Ray Wood: The Father Trying to Turn His Seven-year-old into a Champion


Livinnia Wood comes across as a very normal seven-year-old. She has four best friends and likes learning about parts of the body. But at 6am most days, she starts training, and says her ambition is to be better than Margaret Court, who has more Grand Slam singles titles than even Serena Williams.

Liv is the daughter of Ray, a lifelong Liverpool supporter who has been a coach at both Leicester City and Paris St-Germain.

He has a dream – to “create two of the greatest female tennis players the planet has ever seen”.

Ray, who has You’ll Never Walk Alone tattooed on his left arm, lives in Brisbane with his Australian wife Angela, Liv and her two-year-old sister Paloma.

When I met up with them in Melbourne during this year’s Australian Open, Ray came across as a likeable and unassuming family man. Yet, as he talks, you soon realise he is making some jaw-dropping claims.

“I think I could quite easily, over a 10 to 15-year period, create a champion in any sport,” he tells me by the outside courts, as the second round unfolds.

“Talent is made, it’s not born. I think if my Dad had spent the time with me at such a young age, I would have played for Liverpool. I would have played for England without a shadow of a doubt.”

Ray, 36, says he might have chosen another sport for his daughters. It didn’t have to be tennis.

“We could have gone down the route of ice-skating with Livi, and Livi would be a champion ice skater, but we chose the route of tennis and she’ll be a champion in that,” he says.

“I would put her up against any girl seven years of age around the globe and be confident she would beat them.”

Liv, whose favourite players Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic are already world number one, first picked up a racquet at the age of three and is currently doing 12 hours of sport a week.

About two thirds of that is on the court, with the rest of the time devoted to gymnastics and athletics to build up her agility, balance and co-ordination.

Training begins while her friends are still sleeping and continues after school – as well as on Christmas Day.

“It just feels normal to me,” Liv explains.

“I hit on probably every celebration of the year. I feel a bit tired but when we start getting a little rally, I feel like I’ve got more energy to start moving around on the court.” Tennis-free holidays, birthday parties and lollies are also part of Liv’s life and, once a week, Ray puts on a “fun” session in which his daughter tries to burst balloons with her serve.

“Sometimes he keeps it fun and sometimes he doesn’t,” Liv says. “Sometimes he hits funny shots at me and sometimes I do trick shots at Daddy. Sometimes he serves with his right hand – he’s left-handed and I’m right-handed – and sometimes I hit with my left hand.”

Ray, who is also a consultant to a large sports development firm, has drawn up a plan for both of his daughters that runs to more than 100 pages.

He believes the opportunity and coaching he is offering them – he now has tennis qualifications to add to his experience of working in elite level football – combined with the environment of Australia and a lot of hard work will turn them into champions.

Richard Williams has set the bar extraordinarily high with Venus and Serena, but Wood believes he can provide his girls with a higher quality of coaching in their early years.

“I think 99% of the population believe that if your dad is a lorry driver and your mum works in a bottle shop, then that’s pretty much all you’re going to do in life,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with having an office job, but we don’t want Liv to have an office job. “We don’t want her to work 14 or 15-hour days. I can’t think of a better life than being out playing sport.

“I’ve been involved in a family who’ve had a lot of illnesses through various cancers, smoking and drinking and we want to ward the girls away from that.” Liv, who is now on the books of an Australian talent agency which has also worked with Lleyton Hewitt, is currently playing against children three years her senior and winning far more than she loses.

Australia will be the family’s home for the next few years, but the long-term plan is to take them out of school, employ private tutors and possibly move to Spain.

The family has sent footage of Liv in action to the Rafa Nadal academy in Mallorca.

Even if the chance of both girls making it to the top are incredibly small, Paloma has already started gymnastics and will begin tennis in December at the age of two-and-a-half (six months younger than her sister was).

The concept of pushing children so firmly down a specific route from such an early age will cause discomfort among some.

Ray is adamant, though, that neither girl will be forced to continue training against their will and believes he is acting in their interests and not out of frustration at the professional football career that eluded him.

“She wants to please Dad, without a shadow of a doubt,” he admits.

“But if you were to go into Liv’s bedroom, we don’t control anything in there. She’s got posters of all the players up there.

“We actually broke her off for six months just to see if she asked to do it again.

“The big focus we have is that if it’s not fun, the girls don’t do it.

“She understands she’s got to work hard and there are some sacrifices at a young age, but she already has a mindset that if she works hard, she’s going to get out of life what she wants.”

   • Culled from BBC Sport