Jessica Korda turned 18. A Florida-blonde daughter coming of age in a Singapore golf tournament with her European tennis-star father acting as caddie; she’s living proof of how local the world has become. Tim Maitland reports.
“It’s been a rollercoaster,” America’s Jessica Korda says of the journey that has taken her family to the point where she’ll celebrate her coming of age in the middle of a world-class golf tournament in Asia.
“It’s strange, weird. I don’t think I’d be here with her if we still had communism in my country, but now they let us live freely and let us choose this path,” says Petr Korda, her former Grand Slam-winning tennis star dad.
As birthdays go there won’t be much time for blowing out candles and unwrapping presents, but it’ll still be special.
“I’ll have an early morning, so I think we’ll just go out for dinner,” she explains.
Petr will carry the bag of the birthday girl during Sunday’s final round of the HSBC Women’s Champions. But if you’re thinking Jessica Korda’s birthday, and indeed her rookie season on the LPGA Tour, is being obsessively monitored by a former superstar turned pushy parent it’s time to think again.
Jessica Korda, not for the first time and certainly not for the last, throws her head back and laughs as she tries to explain her game-plan for her rookie season. The 1998 Australian Open tennis champion who got within a couple of shots of being a world number one, sits with a wicked grin plastered across his face.
“It’s a lot of hard work. It’s interesting, it’s a lot of fun, but a lot of work; not as easy as I thought it would be. We’re just trying to learn the ropes, pretty much getting to know everyone and everything. We’re both kind of on the same boat here… hoping not to sink!” Jessica explains, before collapsing into giggles.
Jessica, who signed off on her amateur career by finishing runner up in the 2010 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship and representing the USA in the Curtis Cup, is a typical American; like most Americans her family history starts somewhere else. Her father and her mother Regina (nee Rajchrtova), also a former tennis professional, grew up behind the iron curtain in what was then communist Czechoslovakia. They were among the lucky few; their careers allowed them to travel to the West where Jessica was born.
“She’s American, with Czech heritage and European blood inside of her,” says Petr, who has caddied for his girl since she was 13 and conducts all their conversations on the course in the Czech language.
“In 1996, when she was three and a half years old, I didn’t go to the Olympics in Atlanta because I had groin surgery; I was in Florida preparing for my upcoming tournaments. Suddenly we heard Jessica screaming and yelling ‘we have a gold!’ Gold for the Czech athletes, you know, it’s an amazing thing. I ran, with my wife, in front of the TV and there’s Michael Johnson standing with his shoes and I said ‘what the hell?!’” he says, a cue for more laughter.
The story is delivered with the wit and timing of the raconteur, but to try and tell the tale of the Kordas without explaining Czech humour is pointless. And explaining Czech humour needs a little bit of a history lesson.
The conversation with the Kordas starts on the subject of a book: one of the classics in Czech literature, so important to Czechs that Petr returns to the subject frequently, even downloading clips of the movie of the same name. It’s The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek, who has himself been variously described as an anarchist, dog salesman, soldier, writer and hoaxer: he was once asked as editor of a magazine called Animal World because he was making up stories about imaginary beasts!
When it was written in the 1920s the constituent parts of what is now the Czech Republic – Bohemia, Moravia and Czech Silesia - were under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But it could have been written anytime from the 1300s when the region first fell under the rule of Vienna’s Hapsburg dynasty.
It’s about a character who, with a straight-face, causes pandemonium wherever he goes as he undermines authority in farcical manner; think of a cross between Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and Mr. Bean except with the bumbling idiot is a lot smarter than everyone takes him to be.
“The Soldier Svejk, he is a funny guy. He takes all the credit [for everything]. When he goes in front of the medical board right before World War One, he says “gee, I want to go but I have some knee problems; I have rheumatic trouble” he was coming up with so many nonsense ideas, but he got away with it when normally they would hang him immediately,” says Petr, now 43, of the satire that the Czech people easily took to apply just as readily from 1948 to 1989; the period when the Iron Curtain descended.
“It kind of describes the Czech mentality until the breaking of the communist regime,” says Petr.
“The Czechs like to have humour; sometimes they say Czechs can find humour at a funeral. The older generation is a little bit different than the young one. Under the regime of the communism we’ve been brought up in a different way; right now everything is open and when you talk to the younger generation they have no clue. Being humorous was one of the ways of getting out of the misery. The humour is great and I think people felt good through humour. We like to laugh. We like to laugh; jokes were part of my generation growing up. Some of the jokes were against the system and sometimes you had to watch your mouth, which I heard from the older generation, but jokes are a big part of the Czech people,” he explains.
