Schnyder's Ties to Guru Raise Concerns

New York Times, March 14, 1999
By Robin Finn

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- The tennis star and her guru chose a table in the sun, spread out a late lunch repast of beans, greens and guava chips, and spoke with a mix of defensiveness and delight about the controversial alliance that has the entire WTA Tour buzzing in alarm.

According to Patty Schnyder's former coach, former boyfriend, former training partners and former parents (they have banned her from their home), the 20-year-old Swiss player has been brainwashed and virtually abducted by a charlatan. Rainer Harnecker, a German faith healer, is under investigation in Germany for practicing medicine, decidedly alternative medicine, without a proper license.

According to Schnyder and Harnecker, 42, there has been no brainwashing, simply a meeting of the minds and, after hours of conversation and hands-on therapy, a trainer-athlete bond that has strayed deep into romantic territory and taken precedence over all previous bonds in her life.

"It was not love at first sight," protested Schnyder. "I thought he was crazy at first, but then I tried his system and I started to feel better, and then when I listened to him, he started to make so much sense to me. He understood me like no one else has."

Schnyder is certainly not the first female tennis star to enter a dalliance with a coach or trainer -- her occasional doubles partner, Austria's Barbara Schett, is romantically involved with a coach, and last June, Sandrine Testud of France married her physiotherapist, Vittorio Magnelli. Nor is Schnyder the first to dabble in alternative medicine and nutrition. Martina Navratilova went to dietary extremes 20 years ago, and Steffi Graf, always on the lookout for Lourdes, receives piles of unsolicited propaganda on new cures (Harnecker once sent her his "Viasola system") the way most folks receive junk mail.

But Schnyder is the first to get involved with a trainer/paramour who says that his methods, which appear to hinge on a strict vegetarian diet and a variation on acupuncture known as Baunscheidt, named for its 18th-century inventor, have cured everything from his own bum knees to cancer. Harnecker has been denied a German patent on his healing method, a recipe of Chinese healing and herbs and oils that he guards like Colonel Sanders once guarded his coating for fried chicken.

Harnecker has further alienated the tennis community by encouraging Schnyder to drop her full-time coach, Eric Van Harpen, and supporting her estrangement from her parents, whom he described as "too controlling."

"For sure they love her," Harnecker added, "but they want her to stay like a child. The rules have always come from her parents. For the past 20 years, she's never said what she wanted to do. They've told her what to do."

Harnecker denied rumors that he's a Scientologist. "There is no sect," he said. Schnyder admits that she had friends in Switzerland check out those rumors before getting too involved with him. "I feel like I was careful in this," she said. "But now my whole environment has gone against me."

Harnecker does not bill himself as a tennis expert, but he said he learned enough from watching his 13-year-old son play to help Schnyder stay focused on the practice court. For fine tuning, Schnyder said, she can easily pick up tips from other players or even engage a bona fide tennis coach on a temporary basis.

"Once you are 16, 17 and have been trained all your life, you don't need a coach anymore," Harnecker said. "You already have your technique, your mechanics, and what you need is something for the mind."

The alliance between Schnyder and Harnecker began in December in Majorca. At first, Harnecker was brought on to work with all three of Van Harpen's clients, Schnyder, Sylvia Plischke and Conchita Martinez. But two weeks after they all arrived in Australia for the start of the 1999 season, Harnecker and Schnyder were inseparable. Schnyder's father made a futile dash to Melbourne, Australia, to separate them, and Harnecker went back to Germany alone. Schnyder, however, joined him there last month after a showdown with her parents at home.

"They told me I had to cancel him or else the door is closed at home," Schnyder said. "But I did not cancel them; they canceled me."

The WTA Tour has a code of ethics for its coaches and trainers, but unless a player is under-age or is coerced into a sexual situation, the organization has no authority to ban a coach on grounds of seduction.

"We're not a police organization, and we can't go running around doing bed checks on our players," said Bart McGuire, the tour's chief executive officer. "We're keeping the lines of communication with Patty open." Too, the tour is keeping an eye on Harnecker's legal status back in Germany.

Harnecker is now exclusively employed by Schnyder, but while she insists he has made her thinner, fitter and happier, she acknowledged that her tennis has not yet been healed. The Swiss player, who cracked the top 10 last year at 19, has lately accumulated a flurry of early exits including a straight-set second-round loss to Martina Hingis here at the Evert Cup.

"I love my tennis more now than I did in the last two years, but during matches, sometimes I lose completely my game," Schnyder said. "I'm on the court wondering why my shots aren't working."

And off the court, she's holding hands with Harnecker.

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