Interview with Johan Kriek, director and owner of Johan Kriek Tennis Academy

I continue to publish interviews with famous coaches and players. I hope, you like it. Here is my interview with Johan Kriek,  two-times Australian Open champion and former # 7 tennis player in the world.

Q.:  You have huge experience playing tennis on the professional level and working as a tennis coach. What are the differences between tennis in your time and now?

A.:  Many differences from when I played and the players of today. On the men’s side I have always said it will become a “big man”sports. The kids nowadays are way over 6 feet tall. Here and there a short guy below 6 feet that is doing great. Ferrer for example. The equipment has changed quite dramatically , especially in string technology. A kid who does not follow the latest and greatest technology stuff in rackets, strings may be cutting themselves short. I was lucky to have played with 4 different types of rackets, wood, metal, combination aluminium/composites, and lastly graphite. This makes me a pretty informed coach when it comes to the “old game” vs the “modern game”. Because of the ball being hit with more power and more spin (dipping the ball quicker, the serve and volley game is now just a “by product” of a certain situation during a point rather than a clean tactical decision. Unfortunately, I think the “attacking game” as it relates to serving and volleying is being neglected as a pure form of play, and should be implemented more by the top players, but I do not see it ever come back as a distinct characteristic of any future player like McEnroe, Edberg, Sampras etc. It is actually a situation that has evolved due to racket strings, racket speeds and the neglect of continuing teaching a very specialized way of playing, but sadly, most “younger “ guru coaches are now into powering serves and ground strokes with volleys an afterthought. Perplexed at this situation…

Q.: There are literally hundreds of tennis academies in the US. But only a few good world class juniors are developed in these academies. Why?

A.:  Because there are virtually NO former Grand Slam winners that even attempt to coach, they either are too rich, get involved with coaching a top end current player, or do not care or they just do not have the will to go into something that is actually very difficult to do well. Look around….is Agassi really doing it, Sampras, Courier, McEnroe..? Nobody is involved with daily coaching, every day! I think I may be the only one in the US doing it 5 days or more every week spending time every day with every kid and going to junior events! It will take a few years to build an 8 year old or so to go somewhere, but that is what it takes. It is a slow long process and there are no short cuts. Academies are also typically focusing on the college route which is by far the most logical way to deal with the masses of kids wanting to play tennis. It is extremely rare to find that “talent” who shows up at an academy and goes “all the way”. Very rare…Also, the Europeans, especially the Eastern block has been dominant the past few years across the board. The Americans do not have a lock on talent, but we have lost a bit of ground in terms of desire. The Americans in my opinion will not outwork and outhustle a kid who is from a country where it is almost a “life and death” situation to get out of there via tennis! I can only sum it up in one word…” HUNGER”!

Q.: How much should a junior tennis player train?

A.:  Difficult answer because it is different for each kid. Also depends on how old they are. An 8 year old does not need to play more than 2-3 hours a day. They are not grown ups yet! But, a kid who is 12-16 and is really pro material, maybe 4 hours a day should be good in terms of adding all the components etc. plus fitness. But it will vary a great deal. Some kids are just work horses because they have that “hunger”…

Q.: What do you think about the situation with development of world class tennis players in the US? Can the USTA program produce the next Sampras and Agassi?

A.:  I think the USTA should stick to developing the sport of tennis at the grass roots level, help super coaches with money and other support to “vet out” talents, instead of this “watered down” approach of working with “academies” like mine…the USTA is actually in competition, yes COMPETITION with private academies like mine. I get a kid to a certain level, the USTA will “reach out” and cherry pick…..happened to me before. Is Bollettieri working with the USTA…NO! Everybody dances around this issue because the USTA is massively big and powerful, but I will call a ‘spade a spade’…the USTA has many of my tennis friends working for them as coaches. But the USTA development of tennis talent in the US has been a failure for a long time considering the amount of money that is spent every year. It is mind boggling.

Q.: Your three advices to junior tennis players?

A.: Lots I can say here…but you want 3. I suggest to a junior, find somebody who knows coaching, ask around, check references, experience etc. before deciding to get coached by that person. Also, try out many different rackets and string tensions, better yet, call a person by the name of Tim Strawn who is the top man of the US racket stringers association and get as much information out of him about rackets, strings etc. Tim is a friend of mine and knows this technology business frontwards and backwards. It makes a HUGE difference if your equipment is the right stuff! Lastly, be realistic about your tennis. Get an education via tennis but do not set yourself up for “mental anguish” by shooting to become a pro when you cannot beat people in your own town or city or even in the state! Be realistic!

Q.: Your three advices to junior tennis parents?

A.: Be supportive, NEVER show negative emotion, bite your tongue no matter what! Never scream at your kid for missing a shot, never castigate the child after a match…ask instead where they want to go eat. Pick a different day to go over ANYTHING negative about the match they have lost. Doing it on the same day is a “loss”- period. This topic is so vast and so many pitfalls here, hard to just do a few points…but see www.parentingaces.com. Very informative.

Q.: Your three advices to junior tennis coaches?

