By – Vishnu Reddy, 4th 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.
First part: Mr. Stephen Koon shares his player/coaching background, journey as a coach, his first meet with Yuki Bhambri, journey as a Director at IMPACT Tennis Academy, stint with Pranjala Yadlapalli and much more
This is a two part interview series – taken during the French Open 2018. In the second part, Mr. Koon takes us through his journey with Yuki Bhambri right from the Orange Bowl days to the current state. We get insight into the off-season preparations, the detail on the improvements to his game, his doubles game, the season so far and the prospects for Yuki this season. It also touches upon the aspect on how Yuki / his family, in spite of Yuki being a World Junior No.1 / one of Asia’s most talented athletes, have somehow been able to manage his career alone in spite of numerous setbacks with minimal / no support from the sponsors / system in India – which is while an inspiring story by itself, it is also something for all us as followers / influencers / tennis community in India to probably reflect upon.
Thank you to Mr. Koon for taking so much time out of his schedule to share his experience with us.
What was your initial assessment of Yuki when you saw him.
At the Orange Bowl final, obviously, I was upset with my player for losing to him. But for Yuki I am sure I was pretty much the same as what everyone sees and comments on him at that age- talented and good ball control, not that physical but that’s just from seeing him hitting.
To really coach someone, you need to know someone – what motivates them, what their knowledge is, what makes them tick and Initially didn’t know him so I can’t judge or comment. It’s When you start to travel and live in the same room, then you really get to know someone. During my time at IMG we did some training and some tourneys together and we had our share of agreements and disagreements. I felt he could do more but it’s all part of growing up. After 2 years i left IMG and was not in contact with him for a while he was 18 or 19 back then. He was a good guy with a good game and still had many things that needed to improve.
Mr. Stephen Koon with Yuki Bhambri from his earlier stint!
For the off-season that we’ve discussed, any specific area that you focused on for the players in general and Yuki in specific?
This last one was around more power in the legs, more power in the regular rallying ball, attack patterns, juicing up the forehand a little bit, placement of the first serve and just keeping the intensity for 3 weeks. He hasn’t had that full pre season before, it was long. 3 weeks of absolutely smashing it, every day. In all the practices and the pre-season, he beat everyone. To do it on the real stage, thats the next step. It’s there, a little bit of it is going to be around belief. That sometimes come through hardship, getting through a hard match, sometimes with a big win or just doing the right things a little bit longer. Then taking your chance when it presents itself.
This year will likely be his big year.
Yuki has been a bit unlucky with injuries in his career. How do you manage the workload given this background?
We had a doubles match today, an hour and a half practice and an hour in the gym. We did 3 hours in a row. Yuki does the work that you tell him to do. He is very professional and dedicated now.
The injuries earlier was – bit of it is education, bit of it is, we are Asian. A lot of Asians don’t have that maturity and physical base, it takes a bit longer. It depends on how you look at it. If you look at Chung, Zverev, Shapovalov, Coric – then yes, Yuki is behind. But if you look at someone like Cilic,Wawrinka, when did they peak? Late 20’s. When did Nishikori start peaking? 25?. Injuries are like losses, you learn from them. That means either there is something wrong with your technique or with your body. If you look at Yuki, he never had the same injury twice. He has had different injuries. He had an abdominal, an ankle, a tennis elbow, shoulder impingement, knee but they are not the same injuries.
The media generally gives Yuki a lot of flak for his injuries. If Yuki makes it big at 30 or when he was 16 – how does it matter when you don’t have anyone else out here in the first place? If he makes it The main thing will be – thank god he made it. This might be his best year when he is like 25/26 – just support that. Don’t always look for what can go wrong, that’s a very Negative way of looking at things.
He changed his serve now, his feet are different now, his left arm is different now. The abdominal injury before the French Open is completely gone. Like I said You look at the injuries as you look at losses. Did he learn from it? Is it the same injury again? If yes, then it’s just very immature. If he is fixing those injuries but encountering new injuries or losses, then its part of the journey. He is still moving forward.
He is not lazy. It’s just not easy to play this sport. Wawrinka, Djokovic, Murray are all coming back from injuries- are they lazy? They are just injured. It is an extremely tough sport. Different courts, different balls every week. Very few players are 100% healthy throughout the year.
On the above. Has Yuki been much more decisive, playing minimal events or skipping the clay season and so on?
You can say he skipped the clay season if you want but his ranking wasn’t high enough to get into the big tourneys. Do you want to spend 12 weeks in a row in Europe? Being away from your house for that long.
