Interview with Stephen Koon – Yuki Bhambri’s coach (Part 1)

By – Vishnu Reddy, 1st July, 2018

Mr. Stephen Koon is the Director at the Impact Tennis Academy in Thailand and is also the coach of Taiwan number 1 Lu Yen Hsun and Indian No.1 Yuki Bhambri. Mr. Koon has a phenomenal track record having coached twelve top 100 WTA/ATP professionals , coached several top-10 ITF juniors during his years in California, Spain, Australia, Asia and at the IMG Academy. Now he has his own Academy – ‘Impact Tennis Academy’, which has slowly become the premier destination for the Asian Pro Tennis players to hone / fine-tune their skills.

Part 2: Stephen Koon shares his experience with Yuki Bhambri so far with lot of insights into the fabulous journey!

This is a two part interview series – taken during the French Open 2018. In the first part, Mr. Koon takes us through his journey as a player and then coach, experience producing whopping ~35 National champions in Singapore, experience coaching twelve top-100 athletes and the stint at IMG – including detail on how his relationship with Yuki Bhambri started. We also get a brief insight into the setup at the IMPACT Tennis Academy and a bonus – thoughts on his brief stint with Pranjala Yadlapalli.

Screen Shot 2018-07-01 at 11.19.38 PMMr. Stephen Koon with Yuki Bhambri and Abhimanyu Singh(Yuki’s trainer)

EXCERPTS –

How did your journey into Tennis begin?

As a coach, I gave my first lesson when I was 12 to beginner players for my own coach in Australia and then did some coaching while I was in college but I didn’t start coaching full time until 24.

As a player, I started Tennis in Australia at the age of 7, played Junior tennis and then later College tennis and some money tournaments but I was never what you would consider a professional player. My junior coach Ray Woodforde was more technical and my college coach Kai Fong was more emphasizing the mental side so I was very lucky to have that exposure to both sides and I stay in touch with both of them still today. But the best learning is from the coaches you spend time with on tour and of course all the players they teach us as much as we teach them sometimes for example they can say I don’t understand can you explain it another way?

 How did your involvement with Nick Bollettieri academy begin?

After College, I was employed by a publishing company. We had 3 Magazines (the main one being Wine and Dine which involved a lot of eating!) and I was the General Manager for Malaysia and sales and marketing director for Singapore. 2 years later after a disagreement with my boss, the 1997 financial crisis in Asia and after winning a few Singapore men’s open tournaments  (which I was only playing because of the eating from my job haha) I decided to start coaching.

My Singapore ranking would help with the employment Visa so I reached out to my friend and said find me one tennis player who is in need of a coach but is not the best in their age group. So I started with one kid who was 16 and was at that time No.6 in Singapore. I started coaching him and in 9 months, he became the No.1 Mens player in Singapore. Then I stopped playing myself. I got one more phone call and a few months later that girl became the No. 1 Women in Singapore.

Time passes, I set up my own academy and 10 years later, I had made 35 different national champions in Singapore and five different players won the 18/under at age of 12. But I didn’t really feel like it was a big achievement and I am not sure if anybody really cared about it.

So at 34, having produced 35 different national champions, despite some of them playing NCAA, I wasn’t sure if I was a good coach or not as none of them could turn out to be Professional players. Being in Singapore, like any country that doesn’t have a track record of having professional players I think it’s hard to tell your own capabilities and limits. So I took the first job that I could find on the internet. The pay was much less than what I was earning in Singapore but still I took it as I just needed to know.

You know as a coach you need to challenge yourself, same as what you tell your player. We keep telling them to push, to challenge, to open their mind, to get better each day. If you tell your player to be the best they can be while you sit around in Singapore in your comfort zone, working hard but still not really challenging yourself or risking it then its not right. I had 40 players, 4 coaches and worked 58hrs a week but still…..

So I took a job and it was based in California. I coached some itf guys the best of which was a player called Nikoloz Basilashvili, he was only 16 and is now on tour as a pro player and who I did the last Olympics with, but after 4 months there I stopped.

Then I ran into a player called Jarmere Jenkins, he got to about rank #200 on the ATP WorldTour and is now with Serena Williams. But at that time, he had to move out of the USTA Programme after losing at the French, Wimbledon and the US Open Grand Slams. He had heard of me through his roommate at Usta who was one of my former students from Singapore. He didn’t have a coach and I didn’t have a job – he asked me if I can work with him for 2 months. He had Eddie Herr and Orange Bowl events coming up, was ranked #88 ITF in the world. So I took it. He won Eddie Herr doubles and was Runners-Up in Orange Bowl singles, won Orange Bowl doubles. In Singles, he so happened to lose to a guy called Yuki Bhambri.