A.: Every kid is different so treat them as a smart coach would! Push the ones that are in need of pushing, keep it real, DON”T coach every kid to play like you as you played. Every kid is different. Focus a lot on mental training, it is as important as training the strokes and maybe more. I always said a great tennis coach in the juniors needs many degrees, especially a PHD in parenting skills….plus some!

Thank you for the interview Johan. Good luck to you and your tennis players!

How to Choose a Tennis Racquet

Bruce Levine

I made this interview with Bruce Levine. Bruce is the tennis racquet technical advisor for Tennis Magazine.

Bruce, you have huge experience with tennis racquet testing and tennis string testing. Why and when did you start to do that?

I have been testing tennis racquets for about 20 years. I started because Tennis Magazine came to me and asked if I would be interested. When I first began there were three testers of tennis racquets and then there were two and after the third year I have been doing it on my own with an editor from the Tennis magazine.

Many tennis players are curious if the tennis racquets that pro tennis players use are the same as those that anyone can buy at a store? If not, what is the difference?

Most of the tennis players that are on tour are using tennis racquets that are very different than you can buy off the wall of a tennis shop. Usually there is a different balance and weight to the players frames, grips are designed for them so that the shape fits their hand and some players even have a stiffer or softer version of the frame made for them. The biggest two changes however are weight and balance.

The same question, but about tennis strings. Are there any differences?

I do not know of any strings that have been altered for players specifications. I believe that there is enough variety of string that a player can find a type and gauge that fits his or her needs.

Your three tips to tennis players about how to choose a tennis racquet and strings?

1. Don’t look at what your pro or the pros TV are using try to find a frame that fits YOUR needs and is comfortable in your hand.

2. Play test, play test, play test in all aspects of your game under match situations, drills, practice.

3. Remember with string that if you play with a firm racquet, then your string bed should be a bit more flexible and if you play with a flexible racquet, then your string bed can be firmer. Always remember the elbow with be the loser if the frame and strings are both very rigid and firm and also if both are too flexible.

Thank you for the interview Bruce. I hope, you will share your experience and give us more useful information about tennis racquets.

Bruce agreed to answer any questions about tennis racquets. So, ask him.

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Talking to a tennis coach

Yesterday I was talking to a tennis coach. He was watching his students play and simultaneously was answering my questions. I found them interesting and decided to share some his answers with you.

Q.: Why dozens tennis academies do not produce TOP players? What is the main difference between “academies” and private coaches?

A.: In art, they talk about academic art as implying that painters are molded like cookies. You can take a good painter or player and make him better, but you’re not going to create Van Gogh.

Education is not done by majority vote. If a tennis player has to listen to several voices, he is not going to know which one to believe, so he will pick the voice that corresponds most closely to what he already believes. That’s not a recipe for growth.

Q.: A few players use serve and volley style in Tour now, actually nobody from leaders. Is that style like it was in past, still alive? Or serve and volley may be effectively use only all court players as additional option for their play?

A.:  The great serve and volley players of the past forty years or so were, in general, great tennis players who added serve and volley to their game. Names that come to mind include McEnroe, Edberg, Becker, Sampras, and Rafter. The fiction of a great serve and volleyer who had no ground game, say Annacone, is a fiction. He was a very good, but not a great player. Now imagine being fluent in French, say, and then being asked to learn Chinese at age 16 or 19. You would need very strong motivation to go through this. Because players are forgoing college to turn professional, they lack the time to learn this new and difficult tennis language. So they don’t.
I’ve heard that technology has rendered the style obsolete. Players are too strong. Returners are too good. But technology also makes the serve faster with more action. And am I supposed to believe that today’s players return better than Borg or Connors or Agassi?
The game has always gone in cycles. It will continue to do so.

Q.: What are your impressions from new season? Who will be heroes in 2012? Are Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic still the strongest players in the world?

A.: I think the days of Serena Williams and the seven dwarfs are over. Her injuries, ranging from serious to life-threatening, will make it hard for her to continue her dominance. I’m picking Maria Sharapova for the women. She is healthy and playing her best tennis in many years. All she has to do is keep her double faults in the single digits. Kim Clijsters serve looks off, and one of the other top 12 could fluke in. There will be another generation of great women, but I don’t think any of them are playing now.

For the men, as usual, I don’t see how either Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic can lose, but the rules say one of them has to. Rafael Nadal incessant running has finally taken it’s toll. If Andy Murray can learn to strike the ball like Ivan Lendl, he can be a threat, but that’s a tall order. I love watching Alex Dolgopolov with his unpredictability, and Gaël Monfils, who is already the greatest athlete never to have won a major, but they are not ready for the top.

Q.: Are young Americans like Harrison and McHale able to enter TOP50 in this season?

A.: I like Ryan Harrisons command of the court. He will learn someday to hit hard and may even grow up. He’s a potential top 10. McHale isn’t.

