Tennis dad: Mentor or tormentor?
By Antigone Barton
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 20, 2006
DELRAY BEACH — Everywhere the four children from France played tennis, people noticed them: raggedy kids aged 5 to 12 who overwhelmed older opponents.
And anyone who saw them saw their father: a man with a dream who coached them with military fervor and never had to tell them anything twice.
Never far away, the 49-year-old Nigerian-born Clement Iyeyemi immersed himself in his children's training to the exclusion of everything else. But in the haven for ambitious tennis parents that is South Florida, that didn't seem strange.
"Not any more than a Capriati or a Pierce or a Williams," said tennis coach Rick Macci, who has coached the famously skilled daughters of all three famously driven men.
More than anyone realized, Iyeyemi fit in with that group: Jennifer Capriati's father, blamed for his daughter's burnout; Mary Pierce's father, accused of hitting his daughter; and the father of Serena and Venus Williams, who is said to have planned their careers before they were conceived.
As the Iyeyemi children were winning tennis tournaments across Florida, their cancer-stricken mother reported to French authorities that their father had tricked her into letting him take them out of France after years of terrorizing the family. French prosecutors said they found evidence that Iyeyemi had beaten them all with his fists and tennis racket, leaving broken bones and scars.
Federal authorities arrested Iyeyemi Jan. 24 in Boca Raton on assault, domestic violence and parental abduction charges. He remains in Palm Beach County Jail, awaiting extradition to France, where his children have returned with their mother.
Iyeyemi has denied the charges but waived his right to fight extradition at a recent federal court hearing, where, hands shackled before him, he repeatedly tried to tell a judge he was returning only to be near his children, in case they need him.
'He had a dream'
"When I look at my children, I want to die for them," Iyeyemi told The Palm Beach Post
in a telephone interview from the jail.
He and the children's mother began to live together in Paris in 1993 and immediately started a family: three daughters, Ifeoma in 1994, Sade in 1995 and Miebi in 1996, and a son, Segun, in 2000.
Extradition papers say Iyeyemi beat their mother during her pregnancies, broke her nose and ribs, cut her off from other people and beat the children, striking one six days after birth.
"When the oldest of the children reached the age of five, Mr. Iyeyemi decided that his daughters had to become tennis champions," a Jan. 23 Paris prosecutor's report says. "When the lessons went badly, he began to shout at the children who had to go to tennis lessons right after school, sometimes till 10:30 p.m.... One time one of the daughters returned from tennis with her T-shirt covered with blood — she had been violently beaten and a tooth had been broken, requiring dental treatment. Another time the same child had her ear drum ruptured by a violent blow... the second daughter, (Sade), still has a scar on her skull."
From jail, Iyeyemi said he never hit his children and never forced them to play.
"I sold this idea to my kids," he said. "I am a good coach because I love my children."
A computer programmer, with his name on the credits of several video games released in the early '90s, Iyeyemi said he earned an engineering degree in Nigeria and a mechanics and applied physics advanced degree in France. But in 2004, he brought his children here without their mother, and, with no green card, little chance of finding work.
Instead, he spent entire days with his children on the courts, where observers found him sociable but guarded. They also admired his success with the children, who, like him, seemed to live for the game.
"His whole life was those kids and those kids love him, too," said Bill Adams of the Adams Flynn International Tennis Academy in Weston.
Adams remembers Iyeyemi's comforting one of his daughters when she cried because someone had complimented her sister more than her. "He wanted to get the kids playing. He believed in it. He had a dream."
In a photo taken on a tennis court the year they arrived, the family smiled into the camera, Iyeyemi's hands resting gently on his 4-year-old son's shoulders.
He had come to the right place for parents with dreams of tennis stardom for their children, coaches agree. The time Iyeyemi spent on the courts with the children — four to six hours a day, six to seven days a week — is standard for children who are serious about the sport, coaches say.
"You get some people who are eccentric like that," Adams said. "The crazy ones make it."
Yusuf Ahmed, president of the Rainbow Tennis Association, a fledgling African-American tennis group, remembers his wife coming home and telling him she had seen four future stars on the courts at the Delray Tennis Club.
"He was very strict with his girls," Ahmed said. "But when you have superstars you are going to be very serious."
Iyeyemi looked up his acquaintance, Russian-born tennis coach Andrei Kozlov of the XL Tennis Academy in Pembroke Pines, and Kozlov watched the children flourish under their father's coaching.
"Sometimes he screamed at them too much, but it was coming from his heart," said Kozlov, who compares Iyeyemi with actor Samuel L. Jackson's portrayal of Ken Carter, the unyielding California high school basketball coach who locked his own son's basketball team out of the gym to force them to improve their grades.
"Is it abusing children? Is it practice? Is it military?" Kozlov said.
Whatever it was, it got results, as coaches noted at the Delray Tennis Center, where the children played.
