By Matt Fitzgerald, Special for Tennis Grandstand
On a crisp January morning in Texas, four-time Grand Slam champion Mark Knowles found himself in an elementary school classroom in Southlake. Accompanying his eldest child Graham to a breakfast function, “Donuts For Dads”, Knowles spent the morning with his son’s classmates and fellow fathers in the area, who had made their usual plans to attend the occasion before heading off to work. But Knowles was turning out for the first time. The Bahamian’s profession is unlike anyone else’s in his community. His occupation forces him to make personal sacrifices on a consistent basis. Sacrifices like quality time with his children. But on this day, in this month of January, Knowles put his family first… and tennis second.
9,000 miles away in Melbourne, the Australian Open was just underway. It was an event Knowles had played professionally since 1993, a tournament where he first tasted Grand Slam glory in 2002. At 40 years old, it’s hard to fathom many players, if any, would forgo the year’s first Grand Slam tournament with a full bill of health. But Knowles isn’t ordinary. He’s extraordinary. Knowing it may have been his final opportunity to play Down Under, the precious time with his family is something Knowles wouldn’t trade for anything else. “I have been fortunate to have a long, successful career and I have reached a stage where all my decisions are family based as opposed to being based around my tennis,” Knowles tells Tennis Grandstand in Delray Beach.
“Things have changed a lot for me with the addition of our third child, and with my oldest son, Graham, starting Kindergarten last September. I always told myself that I wanted to be there for my kids growing up as much as I possibly could.”
His wife Dawn, whom he married in 2003, relished the change in dynamics. “Mark has a close bond with the children. For us as a couple, it was great, as we got to do so many things as a family. I’m usually doing many of things by myself,” said the Texan.
“The day in and day out of having Mark home with the kids was wonderful. One minute, he’s outside kicking the soccer ball with Brody. Or he’s working on Graham’s baseball since it’s starting up. The next minute, he’ll take Presley outside in the Baby Bjorn. There’s not a minute where he’s not with one of those kids, so it’s great for me.”
Family has always been a priority for Knowles, but with the birth of daughter Presley last March, it would seem to be even more difficult to strike a perfect harmony between his loved ones and his career. But not for the former world No. 1, stating, “I want to be a major influence in my kids’ lives. And with that comes the responsibility of being there for my wife and my kids.
“It takes so much hard work and dedication to be a great tennis player and I have chosen to shift those energies towards being a great husband and great father for my family. Just like tennis or anything else, you have to dedicate yourself completely to it. The best part about it is that I love being with my family so much that it makes it easier to be away from the tennis sometimes.”
The couple has found it challenging to deal with the requirements of Knowles being on and off the road, in particular with six-year old Graham, explains Dawn. “Mark will say that he’s just going to play tennis for a few days, but Graham knows the difference now with how long a day is. Brody doesn’t know the time frame.
“The hardest part is the kids are getting smarter, so we can’t keep saying dad is going to be gone for a couple days, because they’re counting the days he’s away. They ask for him at night. Mark helps Graham with his homework, taking the time to read the books and oversee all of his assignments. When it’s me doing it, it’s not the same for him. His expectation is that time is for him and his dad to spend together.”
Perhaps the best decision Knowles made after having two months with his family was a return to action at the Dallas Challenger in February, a virtual hometown event that would allow him to ease back into the reality of his career. Playing an ATP Challenger event for the first time in 11 years, Knowles didn’t put himself above the level of competition at the tournament, knowing that it would be an ideal environment to acquire some match practice. “It was interesting returning to the Challenger level. It was a chance for me to get some matches in and also to play at home with family and friends watching,” says Knowles.
“The level is so high at challengers that it prepares you well for the ATP World Tour events. Being from the Bahamas, I have never had a home event. To be able to drive 20 minutes and play and then come back to your own house and be with your family was awesome!”
Partnering Robert Kendrick, Knowles reached the semifinals, and then headed off to San Jose to rejoin Xavier Malisse. The two enjoyed success during the North American summer hard court swing in 2011, winning the title in Los Angeles and reaching the third round of the US Open. They clicked more with each match in San Jose, and went on to finish in the winner’s circle to win their second team trophy. The victory gave Knowles his 55th career title, and extended his impressive streak of winning at least one tour-level title to 19 of the past 20 seasons. He also became the first player in his 40s to win a doubles title since John McEnroe (who also won in San Jose). “Playing Dallas was a huge benefit and the reason I did well in San Jose. There is no substitute for match practice and match situations,” believes Knowles.
“I always go into a tournament thinking that I can win it. I think everyone feels that way. However, I know how hard it is to win tournaments, especially coming off a prolonged break. Xavier and I were able to raise our games with each match and that is what it takes to win at this level.”