Choosing a Tennis Academy

Before you send your kid to a tennis academy, just ask yourself, why? Why does your tennis player need a tennis academy? I guess these are some possibilities:

Saviano_students

1. The player is really gifted by nature. He is born for tennis. His results are some of the best in his age division in the country and he definitely needs to have a highly qualified tennis coach and fitness trainer. He and his family want to see him become top 10 in the world.

2. The player is pretty good. He likes to play tennis and has good results. Both he and you dream about a professional career.

3. The kid likes to play and asks you to send him to a tennis academy (actually he just wants to leave the house and his parents). He is a teenager and you are glad to send him away.

If you have a kid who’s really good, then most academies will accept him for free or give you a significant discount. Any academy needs some stars, and it is much easier to simply attract a star rather than develop one from a beginner.

If your kid is not a star, there is no reason to pay huge amounts of money for a famous brand. The chances that an average player will develop into a star are very small.

Many tennis academies are like a pyramid. It needs money to train some talented kids for free or give them a discount and then use them for promotion. Average players are the main source of money. Any academy has a couple of stars, a small group of pretty strong players and many regular kids. Most, not all, academies are not interested in the development of champions. They are businesses and they act according to business logic. Demand is still higher than supply on the market. Look at statistics – only individual programs (they may be at an academy also) with a private coach produce professional players.

How do you find the right academy for your kid? The main rule is to choose a coach who will be responsible for your kid’s development. Look at some tennis academies’ websites, you can easily find the names of one or two coaches, but what about the other ones? Why aren’t they represented on the website? Often, the secret is very simple: there are no constant coaches.

One more important thing. Look on the Internet and figure out which academies advertise themselves in a very aggressive manner. Ask yourself, if an academy is really good, why does it spend so much money for advertisement? An academy has a fixed number of courts and a constant tennis team. If it continues to attract new players, how can they keep high quality? Something is wrong with that, right? OK, just relax. They have their own business model: aggressive advertisement attracts new clients (players), so it is not very important for them to keep high quality. New clients always come, while the old ones leave. I call this business model “the leaky bucket.” The quantity of incoming clients is the same as the number of clients who are leaving, thanks to advertisement.

My advice: never call an academy that places paid advertisement on each page of the Internet. Really great academies have good coaches who are not worried about spending a lot of money for promotion.

After you choose an academy, visit it and talk to some parents whose kids play there. Read the contract very carefully. If the management promises you that ratio of the coaches to players on the court is 1 to 4, ask them to add this to the contract. Always bargain, you can save money. Ask an assigned coach about a player development plan. Do not pay money in advance for sessions that will last for a long time, because if you decide to take your tennis player away from the academy, it will be difficult to get your money back.

Look closely for academies that were founded by really good coaches with a proven successful record. Be careful with academies founded by businessmen.

Remember that one of the most famous tennis coaches Robert Lansdorp is not sold on academies, although he does concede their value as far as practice and competition, and had kind words for the atmosphere and opportunities at Bollettieri’s. He was very critical of all the “academies” that start as a coach and one or two good players and then suddenly have 30 juniors of varying levels doing nothing but drilling.

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A Tennis Academy. What Is It?

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

“An academy is an institution of higher learning, research, or honorary membership. In the western world academia is the commonly-used term for the collective institutions of higher learning”.

As we can see, the definition of an academy suggests that it provides the highest level of education, or when we talk about a tennis academy, the highest level of tennis coaching. Is this true? Not really. Most champions are developed through individualized programs.

Before final

I researched the Internet and easily found more than 100 tennis academies just in the US. I am guessing that the final figure may be much more.

I tried to classify them into groups. There are three main groups:

1. Tennis academies with a pretty long history that are well-known in the tennis world, like Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, Nick Saviano Tennis Academy, Saddlebrook International Tennis Academy, Rick Macci Tennis Academy, Evert Tennis Academy and so on. All of these tennis academies have been around for a while and have proved themselves through years of success. Most of these tennis academies were founded by famous former pro players and coaches. Some of them are pretty big and train hundreds of players at the same time, while others only have a couple dozen players.

2. Tennis academies that were founded by players, coaches and entrepreneurs like many Californian tennis academies. They are not very big, and you hardly find famous names among their coaches, except for Dent and Gorin tennis academies.

3. There are actually individual coaches who proclaimed themselves as a “tennis academy”. They do not have boarding programs and use “tennis academy” like a common brand definition. But among them you can see famous coaches like Robert Van’t Hof’s Pacific Coast Tennis Academy.

By the way, there is a quote from the Zoo tennis website, talking about Robert Lansdorp.

“Lansdorp is not sold on academies, although he does concede their value as far as practice and competition, and had kind words for the atmosphere and opportunities at Bollettieri’s. He was very critical of all the “academies” that start as a coach and one or two good players and then suddenly have 30 juniors of varying levels doing nothing but drilling. Lansdorp believes one-on-one coaching is the foundation of development but although it may be tempting to reduce development principles, like I just have, into bite-size morsels, it’s ultimately misleading. “It’s not that simple,” he said. “It’s complicated.”

In my next post, I will talk about my advice for those who are looking for a tennis academy for a junior tennis player.

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