Wednesday, January 16, 2019

THE STRANGER AT COURTSIDE: TOKYO 1988

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In 1988 I had landed the role as Chinese Junior National Team Coach.  4 boys and 4 girls were selected from throughout the country and were trained for two months inside mainland China. This was the beginning of China’s emergence back into the international tennis mainstream after years of isolation.  We later played junior ITF tournaments in Jakarta, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Also on the trip was a Thai team under the management of a local ex-pat Gordon U.E Martin.  Gordon was a true tennis fanatic. Gordon helped put Thai tennis on the map in the early days by bringing  professional tennis to Thailand and starting ITF junior events for the first time. Those early ITF Junior events started by Gordon are still held annually each year. 

Gordon was particularly interested in the history of Asian tennis and after years of research he eventually published the Asian Tennis Encyclopedia. The book is still the definitive history of tennis in the Asian region.

Gordon and I spent a lot of time together on the trip and he was fascinated by my Chinese players as he seemed to have a real interest in things Chinese.

It was in Tokyo that my story takes place.  One evening as the matches were finishing for the day I was making my way back to the clubhouse and to catch the bus back to the tournament hotel.  It was bitterly cold but I noticed Gordon on the back courts watching a late match being played under lights.  

I approached him and he was quick to introduce me to the only other spectator watching the match. Gordon explained that he and the stranger at courtside has struck up a conversation while the man was watching his son. They discovered that they knew each other from years earlier in New York. Gordon used to buy his breakfast at the diner this man worked at and now they had met at courtside in Tokyo!

The three of us stood talking as the man’s son played his first round match.  The boy wasn’t bad either, a bit too laid back to ever make it at the top level but a solid player. The stranger was Mr. Sampras and his son Pete went on to have a fairly decent career winning 15 Grand Slam singles titles.

A few years later I met Pete's older brother, Gus in L.A.  My colleague David Nelson and I were meeting Gus to try and establish a link with their new company Pure Sports Management. We wanted to join with them in nurturing and manging top Asian tennis talent.

I related the story to Gus that day and he believed that it would have been one of Pete's first overseas trips, and that his father probably didn't attend another tournament Pete played in for at least another decade!

Two years later Pete Sampras won the US Open Singles title.

MARTINA HINGIS: "THE SWISS MISS"



In 2005 Martina Hingis decided to make a come-back to professional tennis.  Martina had walked away from tennis in 2002 after a career that saw her rise to number 1 in the rankings and stay there for a total of 206 weeks. She captured 15 Grand Slam titles which included 5 singles, 9 women’s doubles and 1 mixed doubles titles.

Martina’s first match back was going to be the Pattaya Women’s Open, held annually in the seaside resort town of Pattaya, Thailand.  The tournament is owned and run by an old friend of mine Geoffrey Rowe.  Geoffrey has been running women’s events in Thailand for many years and Thai tennis owes him a huge debt of thanks.  It was his wild card into the Pattaya Women’s Open that gave Tamarine Tanasugarn her big opportunity to break into the WTA Tour.  Ironically “Tami” under-performed in Pattaya for many years after her break through there, perhaps due to the pressure of playing in front of her Thai fans.

Each year Geoffrey asked me to help with sparring partners for the women participants.  Hingis was scheduled to arrive into Pattaya 10 days early in order to prepare. 

I took two male players with me to Pattaya, Alex Korch, a Canadian who had been training with me for the past few months, and Anuwat Dalodom, a Thai player who was in his last year as a junior.

The first training session certainly made it clear this was not going to be like any other training session we had done before.  There were television crews all the way from Europe filming her every move. Throughout the week we changed courts often and everywhere we went in Pattaya there were crowds of spectators watching our practise. 

I had also allowed my daughter, Isabella, to sit and watch at courtside. Early into the practice Isabella had made a noise that drew the attention of Martina’s mother Melanie. Melanie Molitorova was on-court for every session and she made it clear that there was to be no distractions at courtside during practice sessions. 

On-court Martina was the consummate professional, focused and hard working.  It was a great opportunity for me to see her game up close and to talk to her about her game.  It was obvious that Martina’s mother had a big part to play in getting her to the top.

Martina was drawn to play the German, Marlene Weingartner in a first round evening match of the tournament and a capacity crowd gathered to watch.  

When the match started Martina was clearly the better player and raced away to a handy lead in the first set.  What happened next was one of the most bizarre incidents I have ever witnessed in my many years of watching tennis.  

During a point Weingartner popped up a high defensive lob and Martina hit a confident smash to finish the point.  However the smash hit the courtside scoreboard, sending the metal letters and numbers flying in all directions.  

Play stopped while the young Thai ball-boy replaced the metal plates on which the letters are painted.  Unfortunately the ball boy began struggling with the surname Weingartner and made several failed attempts to get the name right, much to the amusement of the large crowd.  By the time the ball-boy had made his fifth attempt at Weingartner  (without success), the crowd were hooting with laughter.

The only person not laughing was Marlene Weingartner.  She was being beaten badly in the match by Martina Hingis and now even her name was receiving ridicule from the crowd. She must have felt very disrespected!

When the match finally resumed Weingartner began to go for her shots.  She was hitting everything as hard as she could and everything was going in.  She seemed to have overcome her slow, hesitant start and was now playing like someone who not only thought she was worthy to be on the same court as Martine, but should also win the match!

Marlene Weingartner went on to win the set and the match thanks to some old fashioned controlled aggressive anger.  The Hingis come-back had suffered a major set back.

Despite her loss in the Pattaya Women’s Open Hingis did go on to win 3 more singles titles before retiring again a few years later.  Alex, Anuwat and I were privileged to spend time with her on and off court during her time in Pattaya.