He went to play Taiwan as he got in and as its closer to his home. Some of it is also like – where is Abhimanyu for his recovery and treatments- he couldn’t make it to the Roland Garros due to the visa issues. It is easier to travel within Asia for the Asians. You guys can read into whatever way you want, but you need to schedule based on what is convenient.
Yuki has had a very consistent season this year apart from the occasional blips in Busan or Dubai. How do you view them?
In Busan, you can either say he lost to the Chinese or he beat Nishioka. What do you want to focus on? We were experimenting and trying new things in his game. He changed serve 3 times during the match, trying to figure out what serve works best for the big stage coming up. So did he lose the match or did he figure out his serve? For me, he figured out his serve and it cost him his match. Is that a blip or progress? Its progress for me.
You all need to look at the bigger picture. For Dubai, I do not know. I wasn’t there and I wouldn’t even know. Depends on how you looks at things. In Indian Wells, he should have beaten Querrey, Miami – he should have beat Jack Socks – are they blips? I don’t know.
The media will say the same about his French Open performance. He knows he should have done better. He wouldn’t shy away from acknowledging that. You can call it blips if you prefer using that.
As much as the newspapers write that way, the champions think in a different fashion. There is no one more critical or disappointed in themselves than players themselves. You guys just add to it. He knows he wasn’t good, he won’t make any excuses for it and he will do better next time. It seems bigger because it happened to be at a bigger tourney. To me, we sat down and went out for a nice dinner after actually, it’s the same.
If you have a bad day, can you be with friends, have a good meal, have a laugh and move on? Or is it going to depress you, you are stuck in your hotel room – it is all how you deal with it. He took the former approach, learnt his lesson, left it behind and moved on.
He is young, he is 25/26. How many Grand Slams has he played? How many big tourneys has he played? He is young that way. You have to give him time to find his feet and he’ll find it.
And he has minimal / no support from any of us in India. We should be the last ones to pull him down like that instead of encouraging him / looking at the bigger picture as you mentioned.
There was another interview I had done and I had asked the reporter why is it the case. It was mentioned it depends on where you come from (state), he also said that part of it could be that people think Yuki is standoffish. This is what I mean, you got to know the guy.
There has not been one instance where a kid has walked up to Yuki for an autograph after a win or a loss and Yuki moved away – he signed all of them. Newspapers have his direct phone number which is wrong actually but he answers all of them. There is a difference between being quiet and being arrogant. Yuki is quiet, he has got a very small circle of people that he trusts, that’s a good thing, shouldn’t be a bad thing.
The sponsorship thing, sure, it is unfortunate. If you are going to use that as the reason as to why you couldn’t make it, then as an athlete that’s wrong, if you want to make it then you have to find a way. Yuki knows many players have a lot more than him, whether fair or unfair, but he will never use this as a reason for a loss or a poor performance and I will also never accept this from him. If his path is destined to be he must work harder than others then that’s fine with me and I am sure he will also accept it
Anyway, there are a lot of Indians doing well across the world, India has a big economy. There are Indians in the Silicon Valley, Indians in New York / Dubai / Singapore running big companies. Its a real shame that out of all of them, none of them take him up. Yuki is not asking someone to sponsor money, he is asking someone to help with his expenses. If nothing happens, its not like Yuki is going to stop playing Tennis. Pretty much I can tell you that out of the top-100 players in the world, there are probably only 2 of them who don’t have sponsors and he is one of them. Coming from such a big emerging country, it is a bit unfortunate. I can tell you that every dollar he earns is reinvested into his tennis whether it is on his coach, trainer or flights. It’s a big commitment and he makes it
I mean India is a big country with a growing economy and many successful corporations .
It would be fantastic if someone would like to support and associate with a guy who is honest, humble, professional, dedicated and carrying the flag for India all over the tennis world. He is again the only Indian playing singles at the slams
Anyway I don’t want Yuki to focus on it as it is what it is. A Lot of growing as a competitor is that you do not have excuses. So not having a sponsor will not be a reason why Yuki will not make it. We are not going to use it as an excuse and he does not use it himself.
People ask him a lot and make assumptions as to why he is not sponsored (even things like he probably asked for too much money) and no one believes it. People may think that he is wealthy with him being the Junior World No.1 and all that but that’s not the case. Now after making it into the Grand Slams / top-100, he just about barely breaks even and reinvests all his earning into getting better and paying expenses to tour. It is what it is.
So we know Yuki was recently removed from the TOPS scheme for not playing Asian games. Can you tell us what is his current sponsorship status?
