Livinnia Wood won 17 competitions at local and state level in 2017
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Under a blazing Brisbane sun, and with coach Josh encouraging her to keep hands loose and legs set, nine-year-old Livinnia Wood begins Wednesday morning training.
Her father, Ray, offers words of support as he patrols the back of the court, pointing out the occasional wolf spider, and collecting in the balls.
The 38-year-old, who was born and raised in Liverpool, is trying to “create two of the greatest female tennis players the planet has ever seen”.
But his approach divides opinion.
“You might as well buy a lottery ticket,” is how tennis great Martina Navratilova sees it.
Two years on from our first meeting, Ray remains confident Livinnia, and her three-year-old sibling Paloma, can one day be like former world number ones Venus and Serena Williams as sisters who make it “to the top of the world”.
“You’ve got to stay fit, you’ve got to stay healthy,” he said.
“Livi’s going to go through the teenage years and has still got to be motivated to play and train.
“But I think if she gets over those hurdles… world number one, majors… it’s not easy, but the more and more research I’ve done, I more than believe in that.”
The family’s next step is likely to be a move to Spain to seek out a more competitive environment.
Are champions born or made?
Last year, Livinnia won 17 competitions at local and state level. She sometimes plays against children five years her senior, and spends between nine and 10 hours a week on the tennis court and four to five hours on the running track.
“First off, try put a little more pressure on these kids, why don’t you?” was 18-time Grand Slam singles champion Navratilova’s response when told about Ray’s plans.
“And I really totally disagree with the idea that champions are made not born. Champions are born, and then they have to have the right environment to be made.
“If the girls are going to be 5ft 2in – not going to happen. Until I was about 12 years old, I played on average maybe four hours a week of tennis – look where it got me.
“If everything goes really well, one of them might get into the top 10 but getting to number one? You might as well buy a lottery ticket.”
The family spend between A$400 and A$500 (£220-£275) a week to fund Livinnia’s tennis, which will of course increase when – as has always been the plan – her younger sister Paloma follows the same path.
Ray, who is a youth technical director for the Brisbane Roar football club, also runs a business which offers sports-based sessions to pre-school children, and has recently become an occasional Uber driver to make ends meet.
A handful of local businesses contribute a small, but not insignificant, amount to the running costs, and the Pacific Sports Management agency is in the process of exploring longer-term options.
“Putting all the eggs into this one basket, it puts a lot of pressure on the kids and I just hope they are happy doing what they are doing,” Navratilova said.
“I have seen this before with parents: girls or boys are on the court three or four hours a day at a young age, and it just doesn’t end well. They get burned out either mentally or physically.
“I wish him well, but I would not be doing this with my kids. Even if they wanted to be champions, I would not be that hard-headed about it.”
Location, location, location
Brisbane has been the family’s home for more than half of Livinnia’s life. But the four of them will soon be moving on. They will spend five weeks in Spain this summer – sizing up tennis academies, schools and job options – with a view to moving there permanently in 2019.
The trip will also allow Livinnia to test herself in competition against European players of the same age.
“I think Livi for the next year or two is still going to get a challenge in Australia,” says Ray, who will be looking for work in football having previously coached at Premier League side Leicester City and French giants Paris St-Germain.
“But I think once she gets close to her teenage years, there’s a hell of a lot of the ITF and Futures events in Europe – 200 plus. In Australia, you’re lucky if there’s maybe a handful each year.
“We need to make sure we keep that environment where Livi is constantly struggling and developing, rather than winning all the time. Livi’s been hitting on grass and hard courts for the past four or five years, but as part of her plan and development she’s got to do two to three years on the clay at some point.”
Ray says his Australian wife, Angela, is very supportive, but what about Livinnia herself?
“I don’t really know,” she said, clutching the last of her raspberry and orange flavoured post-training slushy.
“I would like to move there, but I would really miss home because I have a lot of family members here so it’s a bit hard to move.”
That is also a concern for Wim Fissette, the successful WTA coach who has worked with Kim Clijsters, Victoria Azarenka, Simona Halep, Johanna Konta and now Angelique Kerber. He sees advantages in Europe, but does not see a move as essential.
“Australia’s a big country. That’s tough to understand for me,” he says.
“It’s a choice, but I don’t think it’s necessary. We also have to think ‘is the family happy’ because the kids now have a lot of friends in Australia. Should they really move and start a new social life? That’s a difficult question because it will be very important the girls stay very happy in their life – and they will need that in their career.”
Dad hands over coaching reins
In recent months, Ray has handed over the bulk of the coaching duties to Josh Barrenechea, who has a Spanish grandfather and seems open to the idea of joining the family in Europe.
“I love coaching and working with players like Liv and yeah – wherever it takes me – I think I’d be willing to go on that journey,” he said.
“She soaks up all the information, which is really good. She’s got a fantastic eye for the game; she strikes the ball better than any eight- or nine-year-old girl that I’ve seen around here.”
Mindful of the tension which can exist between young players and their parents – Andre Agassi has written of his difficult relationship with a father who was determined to turn him into a champion – Ray seems content to take a backseat.
“I have learned over the past two years why you can have a lot of breakdowns with parents and children when you play tennis,” he said.
“It’s very stressful and it can be very hard, and I actually really enjoy sitting back on the sidelines, picking up balls, letting Josh do his work and not interfering.”
Project champion: Part two
The youngest Wood daughter, Paloma, will begin regular tennis sessions in May, when she turns four. For the moment, her father says, she is out on court once or twice a week for about 20 minutes at a time.
“We’re just trying to get that little bit of intrinsic motivation from her and see if it’s something she’s going to want to crack on with,” Ray said.
“We’ll start her on roughly four hours a week. All fun-based sessions – balloons, ribbons, everything that Livi went through – and then hopefully by the time she’s eight or nine, she’ll have to get to the serious work of sweating and bleeding on the tennis court.”
Paloma is naturally right-handed, but Ray is intending to develop his daughter as a leftie. That worked a treat for Rafael Nadal, who writes – and plays golf – right-handed.
But Navratilova, another great left-hander, strikes a note of caution.
It is no bad thing, she says, to be able to serve with both hands, but she recommends hitting other strokes with the predominant hand. And in her experience, those who do not serve with their naturally stronger hand, tend to be the weaker servers.
Is this fair on the girls?
Ray says he will respect his daughters’ wishes if ever they decide this lifestyle is no longer for them.
Livinnia says she would like to be a vet after retiring from professional tennis, and says the training is not quite as enjoyable as it used to be.
“When I was younger it was probably a bit more fun, but now I am older I have to work a bit harder in the heat. Josh always pushes me to my top limits and I always get really tired and hot,” she said.
Ray says he has “no qualms” about the route they have chosen for the girls.
“We want the girls to be role models for other children when they grow up,” he said.
“We want them to have foundations and charities. I truly believe we’re put on the world to do a job and my job is to be in and around the coaching industry and to develop my daughters into two sports stars so they can go on and help children who don’t have an opportunity, who don’t have a mum or dad, and who don’t have enough money to put food on the table.”
Fissette thinks Ray is striking a good balance.
“From what I hear, it’s fine,” he said.
“I think because they go to school, they have friends and also the way the father approaches this process, he lets them do different kinds of sports to learn different skills. He sees his role really as a dad, so I think for sure he’s helping the kids the right way.
“But, of course, when the kids get older they will have their own thoughts on how they see their life.”