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Mark Knowles: The Family Man

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Knowles© Dawn KnowlesLike father, like son: Mark Knowles and his eldest son Graham enjoy their annual trips to the All England Club.

Family has been integral to Mark Knowles’s success on the ATP World Tour. Now, supported by his wife and three children, the doubles star aims to collect the elusive Wimbledon title on his 20th visit to the All England Club.

Playing in his 20th consecutive Wimbledon, former doubles No. 1 Mark Knowles has a deep connection to the world’s most prestigious tournament. His mother Vicky competed at Wimbledon in mixed doubles in 1965. It was the first tournament he attended as a young boy in 1981. And as a 20 year old in 1992, the All England Club was the launching pad of his pro career when he qualified in both singles and doubles, winning his first Grand Slam matches in both disciplines.

Now, 19 years later, the aura of competing at one of the most prestigious sporting events in the world still resonates with the Bahamian, who currently stands as the No. 29 ranked player in the 2011 ATP Doubles Rankings. “I still have goose bumps when I arrive at SW19,” Knowles says. “It sure doesn’t seem like this is my 20th Wimbledon. In some ways it feels like a new experience every year, which I think is a tribute to the tournament itself.”

Wimbledon is the one title missing from Knowles’s men’s doubles resume, which includes 53 titles, with triumphs at the Australian Open, Roland Garros, US Open and year-end championships, and five appearances at the Olympic Games. A finalist at The Championships in 2002 with Daniel Nestor, Knowles has been close to winning the title that eludes him, bowing out in the Wimbledon semi-finals on four occasions. “It is the title that I want the most,” he reveals. “I have been in the quarter-finals or better 10 times. I think you always need a little bit of luck to win a Grand Slam title and you also need to be able to play well for the entire fortnight as a team. Until this point I haven’t been able to do that.”

“I still have goose bumps when I arrive at SW19”

Known for his one-handed backhand return and soft hands at the net, it would seem that Wimbledon is a perfect fit for the Bahamian’s game. “I don’t have a big serve and maybe that has held me back from getting this elusive title,” Knowles says. “I don’t necessarily think that you have to have a big serve to win but it does hide a lot of weaknesses on grass. I am surprised that I haven’t won this event, as I feel that I have good volleys and move quite well… but the two most pivotal shots on grass are the serve and the return.”

There’s another element that’s played a part in Knowles’s inability to complete the job at Wimbledon – his burning desire to win the crown for his family. Tennis has been embedded in Knowles for practically his entire life, as his mother Vicky played professionally for Great Britain and both his parents worked for a tennis club in the Bahamas. “It could be that I want it too bad sometimes. I have put a lot of pressure on myself to try to win the men’s doubles title because I know how much it means in our family.”

At 20, Knowles decided to turn professional in 1992 and found early success, qualifying at Wimbledon in singles and doubles, eventually losing in the second round of both events. “I remember when I qualified in singles that it meant that I was going to the Mecca of tennis,” Knowles reminisces.

KnowlesWimbledon is unique in so many ways; one of the more intriguing aspects is the difference between the qualifying event at Roehampton to the hallowed grounds of SW19. It’s like going from Double-A ball to the World Series at Yankee Stadium. There may be no greater disparity in tennis. Then I qualified for doubles that year as well.”

Consistency at the Challenger level in 1993 saw the Bahamian crack the Top 200 rankings in singles, but his results in doubles were more promising and he quickly moved up the rankings. His breakthrough came at the Rogers Cup in 1993, when he partnered best friend Jim Courier, his former roommate at Nick Bollettieri’s academy, to a title in Montreal. “That doubles title with Mark in Canada was as much fun as anything I’ve done in tennis,” recalls Courier. “I had lost in singles and my coach went home so it was just the two of us against the world up there in Montreal, just like when we were at Bollettieri’s.”

A title a year later in Bogota with Daniel Nestor ignited the start of one of the most successful partnerships in history, but Knowles was adamant about improving his singles game, despite not having the luxuries of some of his competitors in getting to the next level. “I think it was a burden for Mark to have to carry the tennis hopes of a nation for the most part, along with Roger Smith and John Farrington,” believes Courier. “I know he sacrificed a lot of time and precious energy to play Davis Cup for the Bahamas. It’s hard to overestimate how critical support from sponsors and/or governing bodies is for a young player, which makes Mark’s achievements that much more impressive.”

“It’s like going from Double-A ball to the World Series at Yankee Stadium”

Knowles would eventually break the Top 100 in 1996, the year he reached his lone tour level singles final, in Shanghai. But after sustaining a rib injury in 1997, Knowles soon recognised doubles was his calling, cutting out all singles play outside of Davis Cup at the conclusion of the 2000 season. “I was able to get back to the Top 130 in singles but never to the heights that I had hoped,” says Knowles. “However, I was having tremendous success in doubles and started to shift my focus towards a career playing doubles.”

Though the decision of eliminating his dreams of a long-term singles career was difficult, Knowles had full support from his girlfriend, Dawn Davidson, whom he met on a plane in 2000. “My life took the biggest jump when I met Dawn,” acknowledges the Bahamian. “She brought a support system that a player needs on the road, and she helped me to mature on the tennis court by becoming more accountable. Having had a successful career as a model herself, she understood the discipline and determination that it takes to be the best of the best.”

