In Tennis, the ‘Nepo Babies’ Are Everywhere
MELBOURNE, Australia — Stefanos Tsitsipas often sees something that is becoming increasingly familiar in his sport when he looks over at his team’s courtside box — a parent who is a former pro.
Tsitsipas, the Greek tennis star who is scheduled to play Karen Khachanov in an Australian Open semifinal Friday, is the son of Julia Salnikova Apostoli, a top Russian player in the 1980s who was once the world’s top junior. His father, Apostolos, is also a seasoned player, though not a former top touring pro, who trained as a coach and a line judge and now coaches his son.
Tsitsipas has long credited his tennis-playing parents for his professional success. It’s a growing refrain at tennis tournaments that has been particularly loud over the last two weeks at the Australian Open, where so many courts have featured the offspring of a prior generation’s pros. Sports are designed to be the ultimate meritocracy, and while every game features athletes who descended from others, tennis may be the ultimate “nepotism baby” sport.
On-court success doesn’t require a parent who played elite tennis, but it sure can help.
Ben Shelton, the 20-year-old surprise of the tournament and the son of the former pro Bryan Shelton, did not get serious about tennis until he was 11 years old. He played a lot of football when he was younger, but once he decided tennis was his calling, his father was on the court hitting balls with him every day.
“He wanted me to be sure that it was what I really wanted to do because he didn’t want us to waste time on something if I wasn’t going to be fully committed,” Shelton, who lost a quarterfinal match Wednesday to the fellow American Tommy Paul, said during an interview earlier this week. “Once he saw that I was fully committed and playing tennis and trying to compete at the highest level, he went all in.”
Sebastian Korda, the 22-year-old son of the 1998 Australian Open winner Petr Korda, also made the quarterfinals. It was first time making it that far in a Grand Slam tournament, but likely not the last. Korda’s mother, Regina Rajchrtová, was a pretty good player, too, rising to 26th in the world rankings in 1991.
Petr Korda no longer coaches his son. But one of his tennis contemporaries, Christian Ruud, is still working in the box during every match for his prized pupil, his son Casper, a two-time major finalist last year. They travel the world with golf clubs, hitting the links between tournaments.
Yes, there is a fiery father-son doubles tournament waiting to be organized and some other competitions, too.
Tracy Austin’s 24-year-old son, Brandon Holt, made the second round in Melbourne, just as he did at the 2022 U.S. Open. Elizabeth Mandlik, the 21-year-old daughter of the four-time Grand Slam singles winner Hana Mandlikova, lost in qualifying after making the second round at the U.S. Open.
The 2023 Australian Open
The year’s first Grand Slam event runs from Jan. 16 to Jan. 29 in Melbourne.
- No Spotlight, No Problem: In tennis, there is a long history of success and exposure crushing champions or sucking the joy out of them. In this Australian Open, players under the radar have gone far.
- Behind the Scenes: A coterie of billionaires, deep-pocketed companies and star players has engaged for months in a high-stakes battle to lead what they view as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to disrupt the sport.
- Endless Games: As matches stretch into the early-morning hours, players have grown concerned for their health and performance.
- A New Style Star: Frances Tiafoe may have lost his shot at winning the Australian Open, but his swirly “himbo” look won him fashion points.
Lest anyone forget, Judy Murray, the mother of Andy and Jamie, who have five Grand Slam titles between them in singles and doubles, gave the pro tour a shot in the mid-1970s as well. So did Taylor Fritz’s mother, Kathy May. His father, Guy Fritz, played professionally as well.
Undoubtedly there is a generation of young players relieved that the children of Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf opted for other pursuits. Their son Jaden is a pitcher for the University of Southern California.
Weaned on the game since early childhood and tutored on everything from constructing a winning point to adjusting to life on the tour long before they ever get there, these players who do get the tennis bug grow up with myriad advantages that span nature and nurture. Veterans of the game, however, say the biggest edge does not fit the caricature of the high-achieving parent pushing a child to excel.
