Sports

Her Tennis Coach Abused Her. Could the Sport Have Prevented It?

The grooming of Adrienne Jensen began with an invitation to train with a top junior tennis coach at a well-regarded tennis academy in suburban Kansas City in 2009.

To Jensen, then a promising teenage player from Iowa City who had struggled to find elite training, the offer felt like the ultimate good fortune, even if accepting it meant upending her family’s life.

Early on that fall, Jensen’s gamble seemed to be paying off as she trained with the coach, Rex Haultain, and played deeper into increasingly competitive tournaments.

“I felt like he was my ticket,” Jensen, now 27 and about to begin a career as a psychiatric nurse practitioner, said in a recent interview.

Soon, though, the praise and attention turned into demands for nude pictures and secrecy, and eventually sexual assault. Haultain, a New Zealand citizen, took a plea deal in 2013 for soliciting child pornography from Jensen, who was 15. He was sent to federal prison without the need for Jensen to face him at trial. The F.B.I. said in announcing Haultain’s deal that the coach eventually molested Jensen. She detailed the abuse to prosecutors, supported the plea agreement and publicly shared extensive details of her experience in a series of interviews with The New York Times and in a 2020 federal lawsuit against the United States Tennis Association and the club that hosted Haultain’s business.

Haultain was released in 2019 and deported. Matthew Hoppock, a lawyer for Haultain, declined to comment on his behalf.

In the lawsuit, Jensen claimed the U.S.T.A. and KC Racquet Club in Merriam, Kan., did not live up to their duty to protect her from Haultain. The U.S. District Court Judge John W. Lungstrum dismissed the complaint this month on a technicality related to the statute of limitations without resolving the central issue, and Jensen and her lawyers are considering their next move.

Still, the filing of the lawsuit revealed the U.S.T.A.’s longstanding resistance to taking more direct ownership of what many people involved at every major level of tennis said was a big problem: a poorly run system of certifying coaches and educating players about inappropriate and criminal behavior.

Professional success in tennis often starts in a player’s teenage years. Unsupervised travel is common. Inappropriately close, sexual and, in some cases, abusive relationships between coaches and players have long been an accepted part of the sport. The U.S.T.A. lists 81 people involved with tennis who have been suspended or are ineligible because they have been convicted or accused of abuse. The list, which dates back many years, is widely viewed as the tip of the iceberg.

“We are not doing enough as a sport,” said Pam Shriver, the 22-time Grand Slam doubles champion and a lead commentator for the Tennis Channel at the French Open, now underway in Paris.

Shriver, 59, rocked the tennis world last month with her revelation that she had been involved in a sexual relationship with her longtime coach, Don Candy, that began when she was 17 and he was 50. Candy died in 2020. Shriver never told her mother, who died last year.

Shriver long viewed her affair with Candy as a relationship between consenting adults. But with the help of therapy, she now says her experience was a form of abuse that is far too prevalent in the sport.

“I should have, by 13, had some training,” Shriver said. “The coaches should all have to have training. There should not be meetings between coaches and young players in private settings or giving of gifts. No going out to dinner with just the coach and the player. Certain things have to be put into place.”

Pam Shriver, the multiple Grand Slam champion, is working as a commentator at the French Open.Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

Shriver’s disclosure has prompted the women’s professional tour, the WTA, to review its policies on relationships between players and members of their support staff, including coaches, trainers, physiotherapists, mental health professionals, coaches and managers. The tour will also augment its training in “safeguarding” athletes.

“It is an ever growing area of concern,” Steve Simon, the chief executive of the WTA, said. “There is a lot more to be done.”

The U.S.T.A., the national governing body for the sport, declined to comment on Jensen’s lawsuit because the recent ruling remains subject to appeal. It did not make any of its executives available to discuss its approach to coaching.

The organization, unlike some other national governing bodies, has for decades eschewed the responsibility of certifying and educating coaches, even those participating at U.S.T.A.-sanctioned events. (Coaches who work directly for the organization are required to complete safeguarding training.) The strategy has allowed it to claim it is not responsible for the behavior of most tennis coaches.

In court filings responding to Jensen’s lawsuit, the U.S.T.A. has claimed it is “wholly unrelated” to the two organizations that do certify professional tennis coaches in the United States, the United States Professional Tennis Association and the Professional Tennis Registry. However, the U.S.T.A. does accredit the organizations and mandate training requirements, such as a two-hour course on harassment and abuse and spotting warning signs of them that was added in 2021.

Nothing stops someone who has not been certified from teaching and coaching tennis. With roughly five million new players in the past two years in the United States, tennis facilities have been scrambling to find capable coaches and instructors.

“This is the most fundamental question we have as an industry,” said John Embree, the chief executive of the U.S.P.T.A. “In golf, would you ever be at a course where the pro is not certified? No. In tennis, there has been no requirement or mandate that says you have to be certified and also Safe Play trained, and that is not right.”

Lauren Tracy, the director of strategic initiatives for the U.S.T.A., said in sworn testimony during the Jensen litigation that the U.S.T.A. had no notice of sexual abuse of any minor member before 2011. She also stated that, despite news coverage of Haultain’s conviction, the U.S.T.A. had no knowledge of his crime until 2019, six years after his arrest and sentencing and two years after his deportation order.

