Yuki Bhambri is today India`s hottest tennis property. With this recent superlative performances in the ATP 1000 Masters and winning his last ATP Challenger he has reached his career highest ranking of 83 on the ATP.
In this journey, there is an individual who has played a very important role. It is his coach, Stephen Koon about whose role Yuki has been quite vocal about. Yuki Bhamnbri might be a reticent person at times but when it comes to Stephen Koon he always has a few more words for him. After all he has been coached by him right from his formative years till date.
I spoke to Stephen Koon for a telephonic interview that took three days to complete as he has been preparing Yuki for his Challenger at Busan in South Korea. In the chat I can easily make out the effort of a committed and hard working coach trying his best to prepare Yuki for the next move in the ATP ladder. He takes us through the journey of Yuki Bhambri which at times has been quite arduous. I also get to know about Stephen`s journey thus far. He is also currently the Director at Impact Tennis Academy in Thailand.
ME: Good evening from India and thanks a lot for taking out the time. So how is it going?
Stephen Koon: Hi good evening to you too. I am currently in Busan with Yuki this week for the Challenger to see how is he progressing. Depending on how deep he goes in this tournament we will decide if we would go to the clay courts of the Geneva Open. Post that we go to the French Open.
ME: How is it going with Yuki? Since you are still not a full time travelling coach for him so how do you choose the tournaments?
Stephen Koon: I have been coaching him on and off since he was 16 Years. I still coach Rendy Lu of Taiwan but both of them are friends first so we decide based on who asks me to help. If both ask then we share. I first coached him when he was in IMG. As for travelling I traveled with him to the Australian Open and the Vietnam Open last year. This year I was at the Maharashtra Open, ATP 1000 Miami Masters and ATP 1000 Indian Wells Masters and I am now here at Busan. Post that I accompany him to the French Open. Post the French Open I will do with him the grass circuit and the Wimbledon.
ME: So what has been the transformation mantra for Yuki now? He is in the peak of his powers now. Is it to do with his injury free body now or more than that?
Stephen Koon: Well it has been a journey. Asians take a little bit longer to mature. Abhi (Abhimanyu Singh is Yuki`s Fitness Trainer) has done a great job with him.
It is not only about injury. Lot has also come from him. His growing maturity has led to more professionalism and discipline. He is also much easier to coach now than when he was younger.
ME: Also is it some drastic change in his training regime? I mean in terms of training, work load etc.
Stephen Koon: Not totally different. I mean he did hard work even before but there is more purpose and intensity now. There is no magic formula, drills or exercises. It is about doing the right things and sustaining that work and commitment. It is also about continuing to improve and develop.
ME: I somehow feel that the off season training at Impact Tennis Academy had a really great impact. I mean results post that are a testimony to it.
Stephen Koon: January 2015 was his breakthrough year. He did a two weeks block at the Impact Tennis Academy after the Australian Open but unfortunately had the tennis elbow issue. December 2016 was his real pre season he did at Impact and he managed to complete a full season on tour. December 2017 was another pre season he did here and he absolutely smashed it.
I went with him to Vietnam Open at the end of last year and we set the plan for December pre season. Confidence not only comes from preparation but also comes from having a plan in place. Seeing that work from practice bearing fruit when you compete against the better players on the tour feeds the desire to keep working and also gives you that satisfaction that you are doing the right things. If you ask his family and if you ask me we have always believed Yuki to be good. But it also had to come from within him and he had to decide and commit.
Stephen Koon training Yuki Bhambri at the Impact Tennis Academy
These results of beating players like Lucas Pouille, Gael Monfils etc does not surprise me. In fact I was so pissed at him for losing to Pierre-Hugues Herbert, Sam Querrey and Jack Sock. He should have won all these matches but I am satisfied with his year so far but he can do better.
ME: I know it might be a premature question but you being his coach will have an instinct. Do you see him getting inside top 50 soon?
Stephen Koon: Top 50? Of course. Is that a goal? That is not my goal. Yuki is a great guy who is humble and respectful. A good role model for all Indian kids. India should be happy and proud that the carries the Indian flag on tour. He has matured as a person and as a professional athlete. But when you say he can be a top 50 I find that goal a bit boring.
ME: Will a top 20 goal make it more interesting 😊? I mean for example he already has a better head to head record against a top 20 player like Lucas Pouille.
Stephen Koon: It is not just about if you beat a particular ranked player. Everyone besides Federer and Nadal have good and bad days. It is about competing on a consistent basis. That comes from doing the right things on a consistent basis and learning from each session on court. It is about prioritizing development and improvement.
I expect him to to continue to work, improve physically and mentally. I want him to improve with how he competed in points and to continue to bring the work from practice into match play.
