Tennis Now = TN
Johan Kriek = JK
TN Q & A: Grand Slam Champ Johan Kriek
By Chris Oddo
Two-time Grand Slam champion and former World No. 7 Johan Kriek was regarded as one of the quickest and most mentally tough players of his generation. He has the highest winning percentage in five-set matches all-time, edging out luminaries such as Bjorn Borg and Rafael Nadal with his 18-4 career record in those matches.
These days Kriek is busy running the Johan Kriek Tennis Academy in Charlotte, North Carolina. where he and a cast of three other coaches provide hands-on instruction and personal attention to a full house of 24 juniors.
He spoke to Tennis Now to share his views on the ongoing debate surrounding the USTA’s proposed changes to the junior competition calendar, as well as his personal philosophy on how to develop juniors in a system that places too great an emphasis on rankings at too young of an age.
Tennis Now: There’s currently a huge debate going on regarding junior tennis schedules. As someone who is training juniors and working with parents, have you sensed any support for the USTA's proposed schedule changes for 2013 and 2014?
Johan Kriek: There's not a perfect system. People are looking for a perfect system -- there just isn't. I do think that a lot of these discussions took place behind closed doors and it wasn't vetted out properly, and you see this humongous backlash from parents. Not a single parent of my juniors that I work with in Virginia as well as in North Carolina like the changes. Because they feel like 'well, wait a second, if my kid is a late bloomer, then there is going to be absolutely not chance.'
I think it's a very complex issue but I do think that they should really not cut the draws. Don't go and say that you want to grow the game by cutting everything in half. That's ridiculous. That's like saying I have a zit on my pinky so I'm going to cut off my hand.
TN: Supposedly, the USTA wants to limit travel and point-chasing to level the playing field amongst juniors.
JK: Look, this country is a free country. If you have the wherewithal and you have the finances to go and play somewhere else, why do you need to penalize that rich kid to say ‘well, you can't go and play now because we want to make the field even more even.‘ The world is what it is.
The system is not perfect, but don't cut the tournaments, don't make the draws smaller just because people are [complaining] about it. The problem is that there is so much emphasis on points. We need to look at the system from top to bottom. I think what happened was there was too much closed-door going on in the USTA in terms of what they wanted to do. Maybe the intentions were right but I think that they've made a draconian mistake in the sense that they are now cutting all these tournaments.
TN: I'm still trying to figure out how these schedule changes were voted through unanimously.
JK: I would like to know how that system worked.
TN: Do you think that the junior schedules need some change in any event?
JK: There are many ways to get from point A to point B. Nobody has the magic sauce. We don't know where the talent is going to pop up. We can only provide.
I think that the USTA should put money aside to coaches in every state of the union, and say 'Okay, this guy does a good job.' I think that the USTA should really vet out on each state. The problem is that because we start these tournaments at age 10, a lot of 7 or 8- year-olds are already trying to compete in the tens and they don't clean their techniques up. Then you have these flaws that pop up and 16, 17, 18 that you can’t fix. If you come to my academy, I don't care how good you are -- if you have technical flaws, we have to fix them.
TN: Do you attribute the chaos to the fact that the USTA's leadership is changing so often?
JK: In many ways sometimes the system is flawed, but it is what it is. The USTA is the 800-pound gorilla and everybody has to deal with it.
TN: With regard to your philosophy on developing juniors, do you feel that there is too much emphasis is placed on rankings with younger players?
JK: Absolutely, and do you know why? Do you want to know why we don't have top players right now? It's because we see so many flaws in the makeup of their whole tennis persona.
The cheating is outrageous in junior tournaments and that comes from the fact that the kids need to win so badly because their parents are spending a lot of money. There's just too much pressure on these 10-year-olds to try and make a ranking. Flying around and playing junior tournaments like crazy. Look man, stay in your state and play and if you can't beat everybody in your state then why the heck do you want to go to Texas first of all? Even if there are opportunities there -- I don't think you should take the opportunities away -- but if you can't beat anybody...
It seems like some people can buy their ranking, but believe me, the cream rises to the crop.
TN: At your Academy, do you feel that the USTA gets in your way. Do you get that feeling that you are in direct competition with them?
JK: The USTA has the string purse and all of those wonderful wildcards to entice kids to come to their training center. That's happened to me. I've worked with kids that got very, very good in a very short period of time and then suddenly the parents come to me and says 'Look the USTA has offered us a weekend with them at their training facility.' At the end of the day the kid was offered wildcards and they say 'Look we’ll give you a free ride.' What is a free ride? They offer a scholarship to this guy that is provided in cash and in kind. I'm a for-profit organization and now these kids are flying the coop because they think they got a better deal with the USTA. Of course it happens. They cherry-pick the best kids in the country and they're going to say they developed them?
TN: For a lot of people the more sensible approach for the USTA would be to act like a venture capitalist and spread seed around to deserving programs.
JK: I am absolutely convinced that their are people in the USTA with the greatest of intentions. What's going to happen to the people like myself that don't have hundreds of millions of dollars behind them to offer? What's going to happen to us? Of course they're (the USTA) going to be in direct competition with us. It's a huge conflict.
TN: Do you feel at all positive about the USTA's current dialogue with the tennis industry? The fact that there is a debate has to be a good thing, right?
JK: I am positive to the extent that because of social media, thank god, we've been able to get so many more opinions. And you see that 99.9 percent of the opinions are against what the USTA is mandating for 2013-2014. The fact of the matter that this should have never gotten this far. Do you think for a second that there are not insiders in this tennis business from all the tennis retailers -- the tennis coaches, the college coaches -- all of these people have a vested interest in the long-term growth of the game. The USTA is going to make this funnel so tight that they are going to hurt tennis in the long-term.