9 months after the Orange Bowl, Yuki’s agent at IMG called me into IMG asking if I would like to coach him. As fate happens, my first day at IMG, I hear that Yuki has just broken his ankle back in India.

3 months later, a guy called Kevin Anderson walks in to IMG. I used to coach his team mate at college and I ended up coaching Kevin for all his pre-season. Then I traveled a little bit with some other players.

 What was your larger role at IMG?

The official title was Player and Business Development specialist as I have a background in Business and Marketing but basically I was there to work with the top players of the academy and travel with some of the signed clients of IMG. I did not have much choice and I probably traveled about 44 weeks a year. Some of it was with Yuki Bhambri and some other with a player who was Runners-Up at the Wimbledon Junior Championships. It was whoever was visiting.

There are so many top players who come in and out. Either they do not have a coach or plan to work on something specific or you need to arrange practice for someone, you just do it. Just a normal job.

When / how did your journey with the IMPACT Tennis Academy begin

After 4 years in the USA , I started working for the Asian Tennis Federation at the Lawn Tennis Association of Thailand. I did that for almost an year. A year after that, I came back to Thailand to work with some of the top Thai players whom I used to coach before at the Federation. I happened to stay at the Novotel. That Hotel was owned by my current boss, he also had a Tennis Academy. He asked me if I want to run it, what is my vision for it, what do I like to do in the Tennis Academy and so on. First I told him that I was probably not the right guy to hire because I am not so big on the commercial stuff. I don’t think one can put their name on an academy and just accept everyone in to their program, all different levels with all different goals, fill the courts with 100 players and expect to coach and care for them properly.

Screen Shot 2018-07-01 at 11.24.17 PM.png
Mr. Stephen Koon at his academy (Courtesy – Postupnews)

So I told him that I just want a place where everyone who comes in, is really serious about reaching their goals. We can’t take many of them. Quality not quantity. If you want to make money like most tennis academies, you should have many many players who can’t play high level Tennis but play for fun and very few players who play seriously because the serious ones take a lot of your time and you don’t make as much money. The serious ones need physical, technical, mental, match play, monitoring of warm ups and cool downs, individual plans and to do it well how many can you truly take? I am lucky that he agreed with my thought process and is a quality over quantity guy himself and also he really loves sports and loves to help kids. He understands what I want to do and he lets me do it. He is more a friend than a boss and I am lucky. I was made the Director of the facility . So I have to use my brain a little bit to run the fitness club but I mostly focus on Tennis.

So That’s IMPACT Tennis Academy. We don’t have many players at the academy at any one time. I do get a lot of emails from aspiring players. We do not take all of them. Lot of them come in with unrealistic expectations or difficult parents and attitudes and expect to be told what they want to hear but I’ve just never been that way.

Screen Shot 2018-07-01 at 11.26.30 PM.pngMr. Stephen Koon with his boss

At Impact, If you want the truth, you’ll get it. If you want honesty, you’ll get it. If you also want to know what you need to do to make it, you’ll also get it. It’s up to you and my coaches also follow this mentality. And I know the academies in Spain and USA may have more pizazz and bigger names but for those that want to train seriously in Asia we hope to be an a option

The role of the coach, it’s an honor and responsibility to be a coach actually. You should take the role quite seriously as you are controlling the future of children. If some children do not have a chance to make it on the tour but you say they do, so that you can take their money for 4-5 years then it’s just not ethical.  There is not as much an accountability on the part of the coaches, I feel, especially in Asia. Probably get in trouble for that but there’s a reason why people call it commercial tennis. Unfortunately a lot of players come in saying they have trained for many years but they have no foundation and lack many fundamentals yet have been in academies and with coaches for years. If you (coaches) tell a player they can make it then you as a coach should have some accountability for it. And the parents and players also should demand more and ask the right questions same as they would in the corporate world. If someone is saying they can do something for you or your child then make sure they have the ability and experience to do it.

That’s why I like the Pros. It is all accountability. If you tell a player what they need to do and they do not win, then your job is on the line. While if they win, you get bonuses. This is fun because then you know, are you a good coach or a bad coach. This is the ultimate test.