Pretty much zero except for rackets. Anyway like I said before, Yuki and I will never use it as an excuse for performance or as a reason for him not to get better and reach his goals.
The TOPS thing was unfortunate, I am not familiar with it, but with my limited understanding of it, the reasoning was because he is not playing Asian Games. They removed only 2 people from the scheme, 1 for being caught taking performance enhancing drugs and Yuki for playing the US Open instead of Asian Games. Doesn’t seem right and I am sure anyone who has a clue about tennis would have destroyed him if he chose to play Asian Games instead of the US Open, or even trying to fly from the middle of Indonesia to New York with 1 day to recover is so unprofessional – so he was kind of in a lose lose situation there with that, so bye bye to TOPS [Target Olympics Podium Scheme]. Kind of weird because I thought it was for athletes eligible for Olympics in 2 years. Anyway never mind.
As for clothing he is wearing all his adidas and ASICS gear from previous years as ASICS decided not to renew him this year and he had no other offers so it makes for some interesting colour combinations.
For rackets he is on a equipment and performance bonus contract with Babolat. He has been using the same racket for many years. Babolat supports – rackets, grips, strings, bags. Nadal and Thiem Obviously get money but a player isn’t a player without a racket right? So it’s all good and we hope they offer him something more later.
He also has no corporate, federation, state or government sponsorship. He also no longer has an agent at the moment either as IMG also expired.
So like I said he has to reinvest all his earnings from tournaments into his travel, his team and other touring expenses. But that’s how it is and he is fine with it. When he has some bigger results then I am sure he should be able to get something from a clothing or racket company atleast.
So that’s his current (non sponsorship) status I guess is a better way to describe it. Whether readers believe it or not that’s the truth.
For now it’s go it alone and reinvest your earnings and get better and believe in yourself. Like I say again and again, sponsorship – although it would make things easier and being No. 1 in a country where many players play tennis, many kids play tennis, many of the other players get help – I would think he should get something, but it won’t determine his career.
You mentioned this could be his breakthrough year.
Yes, because he can only get better. When you keep working hard, give it your best – the results are inevitable. The little number on your ranking moves around. It is inevitable. The main thing is to focus on the learning and improvement, same thing you would do with a junior. Same as what you do with your own life, we keep learning and evolving and challenging yourself. As long as you do that, the results are inevitable.
Any other aspects of his game that you are working on, apart from the serve that you mentioned above or any aspects that you feel, that need to be improved as he plays more Tour events?
The main thing has got to be belief. We’ve done a lot of drills, discussed all the techniques and done a lot of practice, if you are asking about little things, then right now I would like him to be better at finishing points at the net and use the slice backhand more productively. The main thing is the belief. In the crunch situations, do you have the belief. That comes with playing good players and he is doing that. It’s a matter of time.
You touched upon finishing points at the net better. Your thoughts on Yuki, the doubles player.
He played at Pune and the Roland Garros with Divij Sharan, they are good friends. It’s good energy. He likes playing doubles. It’s about whether you can get in or not, the entry lists. He entered Indian Wells with Tsitsipas but they couldn’t make it, so nobody knows.
Nothing wrong with doubles – it helps your serve, your returns, your volleys, pressure situation preparations, its fun, good. It’s like another practice session. Everything that you do out there on the court is a learning. He will play Mixed Doubles as well if he gets in, its about getting in. He doesn’t choose or not choose to play, it’s about getting into the draw.
Yuki Bhambri with Divij Sharan at the French Open
How is your time-split as a coach right now
I know a lot of players as I have been traveling for the past 10 years. A lot of these players were juniors, so this is the time when they are doing well on the pro tour. It’s a honor when some pro player asks you to help actually. That means they think you have a value and that you can contribute to their career. Right now, unfortunately, Rendy Lu is injured. He is a different age to Yuki but they almost play the same circuit. There is a Japanese player who has asked me to do a few weeks, A Vietnamese player who I said, I can do a few weeks with and another junior player. Then I spend the rest of the time at the academy with people who come to train and I try to help them the best I can.
You try not to spread yourself too thin while you also want to help as many people as you can. You try to give more time to the hardworking guys, who listen and do the right things. Even today, I was on court with one of my former students, who is from Germany
I don’t do contracts nor do I do guarantees. I don’t need the money but I have to keep the academy running. So far, whenever Yuki has asked me, can you come to this event, I have said yes and I made the time available (remember I said my boss is cool) because like I said, we are friends first.