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Tennis twins, 14, square off against each other at Rogers Cup

As pro-sports undercards go, Thursday night’s pre-match festivities at the Rogers Cup are worth a look. Fourteen-year-old identical twins Kevin and Erik Kovacs are scheduled to face each other in a showcase set on stadium court at the Aviva Centre before the women of the WTA Tour play their evening matches.

It’ll be worth watching for a couple of reasons. For one thing, there’s the obvious talent. Though they only began playing tournaments regularly a couple of years ago, Kevin and Erik recently finished first and second, respectively, in the under-14 provincial championships, where they also teamed to win the doubles title. Casey Curtis, the GTA tennis instructor who was Milos Raonic’s childhood coach, has been mentoring the Kovacs since age 8 and considers them comparably advanced to Raonic at the same age.

For another thing, there’s the twins’ fascinating bugaboo. Kevin and Erik detest competing against one another. In fact, they’ve gone to great lengths to avoid it, fully acknowledging that when they have met they more than once fixed the outcomes of their twin-on-twin battles, including this year’s provincial final.

They’ve done it, they say, in the name of family harmony. And sitting courtside at Richmond Hill Lawn Tennis Club this week, Andrea Hoss, Erik and Kevin’s mother, was unapologetic about her sons’ pre-match arrangements.

“This is the way we can keep a normal relationship between the two of them. They’re good brothers, and I want them to stay like that,” said Hoss, who, along with husband Gabor Kovacs, came to Canada from their native Hungary about 15 years ago in the hopes of giving their as-yet-unborn twins a better future. “I don’t care if it’s tennis or anything else. Family is more important.”

The twins’ anti-competitive antics have raised eyebrows in the uber-competitive ranks of youth tennis. Kartik Vyas, the player development manager at the Ontario Tennis Association, said the Kovacs twins have made a “meteoric rise” through the competitive ranks in the past couple of years. But along the way he has heard complaints that the Kovacs have been “making a mockery” of the sport. There was a match in which the twins traded points to the tune of an impossibly close outcome of 7-6, 6-7, 7-6. There was also a tiebreaker that extended to 27-25 – a tally so high that Vyas called it “ridiculous.”

“It was brought to my attention that (when the twins played) . . . no one was really playing to win,” said Vyas. “When you’ve got people who see that and think it’s a complete joke, it’s not fair to the sport of tennis . . . I said, ‘Guys, you can’t do that. You need to figure it out.’ They were good about it. They looked at me with eyes wide open. And I said, ‘Yeah, guys. If you do this again, you guys will be thrown out.’

Disqualifying the twins, Vyas said, could indeed be an option.

“There’s something in the code of conduct, which is universal in tennis and widely accepted, that has something to do with best efforts. All players must give their best effort all the time,” Vyas said.

Still, the Kovacs are hardly the first family to be made uncomfortable by familial conflict. You only needed to be at Aviva Centre on Wednesday, when Venus Williams advanced to the round of 16 of the Rogers Cup with a 7-5, 7-5 win over Katerina Siniakova, to be reminded of another sibling rivalry possessed of a well-scrutinized on-court dynamic.

Richard Williams, father to Venus and Serena, famously hated watching his daughters play each other. When the sisters met in the semifinal at Wimbledon for the first time back in 2000, he told reporters he’d be skipping the match to attend a funeral.

“I don’t want to watch Venus beat up on Serena or Serena beat up on Venus,” he said. “Who would I pull for? The wife would leave me.”

Over the years more than a few observers have suggested that Venus-Serena showdowns lacked the passion that was present when just one of the Williams sisters competed against any other opponent. Onetime rival Amelie Mauresmo suggested the sisters fixed their Williams-on-Williams matches. Elena Dementieva once theorized it was Richard Williams who decided which sister would win which match.

Curtis, the 62-year-old coach who has been around tennis courts for more than half a century, said he’s seen more than a few sets of twins, and siblings in general, deal with perils of head-to-head conflict in different ways.

“I knew one set of twins who, even at nationals, if they played each other, they would play one set — whoever won that first set would basically win the match. Or they’d play the first set legit and the third set legit — whoever won the first set would throw the second one so it was a guaranteed three-setter. You see all kinds of stuff.”

Curtis suggested to the OTA that they simply separate the twins in tournament draws so they could at least avoid playing in the early rounds. But Vyas pointed out that the draws are computer-generated by an algorithm.

“The minute we move them around, we’re doing a disservice to someone else,” Vyas said.

Curtis, meanwhile, said he advised the twins to play their matches straight.

“The way I prefer it, you’ve got to go out there and try to beat your brother and try your best. But when the match is over, the match is over. And if one guy starts to beat the other guy a little too often, the other guy needs to work a little harder.”

Still, Curtis acknowledged that it’s often more complicated than that — and that he fully respects the brothers’ right to make decisions that make sense for their family. Kevin and Erik aren’t completely identical on the court. Kevin is right-handed. Erik is a lefty. Kevin, who was born eight minute before Erik, likes to go to the net. Erik is a more defensive baseliner.

But they are lockstep in consensus of their favourite player (Roger Federer), their least favourite opponent (each other), and their ultimate goal as tennis players (they’d both like to be world No. 1, which could make for some awkward moments on the ATP Tour).

“Sometimes he’s going to be No. 1. Sometimes I am,” said Erik.

Said Kevin: “We love to compete against each other in practice, but it’s not like a tournament. It’s not stressful like in tournaments. Tournaments are just different. There’s more pressure there, and the results are important.”

So far, they’ve got it figured out. In the provincial final, the boys decided Kevin would win because Erik had sprained his ankle earlier in the tournament and was happy just to make the championship match. Still, every meeting is a quandary of its own. They said they haven’t decided what they’ll do if the computer-generated draw puts them together at the nationals in Quebec later this month.

And as for who’ll be the winner on Thursday in front of the throngs at the Aviva Centre? Well, given that it’s essentially an exhibition without ranking points at stake, they insist they don’t actually know the answer just yet.

“We’re going to play for real there,” said Erik. “It’s going to be fun.”