Above all I expect him to continue to be humble, respectful, a good friend and a good role model for juniors
ME: Game wise we can see he has become more consistent. Technically he has a good foundation. Also he has become an intelligent server. Still is there a way to bring his serve close to 200km/hr. I mean he is not a small guy.
Stephen Koon: Everyone talks about his serve. Of course we are trying to make some changes in his serve. Even today during practice we tried a few things. He wants to improve it. It is not easy when you have been doing the same serving motion for the last 10 years. So what we initially focused on was what you do after the serve. Winning percentage on first serve doesn’t mean how many aces you hit or how fast you hit it
Yuki`s wins 66% on first serve and 52% on second serve. We want the first serve percentage to go higher. But the second serve number is higher than Grigor Dimitrov. So it is not that bad right?
Often it is not only about the serve speed but about serve effectiveness. The old serve style was causing his abdominal pain which made him miss the Davis Cup tie against China. So we are trying this new serve with a new stance. We will try this for a while and see how it works.
ME: And what about this new injury free Yuki that we are seeing of late?
Stephen Koon: Abhi (Abhimanyu Singh) has done a fabulous job with him. Also with him playing better tournaments, he is getting better physiotherapists on the ATP tour. ATP physios are the best at helping with tennis injuries as they manage such injuries all day long.
Yuki Bhambri under the watchful eyes of Stephen Koon at the Indian Wells Masters.
Stephen Koon: Okay Kangkan, now let me ask you a question? Why is Yuki who happens to be your no.1 player and doing so well for the country does not have any support?
ME: Well that is in fact a very pertinent question. At times it depends which state you are from.
I think things are changing. For example our No.3 Women`s player, Pranjala Yadlapalli is sponsored by GVK. But then I guess Yuki`s expense will be more so that will not suffice.
Stephen Koon: I know Pranjala Yadlapalli and I coached her a little last year. I am happy for Pranjala but if Yuki gets even that much, it will absolutely suffice. It is at least better than getting nothing.
At the moment he doesn’t have any sponsorship or support apart from Babolat who provide rackets and strings.
I can tell you that every dollar he earns is reinvested into his tennis whether it is on his coach, trainer or flights. It is a big commitment and he makes it.
I mean India is a big country with a growing economy and have 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 world.
Everyone will say that Yuki was Junior No.1 at 16 years so is it not time that he realizes his full potential? Well, many pros peak later in their careers. Rafa, Federer and even my former player Kevin Anderson are all having great years even at their later ages. Let me tell you that if Yuki makes his big breakthrough does it matter if he is 16 or 25 or 30 or is the most important is to have that breakthrough?
Professionals on the tour normally travel with three people in addition to an agent. Yuki travels with Abhi and sometimes I accompany. Not often can both of us accompany him.
You got to give credit to Yuki and his commitment to his profession that he is getting results with less support than others and doesn’t complain or make any excuses about it.
ME: Talking about Asian tennis why is that we have only a few top players. Is size in terms of say the natural height an issue here? Or it is something else?
Stephen Koon: The talent is here. Asia consistently has a top 10 in the Junior circuit. I think culture plays a part here. That is why it is not always good to go to Florida or Spain. It just depends. There are some good coaches in Asia. Everyone has to follow their own path and journey. There are many players all over who try to make it professionally and do not make it, not just Asians. But talent aside, professionals tend to have a level of commitment and be able to sustain it longer.
ME: Now tell me something about how this coaching journey started for you?
Stephen Koon: I started coaching at the age of 12 years during school holidays. I used to accompany my coach who was Ray Woodforde (Mark Woodforde`s father). Then while doing college in the U.S I also did a summer job at the John Newcombe Tennis Ranch.
I was the General Manager for a publishing company for two years and then coaching happened in Singapore by accident. Part time became full time. I made 35 different national age group champions in Singapore and after 10 years there, I felt I needed a challenge. I took two sabbaticals during these 10 years when I also coached in Spain and Florida. I actually first met Yuki when he beat my player in the Orange Bowl final.
I set up my own academy in Florida and had six players who received college scholarships. Just when I was about to come back to Asia, IMG called me. I was with IMG for two years where I coached and traveled with some really good players. I was also on court with many famous players.
Post that I worked with the Asian Tennis Federation and Thai Tennis for seven months. I also did a private gig with an Australian player and moved her to top 50 on the ITF at 14 years.
Then by chance I happened to meet my current boss who owns Impact Tennis Academy in Thailand.
We had a common vision and he is so open minded and he does not try to ‘ boss’ me. And I am here as the Director for the fifth year. We are trying to provide a base in Asia to help tennis players to pursue their goals in the right way.
ME: Thank you so much Stephen for sparing so much time with me. It was unlike a normal interview and you touched such core subjects. Thanks a lot and keep on enjoying your tennis journey.
Stephen Koon: Thanks to you too and all the very best in your endeavour to give the much needed attention to Indian tennis.