If you coach a beginner who only plays twice a week and does not really care about competing, anyone can coach that player. That’s how I’ve been and I have been lucky enough to coach a lot of good players twelve have made it to the top 100. If you look at my playing background, I should have never coached so many good players. I feel lucky and it’s a privilege to be a coach. It’s not really a job for me

Even with Yuki’s first round loss at the French Open here , it was not a good day and he knows it. Your instinct is to rip his head off but then you got to remember, if he didn’t play so well, then there must be a reason. You think about it, he is your friend first. If he is going through some tough situation, you should help him first. He pays me but I am here as a friend first, coach / mentor second. Especially with the amount of pressure that is there on these guys.

Maybe That is why I ended up having so many good players – it’s the trust factor. I would never tell them something that I don’t think they are capable of doing and I would never tell them something that I don’t think is important for making them better.

You were involved with Pranjala Yadlapalli for a week. How did that involvement begin?

I think almost everyone in Asia has heard about the Academy because of all the players that have come to visit or train and Facebook helps! The last two pre-seasons we had an unbelievably strong group of players assembled all working together to get ready for the start of the pro season. It is a shame that more juniors don’t think the same as these pros, and that more of the federations don’t think the same as these pros. Hopefully this will change as Asia is kind of struggling on the tour right now. When you come here and look around, you do not see many Asian coaches nor Asian players. I wish there were more of them. I always say – A team is better than an individual even though it is an individual sport. So if you want to get good, maybe it’s better that we can all help each other become good by working together.

This last December was obviously a highlight when we had 6 different No.1 players from 6 different countries (India, Taiwan, China, South Korea, Vietnam, Georgia)  and the Asian Games Gold Medalist as well as a Taiwan boy who is now number 1 in the world and won the french Open juniors, they all decided to train together. I tried to create the environment of a friendly, competitive, intense atmosphere. We all went to dinner together all the time and I tried to create this big family because Tennis is an extremely lonely sport. It’s not fun on the road sometimes. Sometimes in an individual sport, you need to make this feeling. They all pushed each other. We had fun together, smashed each other – it was really good. Because of the quality of the players involved, everyone knew about it either and social media again also helped.

Pranjala was there last year for a week as she was playing in a tourney nearby. She was with her mother. She was a top junior when she was playing juniors. I was coaching a Japanese guy who was #7 in the world in juniors, so we’ve seen each other around but we never spoke. Because it was Thailand, and she needed a couple of days and it was near the facility where she was playing the tourney, she just dropped in.

Great girl, really humble, works really hard. She is a good player but has a few holes in her game. I challenged her once earlier in the week, she took it on, so I like her. She can only get better. She said she will try coming again after Wimbledon.

Screen Shot 2018-07-01 at 11.29.18 PM.pngMr Stephen Koon with the players during the gruelling pre-season at the IMPACT Tennis Academy. Photo Courtesy: Impact Tennis Academy

How has technology evolved into the role of a coach?

As a coach you try to stay current and stay up-to-date, learn as much as you can. Of course technology makes some impact. For the technical side, seeing the biomechanics, seeing the slo-mo of a specific shot, designing the match play strategy, patterns, statistics and tendencies is good.

However, sometimes the statistics and patterns are good and bad because its an individual sport. The player can have a good or a bad day, feel confident, be in a situation where they are willing to risk and then all the patterns are wrong. Sure, some people have tendencies and preferences, but its not a 100%. So when you give someone a pattern you think they will do, it’s just a preference, its not guaranteed.

Yuki has been using the same racquets since he was 16. Same strings as well. He has added a bit more weight to his racquet. But of course technology of string and rackets has changed definitely from my day

It’s also about the conditions. When the sun comes out, when the weather is heavy and humid, the courts are slow or fast, every week there are different tennis balls used. So one has to adopt their tensions  to all these key variables, so it’s not always accurate.

Technology makes  watching Tennis more fun when they put all these dots around serve box and stats like this is where they serve, this is the height over the net and so on and also Hawkeye. As coaches, we are reading about it all the time but sometimes it is too complicated. The biomechanics, the angle of the leg this is a bit too much at times.

 On the support structure that exists for you at the Academy.

I have 3 Assistant coaches back at the academy. One of them has been with me for 6 years. He is probably one of the best coaches in Asia that no one has ever heard off. He should be on the WTA Tour for sure. There has been no one who has taken the risk to take him out yet but 6 years with me, he knows pretty much everything that I want him to know. I trust my team and when you trust your team, you can travel on the road.

Screen Shot 2018-07-01 at 11.30.58 PM.pngMr. Stephen Koon with two of the Assistant coaches (Third one joined recently).

Part 2: Stephen Koon shares his experience with Yuki Bhambri so far with lot of insights into the fabulous journey!

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