Pam Shriver’s Tennis Juggling Act

Pam Shriver’s Tennis Juggling Act

March 17, 2023

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — It was late in the afternoon of an early round at the BNP Paribas Open in the California desert, and Pam Shriver was having a day.

There had been practice and strategy sessions with Donna Vekic, the talented 26-year-old Croat she has been helping coach since October. She had been going back and forth with Lindsay Brandon, the WTA Tour’s new director of safeguarding, the cause that has become Shriver’s focus over the past year.

She was also spending time with a woman named Karen Denison Clark, who had reached out to Shriver in February as a fellow survivor of sexual abuse. Still ahead was a night match to call as a commentator for the Tennis Channel.

This is how it is for Shriver these days. She was long known to fans as a 21-time Grand Slam doubles champion and a leading television analyst, but Shriver’s life changed last year when she spoke openly for the first time about the man who had coached her when she was a teenager. Don Candy, who died in 2020, was 50 years old and Shriver was 17 when the relationship moved beyond coaching. Shriver now understands that the relationship, which lasted five years, was sexually and emotionally abusive.

Since she told her story, Shriver’s existence has become a test of juggling often conflicting missions. She is a leading face and voice for tennis. She is also the tip of the spear in the fight to expose abuse. She is one of the game’s few female coaches, as well as an ally for survivors of the kind of harassment she views as all too prevalent.

“I don’t mind hurting women’s tennis if it means helping women tennis players,” Shriver, 60, said last week, sitting at a picnic table as fans streamed across the grounds of the BNP Paribas Open, the so-called fifth slam, with Clark beside her. “This is a tour that for decades and decades looked the other way.”

She told her story, she said, because she wanted to change the culture of her sport, and the effects have already been significant.

Shortly after Shriver went public, Steve Simon, the chief executive of the WTA Tour, announced that the organization would conduct a wholesale review of its safeguarding policies and hire its first director of safeguarding. Brandon, a lawyer, started late last year with a mandate to make the sport safer by overseeing investigations into complaints of abuse and revamping the WTA Tour’s rules and standards.

At the BNP Paribas Open, her first tournament, she met with Shriver and dozens of players, and said she had spent most of her first three months on the job looking into ongoing investigations. Her first major move has been to require anyone seeking a women’s tour credential, including players and members of their support staffs, to complete a new online safeguarding education program before the French Open.

After Shriver spoke with Dave Haggerty, the president of the International Tennis Federation, the organization required a wider range of people to adhere to its guidelines and strengthened its rules on prohibited behavior.

Her advocacy also led to her coaching gig with Vekic, a member of the WTA Tour’s player council, when a discussion about safeguarding during a tournament in San Diego evolved into a conversation about Vekic’s play. Within weeks, Vekic had added Shriver to her coaching staff, making her one of the rare female coaches in professional tennis.

Her biggest impact, though, may be in her quiet conversations with current and former players about their experiences with coaches whose behavior ranged from inappropriate to abusive to possibly unlawful, conversations like the one that began with an email from Clark on Feb. 7.

Like Shriver, Clark, now 65, was a top junior player in the Washington, D.C., area in the 1960s and 1970s. Shriver remembered Clark as being older and better than she was but knew nothing about why her fledgling tennis career had fizzled largely before it began. Clark kept the reason to herself for more than 30 years before telling her husband in 2006.

“I thought, ‘If I file it away, and lock the cabinet, and throw away the key, it will never bother me,’” Clark said. “But then my children got older and left home, and it just had more space.”

In the summer of 1973, when she was 15, a coach with a budding reputation saw Clark play at a tennis camp and sought out her parents, offering to work with their daughter. Clark had already competed in some of the most competitive age-group tournaments. Working with an up-and-coming coach felt like an opportunity.

The New York Times has not been able to speak with Clark’s former coach, despite calling his mobile phone and sending several messages to an email address, to his most recent place of employment and through social media.

That fall, Clark said, the coach asked her to accompany him to an adult clinic he was holding at a resort in Charlottesville, Va., where her sister was in college. On the first night, Clark said, the coach took her to the hotel bar under the guise of meeting other participants from the clinic, but they weren’t there.

Clark remembers him as giving her a glass of “something brown.” She remembers stumbling along a hallway and entering the coach’s room. The next thing she remembers is coming to on the bed. She was lying on her back with her tennis skirt around her knees, and he was wiping her stomach with tissues. The coach then drove Clark to her sister’s townhouse.

“I woke up the next day thinking I can’t ever tell anyone about this,” she said.

She continued training with the coach for several more months, until she could barely hold her racket without shaking and her game fell apart.

Last April, when Shriver told her story on “The Tennis Podcast,” Clark was listening. In December, after successfully battling breast cancer, she began to craft an email, a draft of which stayed on her computer for two months before she sent it to Shriver, who responded 90 minutes later. They traded emails and had a video call a week later, during which Clark filled in the details. She did not file a complaint at the time and said she does not intend to now. She wanted to tell her story in hopes that it might encourage other women to tell theirs.

“It made me feel like I was going crazy,” Clark said as she sat beside Shriver last week.

Shriver said she had felt the same way during those five years when Candy was coaching her. Her lessons from that experience are at the heart of what she has tried to convey to people like Simon and Haggerty, offering ideas on better certifying coaches and requiring players to find another coach if they become romantically involved with a current one.

She urged Haggerty to make the policing of abuse the third pillar of the federation’s independent enforcement arm, the International Tennis Integrity Association, alongside doping and corruption, including match fixing.

A spokesman for the I.T.F. said Friday that the organization and its safeguarding team, which includes an investigator, was committed to working “with all survivors — including Pam — to ensure that their voices and opinions are incorporated.”

Shriver was hoping the tour would move more quickly than it has been, with its current promise of having a new, clear code for behavior in 2024.

“That is a whole year later than what I was told,” Shriver said, donning the agitator’s hat.

She has, though, found her first meetings with Brandon encouraging. As Shriver sees it, tennis players have led among female athletes, having long ago gained equal pay in the biggest tournaments, as well as exposure that is far beyond what women in other sports have received.

The tour’s ethical code for coaches already discourages intimate relationships between coaches and players and prohibits them for players younger than 18. Brandon wants to establish a basic code of minimum standards and rules as well as “an environment where people feel safe speaking up” and don’t need to fear retaliation.

The WTA declined to say how many cases were currently on its docket.

At times, Shriver’s conflicting roles can be at loggerheads. During the Australian Open, she condemned on Twitter the coach of Elena Rybakina, Stefano Vukov, for his aggressive and public criticism of Rybakina from the courtside coaching box. Her posts drew a rebuke from Rybakina, who defended Vukov. There was chatter that she violated an unwritten code — that coaches don’t publicly criticize rival coaches.

Still, she said that so far the juggling act had proved worthwhile, at times for unexpected reasons.

At a cafe on Friday morning, Bradley Polito, the father of a 7-year-old daughter named Madeleine who is hooked on the sport, approached to introduce himself and thanked Shriver for everything she had said.

Polito explained that he had no background in sports. Shriver’s story, he said, opened his eyes and drove him to make sure his daughter had a female coach.

“It’s almost like a North Star for us,” he said.

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