A Spellbinding Match
In a sport awash in attitudinal adolescents, Swiss tennis star Patty Schnyder barely made a splash last year when she unexpectedly won five tournaments, cracked the Top 10 and was named the WTA Tour's most improved player. "Patty was always down to earth," says Barbara Schett, Schnyder's doubles partner. "Just a very normal girl." That makes a recent turn in Schnyder's career perplexing.
In November the 20-year-old Schnyder met Rainer Harnecker, 42, a German alternative medicine practitioner who calls himself a "cell-reproducing scientist." Harnecker claims he can heal cancer and AIDS patients through diet, acupuncture and herbal remedies. Though largely unknown in tennis circles, he maintains that his motivational and nutritional advice are in high demand among tour players and that he turned down an offer to work with Steffi Graf. ("I've never heard of this man," Graf says of Harnecker.) According to the Swiss weekly Sonntagszeitung, however, he's under investigation by police in the Bavarian town of Rosenheim for alleged violations of Germany's alternative medical practitioner law. Harnecker didn't return calls from SI seeking comment.
At last month's Australian Open, Schnyder and 21-year-old Sylvia Plischke of Austria spent every off-court hour with Harnecker, permitting him to stay in their hotel room, where he espoused his theories late into the night. "He can motivate and inspire," says Plischke, who ended her relationship with Harnecker soon after the Open, fearing that he was gaining too much influence over her. "He does not force you to do anything, but he's good at manipulating."
Schnyder pledged loyalty to Harnecker after her second-round Australian Open loss to Amelie Mauresmo. Upon returning to Switzerland, where she had been living with her parents, she fired her coach, Eric van Harpen. She later dumped her longtime boyfriend, Peter Tschudin, and severed ties with her family.
"A lot of players are worried that this is quite serious," says Schett, who tried to talk to Schnyder about Harnecker but was un-successful. One worried non-player is Hugo Stamm, a Swiss expert on cults who is advising the Schnyder family. "This is more than being in love," Stamm says. "Patty shows dependency [on Harnecker]—she has broken with everything in her life."
At last week's WTA Tour event in Hannover, Germany, defending champ Schnyder lost her first match in straight sets to 23rd-ranked Elena Likhovtseva and dropped from eighth to 12th in the world rankings. Van Harpen said his former pupil looked "absent" and wore an odd smile throughout the match, "like she had just won Wimbledon." Says Plischke, "She was not the lively Patty any longer."
WTA officials are concerned about Schnyder but say that for now the affair is a private matter. "If it is discovered that there is any behavior in violation of our Coaches Code of Ethics, appropriate action will be taken," says WTA CEO Bart McGuire.
Schnyder vows to stand by Harnecker. "I definitely have a strong will, but we understand each other so well," she says. "I'm convinced that Rainer is the best thing for my tennis."