Davidson and Knowles built a true friendship and her effect on Knowles was apparent. Knowles and Brian MacPhie did well enough to qualify for the year-end doubles championships in 2001, eventually losing in the semi-finals. But perhaps Knowles’s biggest accomplishment that year was the creation of the Mark Knowles Celebrity Tennis Invitational, an exhibition held in the Bahamas to benefit children’s charities and local organisations. To date, the annual event has raised more than $750,000 and Knowles has no intention of stopping there. “We have made a tremendous impact on the youth and the community of the Bahamas so far and we intend to continue to do things to help the country,” declares Knowles. “Having come from humble means, I understand that there is nothing better in life than making an impact and giving back to those who are less fortunate.”

KnowlesDavidson’s positive role in Knowles’ life shone through in January of 2002. Reunited with Nestor, “Knowlzee” and the Canadian captured their first of three Grand Slam titles together, triumphing at the Australian Open, defeating Michael Llodra and Fabrice Santoro in the final. The result was just the beginning of a stellar season, as they followed up their victory in Melbourne by pulling off the Indian Wells-Miami double. Their consistent results saw Knowles realise another dream, becoming the No. 1 doubles player in the world that June. Their steady play in 2002, which saw Knowles and Nestor finish runners-up at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, enabled the two to finish the year as the No. 1 ranked doubles team, a feat they would accomplish two years later.

“Dawn seemed to understand my personality and was able to help me fulfill my potential and achieve some great things on and off the court,” Knowles said. “Tennis can be such a self-indulgent lifestyle that it can be liberating when you find that person that you want to share the rest of your life with.”

Courier credits Davidson’s presence in transforming Knowles into a complete person. “Meeting Dawn added a layer of maturity to Mark as well as an additional sense of purpose to his life which translated into success on and, most importantly, off of the court. Mark’s career really took off.”

“I wanted to share every experience with our son. This gave a kind of rebirth to life on the road”

After his charity event in 2003, Knowles and Davidson married, and by 2005, the couple had their first child in September, a boy named Graham. The addition of a son soon changed Knowles’s priorities and he quickly became a hands-on family man, finding the perfect balance between his career and life off court. “I truly embraced this time in my life, as I wanted to share every experience with our son. This gave a kind of rebirth to life on the road.

“We could now travel together on the road and share these incredible experiences with our son as a family. The players on tour are so nice to the kids that it really makes it easy to bring kids on the road. If I was fortunate to win a tournament, I would have my son out on the court with me. These are moments that go way beyond the game of tennis!”

In 2008, Dawn gave birth to their second son, Brody, causing Knowles to cut down his tournament schedule in order to spend more time at home, something his then partner Mahesh Bhupathi commended. “Mark is my ideal role model on how to balance tennis and a family,” acclaimed Bhupathi. “He manages to maintain focus on tour and at the same time dedicate all his other time to Dawn and the kids. In my years of playing on the same team with him, every dinner conversation would have some mention of Dawn, Graham or Brody, and although he missed them terribly, it always felt like they were there.”

KnowlesKnowles’s portrayal of the ideal family man is a common assessment among his peers. “Knowing most everyone on tour pretty well, I have never come across someone who has been more committed to the extremely tough balance between creating and supporting a family as well as juggling a Hall Of Fame doubles career,” proclaims Mardy Fish, Knowles’s partner in 2010. “As someone who hopes to start a family soon and still be on tour while trying to raise children, he has been an amazing role model and someone I have very much looked up to.”

Adds Bob Bryan, one of Knowles’ long-time friends on tour, “Knowlzee is admired by all. The way he has balanced tennis and family is an inspiration. If there were a handbook on how to raise a family on tour, Mark would be the one to write it.”

Now, as the longest-standing player on the ATP World Tour, Knowles is playing his 20th season and has competed in 71 of the past 75 Grand Slam events. Though he still has the drive to compete at the highest level, the four-time major champion admits that tennis isn’t his first priority these days, as he and Dawn are the proud parents of three healthy children – their latest addition, a daughter Presley Dawn, was born in March. “I try not to be away from them for more than two weeks,” said Knowles. “It is a lot more difficult with three children but I have been flying back and forth from Europe many times to avoid missing any priceless moments.”

“If there were a handbook on how to raise a family on tour, Mark would be the one to write it”

Wimbledon has provided the perfect environment for Knowles to find a temporary equilibrium between his career and family, and his wife and children value the family friendly setup the tournament has fashioned. “The last few years, I have been able to share the incredible Wimbledon experience with my wife and kids. My son Graham, 5, looks forward to Wimbledon almost as much as I do, as he loves the Wimbledon crèche and the strawberries and cream that they offer in the restaurant.”

With Presley being so young, Knowles has extra motivation to continue playing, as long as his body and results hold up. At this year’s event, Knowles is partnering Lukasz Kubot for the first time, as his regular partner Michal Mertinak is out with a back injury. “I am excited at the opportunity to play with Lukasz as I feel our games could complement each other quite well on grass. I hope the tandem of my experience and his youthful exuberance can get us in a position to challenge for the title.”

Just in case his daughter doesn’t remember everything about his career, Knowles has an alternative idea to ensure that Presley understands his tennis legacy. “I told Dawn that we better get some scrapbooks and videos together so that she knows what her father was like in his prime, especially as I’m considered the old man on tour now… I’m having breakfast at 7 a.m. while my younger competitors are rolling down three hours later well rested!”


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