“Jessie doesn’t know that much about the time when I was growing up; we never discuss it. We’ve told her sometimes we wish that she had to go back then to realise what our values are. The system taught us our values; how nice it is sometimes to go over the border; how fortunate we were to travel and how fortunate we were to play tennis… compared to my peers at that time.”
The fact that humour was used as a defence against the privations of the system also explains why every joke or witticism that Petr scatters into his conversations is delivered with a totally deadpan expression. Smiling at the wrong person could mean trouble, so you have to be quick to keep up.
“He’s got that. He can look very serious; he’s got game face, he’s got poker face and then when you get to know him you see a different side,” says a grinning Jessica, before demurely declining the offer to discuss any possible negatives of having had Dad on her bag since she was 13.
“I’m good… I want to live!” she laughs, adding that biggest thing her father brings from his been-there-done-that pro sports career is that “when things get tough he’s calm; he doesn’t freak out.”
“You can’t say it’s a positive or a negative, let’s see. Maybe she’s going to be chasing me with a golf club!” Petr deadpans.
There’s a wonderful straight-faced quirkiness to Petr’s character: he retains the leanness, the long neck and the nose that earned him the nickname Woodpecker (although slightly less of the fly-away hair that led the French to less kindly call him Artichoke Head). He says he has put on four kilos since he retired, but it’s hard to believe where he’s put it. It also looks like the flying scissor kick celebration he used to deliver on his way to shake hands at the net – back in the days when he was winning the 1996 Australian Open doubles title with Stefan Edberg or, on his way to claiming 10 singles titles, doing battle with everyone from Boris Becker, Andre Agassi, fellow-Czech Ivan Lendl or Pete Sampras and Michael Chang – may have lost little of its bounce.
“I think I was someone who would never give up. I hated losing like other people, but I knew losing was when I got better. When you’re losing you’re hurting inside; when you’re hurting inside it makes you stronger. I loved the game and I love sports. I’m a different person than I was on the court. Everybody would say ‘ah, he’s crazy!’ or something; I’m different, I like humour, I like to laugh,” he explains.
That love of laughter has been passed down to his long-hitting daughter who shows no reluctance to laugh at herself: a key ingredient to staying sane on tour.
“All the time! A lot of the people surrounding me are European. My best friend in the States, Christina, is from Germany. My cousins are from the Czech Republic. My coach is from Sweden, Magnus Karlsson. We all laugh about each other. If you do something stupid you don’t just sit there and have other people make fun of you. You’re like ‘Oh yeah, guess what I did the other day?!!!’… and I can use that old ‘blonde moment’ move, you know? You’re not perfect. No-one’s perfect!”
That might be the mantra to Korda senior’s approach to raising his sporting daughter. Certainly he would find little to agree with Yale professor Amy Chua’s controversial book "Battle Hymns of the Tiger Mother". When Jessica finished 19th in the US Women’s Open as a 15-year-old, Chua’s instinct might have been to hold her daughter’s Facebook page hostage for not finishing in the top five. Petr’s response was to take her away from golf for two months. Jessica’s interruption when he explains this suggests he may have been right: “best… summer… ev-ah!”
“She’s like a tree and you want to let the tree grow by itself: you want to water it, but you want to let it grow by itself,” Petr says.
“I never follow her practice. When you want to be an athlete, and I don’t believe many people understand, when you’re playing tennis, you have a split second decision; if you have someone who is always going to tell you blah-blah-blah-blah, how can you make your own decisions?” Petr asks, adding that, despite the fact that Jessica has turned professional the door stays open if she ever changes her mind.
“Everybody says how talented my daughter is, but there’s a possibility she’s not going to play golf, she might fall in love and she’s not going to be the first one or the last one to leave the game, who knows? Whatever Jessica is going to decide, it’s her decision. I’m playing the supporting Dad,” he explains, adding that that support includes managing her career along with Patricio Apey, who in turn, managed Petr’s professional career and has known Jessica since the day she was born.
“We’re just doing it as family. I’m a big believer in the family. There is one thing to understand. I’m not going to caddie forever. The Daddy-caddie job will be for a short period of time. I want to be Dad. That was always my intention for my kids; I want to be Dad. I don’t want to be coach, except for my son with tennis. I don’t want to caddie for them; I want to help them out. I’ll help her with the transformation to be a professional golfer,” says Korda, who will then focus on teaching tennis to 10-year-old Sebastian, just like his own father, who coached him.
In the meantime Jessica, whose own coach has been quoted as saying she has the potential to be a world number one, is under no pressure from her father.
“One thing my Dad said ‘if you have a big expectation, when you fall down your butt will be sore’ and he was right,” Petr says.
His father’s name?
“Petr, the same spelling. We lost the second E in the war.”
“I have absolutely no idea; I didn’t like to ask,” he replies, that anarchic, mischievous Czech grin spread wide across his face.