Raw eye-witness testimony of being a child in a competitive environment


Call it prejudice, call it snobbism, call it elitism, call it what you will – I have a thing about self-published books. I suppose my subconscious says that, if a publisher isn’t willing to publish a manuscript, there’s a reason for it and the book probably isn’t very good.

I had to question that when Richard Evans' fascinating memoir 'The Roving Eye' came out in 2017. And I’m having to re-think it again after reading ‘Driven’, a self-published memoir by the former tennis player Julie Heldman. It isn’t just a book for tennis fans – it’s an account that will interest all those who have had to navigate through a highly competitive environment, especially those who also have a highly competitive parent (and many do). It should be required reading for all tennis parents and coaches.

At one level my prejudice about self-publishing is vindicated – the book is very scratchy in a way it wouldn’t have been if a publisher’s editor had taken it on. There are a range of typos you’d never normally see, the layout is clunky, and there are passages where the blue pencil should have taken sections out that really aren’t relevant and make the narrative drag a little, especially towards the end.

But in some ways the scratchiness is in keeping with the book’s power, which is as the raw testimony of a wounded child who played tennis as a sort of survival mechanism, got good at it, but never achieved true happiness and fulfilment despite great success.

Heldman describes her life largely in the present tense, always saying how things felt to her. To that extent we cannot set total store by the veracity of the content – others may have different versions of the events she describes, notably her dynamic but emotionally repressed mother Gladys, who we can’t ask because she died 15 years ago. But it’s Julie Heldman’s truth, it's how it seemed to her, and the book’s value lies in us being able to hear what a child might think when confronted with the mad world of competitive tennis, especially without the support and sensitivity of understanding parents.

Inevitably the book meanders through several different phases. At times it’s a little girl’s tale of what’s happening to her, at times it’s a manual for what it takes to be a winner in competitive sport, and at times it’s a historical memoir from one of the most turbulent periods in both tennis and world history (Heldman’s account of being in Paris during the student demonstrations of spring 1968 is fascinating). For a couple of chapters it reminded me of Gordon Forbes’ delightful memoir ‘A Handful of Summers’ about the last days of the amateur tennis circuit; then it becomes eye-witness testimony of the nascent professional tennis world, and how tennis became a feminist movement driven by the charismatic but conflicting personalities of Gladys Heldman and Billie-Jean King.

Throughout it all, there’s the little child’s voice saying ‘Just tell me the right thing to do and I’ll do it.’ And it’s astonishing how little guidance the world gives, or how little the child perceives is offered.

Heldman is clearly not the easiest person to deal with (she almost admits as much herself in the latter chapters), and whether she is really right to blame a cocktail of medical drugs for her two major breakdowns is open to conjecture. Who knows how different she might have been if she’d received affirmation as a child and had had a mother who cared about her achievements? There is no parallel universe where we can test these things out.

But ‘Driven’ is a personal statement from someone dragged through the mire of competitive sport, and as such should be required reading. If it’s not too late, I hope a mainstream publisher picks it up, does a bit of tidying (but only a bit), and brings it to a bigger audience where it deserves to be widely read and debated as a piece of testimony from one of the most pressured branches of our weird and wonderful modern-day world.

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Header photograph John Robert Young (c) 2016

Chris Bowers (c)  2019