We’re joined on our latest installment of “Down The T” by Johan Kriek, the two time Australian Open champion and a winner of multiple singles and doubles titles on the men’s tour.
Johan, Thank you so much for taking the time out to share your views with the Tennis Frontier.
Beginning with your roots, when did you first pick up a racquet and what was the driving force that encouraged you to take up the sport?
I started playing at the age of four as my parents were weekend tennis players.
I was impossible to babysit so they took me with them most of the time!
How did you find the the junior scene in South Africa? Did any anti-apartheid policies from other nations encroach on your development as a junior (or cause issues when you later turned pro)?
I was not impeded in any way during my formative years by apartheid per se but since I was an Afrikaner boy with rugby in my veins and tennis was my hobby, I always had to “over perform” to show my talents. I also grew up on a sugar farm 400 miles from Johannesburg which was the junior tennis Mecca so the belief was that NOBODY speaking Afrikaans will ever come out from such a small town to play great tennis in the history of the continent. So the belief was he will be gone soon.
I did however begin to feel the brunt of the apartheid era as I and other players like Kevin Curren were not allowed to play Davis Cup or the Olympics due to the apartheid policies in the late 70′s and the 80′s. It was very unfortunate since we were both in the top ten of the world. Sometimes we were asked to not enter certain tournaments due to the security issues, etc. Horrible time actually since I left SA to go live in Austria in 1975 to train with my coach Ian Cunningham who had emigrated.
Politics followed me all the way to America as I was asked by Arthur Ashe to play Davis Cup for America in 1984-1985, and somehow I was met with stone silence after Arthur had called me to ask if I was ready to play. I said to him that I was but I never heard back from him ever.
We recently talked with 1983 Wimbledon finalist Chris Lewis about how long it’s taking top juniors in the present era to make the transition to the pro tour in comparison to the 1970s and 1980s. Chris was of the opinion that it’s largely down to increased competition and greater numbers playing the sport. Bearing in mind you were winning majors within three years of turning pro, would you also subscribe to that view?
Yes and no. It is absolutely correct that it is much harder to break in now as a junior but in my opinion it is because the tennis has become so much more physical now and these juniors have not “matured” physically yet.
We see the top men pros mature in physical and the mental department now much later into their twenties. I think the days of seeing phenoms like Borg, Wilander, Agassi, Chang, and Becker winning majors at ages 17-19 won’t happen again. It has just become that more physical. I was incredibly fit and mature body-wise at age 19, so I was right there very quickly.
You won the Australian Open in 1981 and 1982. Could you tell us a little about winning those titles?
Winning a Grand Slam title is the final exclamation mark in anybody’s career.
You work all your life dreaming about playing at the top but winning one is so nearly impossible that when it actually happens it is like a dream. And to do it back to back is just amazing.
I love Australia. It is just such a happy and fun place I always seem to play well there, maybe not always winning but Australians are just like South Africans in a way: very outgoing, fun, and always willing to help or just have fun. Great country!
You had a long career, spanning a number of years, eras, and an array of great champions. Could you tell us a little about some of the players you faced?
I was very fortunate to have played in 4 very distinct eras of top players.
Ashe, Smith, Connors, Borg, Vilas, Gerulaitis; then Lendl, McEnroe, Wilander, Clerc; then Edberg, Becker; then Agassi, Chang, Sampras.
I beat just about everyone in my career which was just such a thrill. Beating McEnroe several times when he was number 1 in the world in my career was always a high.
Borg and Lendl were probably the hardest types for me to play. They were so steady and could pass you on a dime. I loved playing shotmakers like Gerulaitis and McEnroe because it required me to invent shots which were so much more fun to play.
You had one of the most impressive records in five set matches among your peers. Did you put this down to conditioning, clutch play, or both?
I had no idea I had the best 5 set record in the last 40 years until I read it in a tennis publication. I would say three things made me achieve this:
1. I was very fit, could run all day, and could execute at the best of my ability after 4-5 hours on the court.
2. I played very aggressive tennis and attacked my opponents relentlessly.
3. Foot speed and quick hands were my trademarks, and I could hit impossible shots which surprised most players at the worst times for them.
You’ve been fairly vocal about adopting a zero tolerance approach to doping in tennis. There seem to be a wide range of views on how prevalent doping might be in the sport, so I’d like to ask how prevalent do you think it is? Secondly, I’d be interested in how much actual difference you think it could make and how to tackle it?
I am not privy to “insider” information anymore in tennis but I am not liking what I am seeing happening in other American and international sports.
Tennis has some very strict drug testing rules in place, and I am sure players are suspended for being caught. It is not as bad as, say, baseball or even the steroid use in American football, but I believe there are players trying to gain an edge, and they will try anything to do so.
Here is what I think is happening. The biggest issue for players now is the fact they need to recover from a tough 5 setter maybe lasting around 4 or more hours, and having to play a day or two later. With the increased physicality of men’s tennis, we will see doping issues crop up! It is humanly virtually impossible to recoup within 24-36 hours from a match like Isner and Mahut which played an 11 hour singles match at Wimbledon two years ago. To combat PED’s in our sport the ATP and the majors need to adopt a zero policy towards this. If you get caught you are thrown out for life. I don’t see how our sport can even begin to stay clean unless the penalty is so severe that it will be a huge deterrent to use PED’s.
The ATP and the majors need to have a serious discussion about a possible rule change at majors! The women play best of three sets, perhaps we can have best of three sets all the way through, too! One still has to win 7 matches to win! Or perhaps use best of three sets until the finals then a best of five for the finals only. But the testing must be done for even more athletes, perhaps top 200, not just the top 100. It is a very complex issue but zero tolerance in my opinion is a must.
The modern era is often labelled as a golden era with the likes of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray competing. Do you subscribe to that view? Or do you feel the courts and styles of play have become a little too homogenized? Of the top players, who do you particularly enjoy watching?
I think we are witnessing a very special time in this era of top pros because we have actually 4 guys now doing major combat and winning and beating each other with lots of drama and fanfare, and it is great for our sport.
I like to watch them all but because Roger Federer is such a classic and kind of “old school” player, I appreciate his way of playing more. But in terms of sheer heart and fight there are few as good as David Ferrer. He absolutely epitomizes a pro who gives it his all, and knows exactly his limitations, etc. Every era has its own superstars, and it is no different now. The difference is we have 4 guys at the top instead of 2. Fascinating time so we may as well enjoy it!
What are you doing currently?
I run my own tennis academy in Charlotte, NC.
We have kids ages 8-25 and a very good mix of boys and girls at different levels. Some of the older kids are on the ATP Tour and ITF tours, and some are here to get better to get a better scholarship to a college, etc., but what interests me the most is to build a talent from age 8 or so to age 18. That is what makes me the happiest is to see a young talent blossom and develop into a serious competitor. It takes a lot of time and effort to do that.
We already have state and nationally ranked juniors in our academy, and we look forward to growing into one of the best academies in the world.
Any young juniors we should be keeping a specific eye out for?
I have not seen all the top juniors in the world but the Canadians have suddenly popped out.
Peliwo is doing great and moving up. Pospisil just did really well in the Canadian Open, and then Raonic made a big jump to the top ten rankings by getting to the finals, so I expect Raonic to keep climbing to start challenging the very top guys, too. He has a huge serve and is a big hitter like Tsonga but perhaps a little more motivated at this time.
Tennis is just very exciting right now, and I look forward to the rest of the summer events.
Johan, thanks for your time. Appreciated.