In a sworn statement, Tracy said that in 2013, the U.S.T.A. terminated Haultain’s membership for nonpayment of dues, four years after Jensen’s ill-fated experience with him began.

Jensen grew up as the third and youngest daughter of a physician and a stay-at-home mother who loved tennis and introduced it to their children. Jensen played a variety of team sports growing up, including soccer and basketball, but nothing made her happier than the independence and responsibility that came with an individual sport like tennis and the feel of the ball hitting the sweet spot on her strings.

She also liked winning and did plenty of it, becoming one of the top players her age in the U.S.T.A.’s Missouri Valley section and earning entry into national competitions.

Haultain initially befriended Jensen’s father, Fred, telling him how impressed he was with her play and establishing a rapport. Then, at a tournament at the Plaza Tennis Center in Kansas City, Mo., in July 2009, Haultain approached Jensen’s mother to offer a spot in his academy.

“In a sense, he was grooming us, her parents,” Fred Jensen said in a recent interview. “He became my buddy, then moved on to my wife.”

The training and travel to tournaments would cost tens of thousands of dollars a year. In addition, Jensen and her mother would have to rent an apartment in the area and live there during the week. Jensen, a top student who loved school and had a close-knit group of friends, would have to switch to online schooling so she could begin her five to six hours of daily training early in the afternoons.

It was a lot to take on and give up, but Jensen craved the chance to become a top player.

Her parents asked the parents of other children who played for Haultain what he was like. Everyone raved and told them how supportive, talented and trustworthy he was, Fred Jensen said. They told the Jensens they regularly let their children travel alone to tournaments with him. Hearing that, the Jensens agreed to let their daughter pursue her dream.

Jensen in downtown Nashville.Credit…Diana King for The New York Times

In August 2009, Jensen and her mother moved to Overland Park, Kan. She was on the court every day with top players and received so much private attention from Haultain that other parents began to comment on it to her and her mother, she said.

Haultain asked for Jensen’s phone number so he could communicate with her directly and give her tips and encouragement when they were not on the court, she said. The night before a match at a tournament in Palm Springs, Calif., in 2009, a note from Haultain flashed on her phone telling her she would dismantle her opponent and enjoy doing it.

Then the gifts started. Often they were trinkets from New Zealand. Then Haultain began whispering to Jensen on the side of the court that she was arousing him sexually. He followed his comments with demands for secrecy. If she told anyone about what he was saying, she might blow this singular chance for tennis success, he told her. He showed her pictures of his penis on his phone. He demanded that she send him nude pictures and allow their relationship to become physical.

When she resisted his advances, he lashed out at her for her lack of commitment to him and to tennis.

“I told him I just wanted him to be my tennis coach,” Jensen said. “I pleaded with him.”

He banished her to outer courts at the academy and ignored her, only to lure her back with praise and the promise of what she could achieve if only she would do as he said and never tell. Jensen kept all of this secret, she said, fearing the shame and guilt she would feel if she told her mother what was happening and the whole life she had built for her came crashing down.

She traveled to San Diego with her family for Christmas in 2010 and sat by the pool in silence, she said, her eyes locked on her phone as Haultain bombarded her all day with text messages filled with threats and demands.

She could sense what was going to happen when she left her family to travel to Arizona alone to meet him at the U.S.T.A. National Winter Championships.

Standing in her pajamas in front of the door of her hotel room, she was terrified as Haultain entered. She had been watching her favorite movie, “The Sound of Music.” She knew what he was going to do and felt powerless to stop it. Then, she detailed to prosecutors and in her lawsuit, he penetrated her with his hands.

The next day, she could barely get a ball over the net during the tournament. He berated her and told her to move on from what had happened.

She returned to San Diego broken. Days later, back in Kansas City, unable to sleep or eat or do schoolwork and dreading an upcoming trip with Haultain to a tournament in Portugal, Jensen answered yes when her oldest sister asked if her coach had abused her. Her sister then told her parents.

Jensen immediately stopped training with Haultain. Her parents encouraged her to keep playing, to not let Haultain steal her love for the game. They were not aware of the full extent of the abuse because they had not pressed her for details. So they tried to minimize the trauma by dealing with it privately, she said.

Fred Jensen now realizes what a terrible mistake that was, for his daughter and for the safety of other children. His instinct told him to protect his daughter’s anonymity, to try to, in his words, “coach her through it,” “engineer her return to normalcy” and save her from the blame and victimization that so many survivors of sexual assault experience. That was the exact opposite of what his daughter needed, which was disclosure, the involvement of the police and, ultimately, justice.

“Predators count on that you are not going to pursue something like this,” he said.

In the summer of 2010, however, Jensen told a teacher what Haultain had done to her. The teacher was obligated to inform the police, and he did.

Jensen understands now that Haultain essentially brainwashed her, that he was very good at getting what he wanted, as so many predators are.

“He used my qualities as a player, and as a person, against me,” she wrote in a recent email. She added: “I was an incredibly obedient, naïve, perfectionist, hard-driving and respectful young girl, and was so motivated to do well, especially given all that was on the line.”

She would play again, including in college, which was always one of her dreams, but she wonders if some kind of intervention might have made things different. Could Haultain have done this to her if she had been taught about boundaries or if another coach had been trained to spot the warning signs?

The one thing she knows is that no one ever tried.

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