"The family was a team," Kozlov said. "All the children were very good. He maybe had a chance for two children to be among the top 10 in the world."
'He was too proud'
The 8-year-old Miebi stood out, observers agreed.
"She was the best 8-year-old girl I've ever seen," Adams said. "And I've worked with the Williams sisters."
"If she misses the ball she cries," Ahmed said. "She cannot stand to miss the ball. Let's forget about losing."
The children's mother was a nurse working in France, Iyeyemi told people. When asked if she would join them, "he really didn't answer," one parent remembered. "He said someone has to make the money."
French authorities say he scammed money from the children's mother for the trip, which Iyeyemi denies.
He describes a Spartan existence: He and the children slept on air mattresses or pads on the floor in an apartment at 2885 S.W. 22nd Ave. in Delray Beach. All were vegetarians.
"In fact I'm a good cook," he said.
Although one of the charges against Iyeyemi is that he kept the children from attending school, authorities who arrested him found desks and an anatomy chart in their sparsely furnished apartment, indicating that they were studying at home, as he has asserted.
The children wore dingy and tattered clothes but observers said they must have been healthy to spend hours on the courts exhausting larger opponents.
"These were kids who looked like they just took their clothes out of the garbage can, but they were always smiling," Karen Aghelescu, a Weston tennis parent said.
She and another mother noticed the children shivering at a Bradenton tournament: "They were wearing sweaters but the sweaters had holes in them."
The mothers brought girls' clothes to the next tournament to give to Iyeyemi, who gave them back.
"He was too proud," Aghelescu said. "He'd rather his kids wore rags than take charity."
Iyeyemi said from jail: "You can't please everyone. We weren't looking for clothes. We were looking for money."
He got about $3,000 from a woman who saw the children play, he said.
But the most impressive offer came from Bradenton tennis coach Nick Bollettieri, who offered all four children full scholarships to histennis academy. The boarding academy offers full-time academic schooling, as well as intensive training in tennis. Students have included Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, Boris Becker, Anna Kournikova and the Williams sisters.
Iyeyemi rejectedthe offer.
"There were kids out there waiting and hoping and praying for that chance, and he turns it down," Aghelescu said. "I'm proud, too, but if I had four kids I wouldn't turn it down."
Iyeyemi explained: "I got the feeling I was giving away my kids for money. There is not enough money in the world for me to sell a hair from one of their heads."
If his decision flabbergasted some, others understood, noting that Iyeyemi would have had to relinquish his role in the children's training.
"That didn't make sense because he brought them to that point," Adams said. "He felt he needed to be in the picture."
Bollettieri, who coached nine players who would go on to rank No. 1 in the world, would say only that he could not agree with "requests of the father."
He says this regretfully.
"These girls, they deserve a chance. These girls were exceptional," he said. Like others, he was struck with Miebi, who "just had the smell for the ball."
His reaction to their father? "I'll stop there," he said. Then, with no segue, he alluded to the famously demanding father of Venus and Serena Williams: "Richard Williams and I are the best of friends. He
was easy to work with."
He, kids needed help
Iyeyemi eventually would have had to yield some of the control he held over his children's tennis training if he wanted them to succeed, coaches agreed.
"They would never have had a chance," Macci said. "They need outside technical help."
Iyeyemi, who couldn't find work, needed help, too. His struggle couldn't continue much longer, Adams said. "Not without support."
Even as those on the tennis circuit learned of Iyeyemi's arrest and his children's return to France, they referred to the last times they saw Iyeyemi as "toward the end."
Toward the end, Ahmed said, Iyeyemi cut off the girls' hair because it was too hard to take care of.
The family was photographed again.The girls and their brother, with look-alike short haircuts, grinned happily at the camera. But Iyeyemi looked tired and wary.
He was a fugitive by then. Police reports that accompanied the extradition order warned that he knew authorities were pursuing him.
An FBI agent arrested him at a Boca Raton tutoring service where he had applied for a job to which he could bring his children.
Authorities found the children alone in the Delray Beach apartment. Their mother's flight from France had been delayed, so they spent the night in the custody of the Department of Children and Families.
During the three weeks since Iyeyemi's arrest, he has received no visitors. On the tennis courts, those who had watched the family wondered what would happen to the children.
"If they are not on a tennis court as we speak, I think it's a tragedy," Ahmed said.
During his jail interview, Iyeyemi said his children were so angry with their mother that they refused to fly back with her on the same airplane.
He said he believes she is being manipulated by others, including officials at the French Tennis Association.
But, he said he is not mad at her and worries about her because she was diagnosed with cancer last year.
"I believe that everything happens for a reason," Iyeyeimi said. "The worst thing that could have happened would be if she passed away without seeing the kids."
He said he hopes to reconcile with her. He would be willing to stay away from the children for six months, even a year, to accomplish that, and if it would help her to get well, he said.
"My dream was not for five people," he said. "It was for six people."