Knowles hasn’t set any specific goals for this season, but will continue playing provided his ranking holds up to gain him entry into tournaments. For Dawn, she would love nothing more than for Mark to play in another final, with Graham cheering him on from the front row. “Graham is beginning to understand sports. Before Mark went to San Jose, he said, ‘I hope you get the trophy.’ His idea of winning is Mark getting a piece of silverware. That’s what they do at his age. For him to see Mark lift the trophy would be huge. He thinks that’s the best thing in the world.”
Either way, Dawn is backing her husband 100 percent, whether he decides to retire tomorrow, at the end of the year or further down the road. Being there with him through all the ups and downs, the former model believes his accomplishments speak for themselves. “If I could waive the magic wand and give him the men’s doubles Wimbledon title, I would totally do that. But that doesn’t define his career. He’s a good candidate for the Hall Of Fame. He has a proven record with a variety of partners to show he can win.
“If he decides at the end of this year that he’s done, I want him to walk away like he’s done it all and is satisfied. I’m going to support him through that decision. He’ll go down as one of the best doubles players to play the game and I’m not saying that because I have to as his wife. In a broader context, he has earned that among his peers.”
(All photos courtesy of Mark’s wife, Dawn Knowles via the author)
Matt Fitzgerald is the web editor for the ATP World Tour and Tennis Grandstand’s resident doubles specialist. He is in Indian Wells, California this week covering the BNP Paribas Open and will be in Key Biscayne, Florida next week covering the Sony Ericsson Open. Follow Matt on twitter @tennisfitz.
Justine Henin was our sport’s Maggie Fitzgerald. Recall the academy award winning film “Million Dollar Baby” Well, Maggie Fitzgerald was the undersized, high-achieving, hard luck protagonist. She was tougher than nails, both inside and outside of the boxing ring. Justine Henin was similarly tough, although she was not a fictitious character made in Hollywood.
There are two stories that I will always remember about the diminutive Belgian. The 2003 US Open was marred by rainy weather. It played havoc with the scheduling, and the tournament was barely able to end on schedule. On Friday night, under the lights of Ashe Stadium, Henin battled the popular Jennifer Capriati for a US Open women’s record three hours and three minutes. The match was fraught with tension, twists, and turns. Capriati desperately wanted to win her national championship and fought like a champion. She came within two points of winning the match an astonishing 11 times. Henin battled from one set down, through cramps, a biased crowd, and her own nerves to prevail in a third set tiebreaker around midnight.
After the match, Jennifer Capriati wailed to the long-time locker room attendant Gloria Beckford: “Why!?!?!?” Even lovely Gloria could not console Capriati. Nearby, Henin was slumped on a table in the trainer’s room, receiving fluids intravenously to treat her severe dehydration.
In the City That Never Sleeps, Henin did not emerge from the locker room until the wee hours of the morning. The buzz around the grounds the next day was that she would not be able to answer the bell for the final against countrywoman Kim Clijsters, who was ranked number 1 at the time. This was a problem on many levels, including the fact that CBS Sports had gambled (and invested heavily) by having the women’s final televised during the evening’s prime time for the second consecutive year. A final round withdrawal would have ruined this goodwill, to say the least. Refunding tickets for a default would have also been financially catastrophic to the tournament.
The next afternoon when Henin arrived at Flushing Meadows with coach Carlos Rodriguez and physical trainer Pat Etcheberry, she went through some “warm up” exercises. She spent time doing plyometrics, strength and balance work on the swiss ball, catching and throwing medicine balls, and some running. Her “warm up” session would rival an offseason workout for most players. She would play!
The match was an anticlimax, and the favored Clijsters never really had a chance. Winning with guile and grit, Henin beat her rival in straight sets. Within 24 hours, she went from a doubtful starter to the US Open champion.
This spring, my wife and our baby boy took a trip to the south of France. I needed to go on a pilgrimage to the Monte Carlo Country Club, to see first-hand where Bjorn Borg used to practice. I knew it would be good karma for our baby, who is stuck with two tennis-mad parents.
When we arrived, I saw Justine, her coach Carlos Rodriguez, and a sparring partner drilling on an outside court. Henin was doing exhausting intervals and working on perfecting the forehand that had already delivered her four titles at Roland Garros. To my horror, my wife hopped out of the car with the baby and ran to courtside. “Bonjour Justine! Our baby loves you!” I hid in the car, dying of embarrassment and thinking the worst. Instead of reacting angrily (or being frightened!), Justine sweetly said “Bonjour baby. He is so cute…” I apologized quickly to Carlos (who pretended not to mind) and peeled away in our rental car.
In a few years time, when we visit the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island as a family, it will be a story that I can always share with our son. “Remember when you met Justine Henin when she was ranked No. 1 in the world…?” I can only hope that he hits his backhand as Henin did hers.
Like Maggie Fitzgerald, Justine Henin has chosen to leave on her own terms. Thankfully, her decision was a happier one than the wounded Hollywood boxer. I suspect that, like most boxers (and an increasing number of tennis players), she will embark on a “comeback.” Regardless, she is a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer and remains shoulder-to-shoulder with Serena Williams as the best player of her generation.