Good DNA is a good start. Also, pursuing tennis can be incredibly expensive. Chances are, someone who had professional success has either money to finance a junior career or connections to a network of coaches and leaders of the sport to get the necessary support, especially when players are young and habits are forming.
Before he died last year, Nick Bollettieri, who coached two generations of top players, including Agassi, said an aspiring professional had to learn the proper way to grip a racket by 10 at the latest. It’s a little awkward, more like cupping a handful of coins than grasping a frying pan or a baseball bat.
“After that it’s too late,” he said.
The players themselves and people who have spent their lives around tennis say the advantages go far beyond technical tips or pointers on strategy. Rather, having an innate feel for what a child needs at a given moment, not on the court but off it, can serve as a differentiator along the way.
Mary Carillo, the former player who is now a tennis commentator, said the process usually begins with the child’s instinct to try to please their parents by emulating them. Then the parent tries to help the child enjoy the sport and get better at it by offering the requisite footwork and stroke technique. The children of pros begin to understand the rigor of the pursuit, that being like mom or dad is going to take a lot of hard work.
Holt, Austin’s son, said during an interview in September that he learned by watching his mother go about her daily business, long after her career ended, how competitive she was and the importance of trying hard all the time. Whether his mother was playing cards, tennis or something else, she always wanted to win. That rubbed off.
“If we were doing homework or chores and trying to take short cuts, that wasn’t acceptable,” he said. “You could not ever give less than your best. If you tried your hardest and got a bad grade on a test that was OK.”
Martin Blackman, the general manager of player development at the United States Tennis Association, has witnessed the development of several second-generation players, including Shelton and Korda. He said those parents understand that becoming a great player is a journey during which progress is not necessarily measured by matches won or trophies collected.
“It’s always about getting better, as a person first and then as a tennis-playing athlete,” Blackman said. “They know how hard it is so they don’t come down hard on their player-child after a poor result. They preserve their relationship with the individual. That combination gives players a tremendous amount of security and self-belief.”
Mandlik said recently that whenever things aren’t going well, she goes back to a phrase her mother first said to her years ago — “tough times don’t last; tough people do.”
As a child, Mandlik wanted to become a professional skier, but her mother refused to move from Florida to a cold-weather locale. So she decided to commit to tennis instead.
She said her mother has never criticized her for a loss, something she has seen plenty of other parents do.
“My mom understands how it feels to lose, so if you lose she’s not going to rip you,” said Mandlik, whose twin brother, Mark, plays for the University of Oklahoma and has considered turning pro. “Now if you didn’t listen to your coach, then she can rip you.”
Mandlik’s mother got her started in tennis but gave up coaching responsibilities long ago. Mandlikova sometimes watches her daughter practice, but rarely comes onto the court, leaving the coaching responsibilities to others, a move many former players make as their children rise through the ranks.
Bryan Shelton, who coaches at the University of Florida, has handed his son over to Dean Goldfine, the former coach of Andy Roddick. Petr Korda has hired his good friend Radek Stepanek, a player he used to coach, to guide his son.
Apostolos Tsitsipas is still the main voice in his son’s ear, in practice, and during matches, when he sits courtside, leaning forward, his elbows on his knees or his arms crossed on his chest, his face tight with concern, terror, frustration, inspiration — often all at once.
He shouts words of encouragement in Greek, claps his hands every so often and raises a fist in celebration only when his son produces a little bit of magic. He sucks down bottle after bottle of water, but rarely leaves his seat for a bathroom break.
Late last year his son brought in another voice, Mark Philippoussis, the retired, big-hitting Australian with Greek roots. In recent weeks, Stefanos Tsitsipas has begun playing with a combination of aggression, power and swagger that had disappeared from his game for long spells during the past year.
“He makes for a good guy to have next to my father that can advise him, that can help him, can help me,” Tsitsipas said of Philippoussis after his quarterfinal win over Jiri Lehecka on Tuesday night.
Parents, after all, can do only so much.