‘I was in an inappropriate relationship with my 50-year-old coach at 17’

At that point, I returned to high school to complete my senior year. But it was tough for me in 1979, going back out on the road as a US Open finalist. In an echo of Emma Raducanu’s recent acclimatization issues, everything had happened so fast that I wasn’t prepared. After I got knocked out of Wimbledon, I went five months without winning a match.

In the middle of my rough patch, Don and I found ourselves sitting in a rental car outside an indoor arena in Minneapolis. I had just lost yet another first-round match and Don was talking to me about things I could have done differently – the usual sort of coach-player conversation. I just started sobbing. I can remember very clearly saying, “There’s something else here.” He said “What?” and I said, “I’m falling in love with you.” I was 17 years old. He was 50.

This is where things could and should have taken a different turn. If Don had been better informed, he might have been cannier about the potential complications that come with coaching an adolescent girl. Clearly, he wasn’t a predator. When I spoke up in the rental car, I didn’t know what to do. But he had this great prospect, a US Open runner-up at 16, and he didn’t want to let me go.

I still have conflicted feelings about Don. Yes, he and I became involved in a long and inappropriate affair. Yes, he was cheating on his wife. But there was a lot about him that was honest and authentic. And I loved him. Even so, he was the grown-up here. He should have been the trustworthy adult. In a different world, he would have found a way to keep things professional. Only after therapy did I start to feel a little less responsible. Now, at last, I’ve come to realize that what happened is on him.

My relationship with Don was a traumatic experience for me. The after-effects lasted far beyond the time we spent together. Our affair shaped my whole experience of romantic life. It stunted my ability to form normal relationships and set certain patterns which would recur: my ongoing attraction to older men and my difficulties in understanding how to maintain healthy boundaries.

The next five years were a time when everything got blurry, when lines were crossed. I was so young, I didn’t know how to ask for help. I didn’t understand what I was getting into and I’m not sure he did either. The relationship started to get physical, to get intimate. We didn’t actually have intercourse until I was 20, two-and-a-half years after our conversation in the rental car in Minneapolis. But we did share rooms. We did virtually everything else that two people who are attracted to each other can do.

Don never abused me sexually, but I would say there was emotional abuse. I felt so many horrendous emotions and I felt so alone. The worst would be my anger and jealousy when his wife came to tournaments. In fact, Elaine was lovely. I don’t think she ever knew what was going on. If she did, she kept it to herself. But every time she showed up, we had to completely flip the way we were coexisting.

It was horrible. I can’t even tell you how many nights I just sobbed in my room – and then had to go out and play a match the next day. Very often, Elaine would arrive just in time for the slams: Wimbledon or the US Open. Now I can see that my most disappointing results often correlated with these moments. So, even from the most pragmatic perspective, I look back and think, ‘Jeez, was this good for your tennis?’

Despite all the emotional upheaval, my game recovered pretty quickly after my wilderness season of 1979. I spent eight straight years among the world’s top 10 singles players. I teamed up with Martina in a doubles partnership that landed 20 major titles. But the strength of my results only made me more afraid. If I stopped the coaching relationship, what would happen to my tennis? I was terrified my game might just go away.


Related Posts

George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *