courts being built near his parents’ pizzeria; for Caroline Wozniacki it was a matter of ice-cream rewards.
Such simple reasons have swayed many of the game’s top players into channeling their abilities into a career as a tennis professional, often at the expense of another sport. Post-tennis career, it is rarely out of financial necessity, more a desire to continue fanning those competitive fires, as to why a player turns their hand to a different discipline.
Many of the ingredients common to succeeding in other sports already exist – exceptional hand-eye coordination, athleticism, the determination to fight, and the ability to manage emotions and develop routines. As Dave Smith, author of Coaching Mastery explains, sincere desire is the one element common to every talented junior athlete who makes it as a professional. Many of the game’s greats know what it takes to make it in a sport at a professional level. Whether they succeed in a second sport is another matter. Some are just as happy to be ardent sideline fans.
Coming from a family of elite skiers it is little wonder the nimble Serb is able to screech into those split slides on hard-courts. Djokovic admits he may never have taken up tennis if it were not for three courts being built near his parents’ pizzeria at Kopaonik in the Serbian mountains. “Nobody in my family had ever touched a tennis racquet before me,” he told The Independent. “I would have become a skier or a football player or a regular student. My dad was a semi-professional footballer and a very good skier, a professional. He, my aunt, my uncle were all at the top of the former Yugoslavia ski squad.”
The team aspect of playing football and being able to share the emotions of victory with teammates is the greatest thing the Swiss great says he misses by playing tennis. Basel FC’s No.1 fan, Federer played football until deciding to focus solely on his tennis at age 12. “I’d like to think I could have been a footballer. I was an attacking midfielder or striker. I was a good leader so I think I would have made a good captain,” he said.
The daughter of a professional Polish footballer, Wozniacki was a top swimmer in Denmark before the lure of ice cream may well have swayed her decision to start running down balls on a tennis court. “I had to choose between swimming and tennis around 10 or 11. My swimming coach, who actually was my neighbour, he was getting so frustrated with me because I would never show up to the competitions,” she said. “I was like, ‘Whatever. I don’t feel like waking up at seven …’ I preferred the outdoors … and winning ice-creams, because my dad would set up goals for me to win ice-cream.”
The ambidextrous Spaniard had football pedigree on his side with uncle Miguel a legend of Barcelona FC and the Spanish national team. It was Nadal’s father Sebastian who made the then-12-year-old choose between tennis and football so his school results would not suffer. “I slowly played more and more tennis with my uncle, but I still preferred football. That was my real love when I was a young boy,” Nadal once told The Telegraph. Despite his family ties to Barca, Nadal is an avid fan of arch-rival club Real Madrid and is a shareholder in his hometown club, Mallorca.
The flashy Frenchman could well have pursued basketball or athletics professionally. He is a supporter of the Denver Nuggets in the NBA and lists Carmelo Anthony as his favourite player. Those lean legs were built for speed, it seems. He won the French under-13 and under-14 100m championships and his coach at the time maintains he could well have gone on to make an Olympic 100m final.
Scottish football giants, Glasgow Rangers, approached the Dunblane native as a young teenager for a trial. Murray’s grandfather Roy Erskine played for Edinburgh out t Hibernian, but the Scot’s dream would have been a stint in the English Premier League for Arsenal. “It’s hard to play other sports because of the risk of injury, but we [on the tennis circuit] play football when we can,” Murray told the Daily Mail. “I had to make a decision between football and tennis. Tennis won. I think I made the right decision.”
Granted the depth in competition in any sport at the turn of the 20th century was not what it is today, Dod’s accomplishments across four sports is an extraordinary feat, nonetheless. Best known for winning Wimbledon five times – the first as a 15-year-old in 1887 – the multi-talented Brit won the British Ladies Amateur Golf Championship, represented England in field hockey and landed a silver medal in archery at the 1908 Summer Olympics in London.
Other notable mentions:
Former world No.1s Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Ivan Lendl both turned their hand to professional golf post-tennis. Kafelnikov competed on the European PGA Tour at the 2005 and 2008 Russian Opens but finished last and second last, while Lendl played several US Open qualifiers and Nike Tour events in the late 1990s. Former Thai world No.9 Paradorn Srichaphan is another to have jumped on the golf bandwagon and cites Draper as his inspiration in the goal to become the first Asian athlete to change from another sport to professional golf. Althea Gibson – the first African-American player to win Wimbledon in 1957 – made a successful switch to golf over racial prejudices, which existed at the time. At 37, she became the first African-American to become a member of the LPGA Tour.
Ion Tiriac represented Romania in ice hockey at the 1964 Winter Olympics before turning his focus to warmer, steadier ground, winning the French Open men’s doubles with countryman Ilie Nastase in 1970.
South African world No.19 Kevin Anderson once juggled his fledgling tennis career with being a competitive 800m runner, while German Angelique Kerber was a top swimmer until her early teenage years.
Kim Clijsters’ father Lei was a former international Belgian footballer and her mother, Els Vandecaetsbeek, was a former national gymnastics champion. While she only ever played competitive tennis, her pedigree and those freakish sliding splits on hard-courts were a fair indication at how the Belgian could have turned her hand to any sport.
This article first appeared in Australian Tennis Magazine.
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