- Six-time ATP doubles winner Jeff Coetzee talks about South Africa’s Lloyd Harris, who has exited the French Open, and how the picture is changing within SA tennis.
- The current coach of a Belgian doubles team shares his views on the Greatest Of All Time debate and the return of Novak Djokovic at the year’s second Grand Slam.
- The 45-year-old also unpacks what it will be like at Wimbledon this year with the event stripped of ranking points and if Serena Williams will launch her comeback.
Sport24 asked: Your assessment of the state of SA men’s tennis?
Jeff Coetzee: It’s a pity with Kevin Anderson (retiring), but he had such a great career. In the Open era, he was one of our best. In terms of Lloyd Harris (who crashed out in the first round of Roland Garros against Richard Gasquet), he is going through some stuff. He is not as confident as he was last year but it’s just a matter of time to figure all those things out. He has the capability to be top 20. He might drop a lot this year (in rankings), but hopefully, he can swing things around on the grass and beyond that. If not, then he will go back to the drawing board. I believe he is such a great athlete and a really good player. Even the best players experience dips in form over the course of their career, but they find ways (to win). It’s how you get out of it that ultimately makes you a better player and person. In that sense, Lloyd is our driving force as Kevin was for many years. We also have Raven Klaasen (in the doubles), who is also at the end of his career but still doing well. Beyond that, we need something and most of our next generation of talent is going to come through the college system.
Sport24 asked: Where do you stand in terms of the GOAT debate?
Jeff Coetzee: I think Novak Djokovic has a point to prove at the year’s second slam. He would think to himself, “Nadal, well done, you have got your 21st but I’m gunning for you!” I think he wants really badly to show the world that he can do it. If you look at the draw, it’s interesting because Djokovic, Nadal and Carlos Alcaraz are in the same half. I think Nadal hides it (his chronic foot injury) really well. From what I’ve known, he is never a guy to show it, even now, late in his career. I have always said he has one more French Open in him. Rafa is very difficult to beat at Roland Garros and his record speaks for itself. There is something about that court for him. It’s okay to beat Nadal best of three sets, but the best of five is very difficult. I’m a big Roger Federer fan, but I’ve got to be honest and say him winning another Grand Slam will be really tough. He has had a great career and I doubt whether Nadal and Djokovic will play ’til 40. Federer is like Michael Jordan in the sense that he will be even bigger after he retires. He is so well-respected, has much to offer and everyone will want a piece of him. I think Djokovic will finish with the most slams and what makes him so good is that he is mentally strong and really wants it (the record). He can equal Nadal’s slam tally right here in Paris.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of the meteoric rise of Alcaraz?
Jeff Coetzee: He is a kid who is going to do amazing things in the next few years. He looks like a player who has Federer, Djokovic and Nadal all in one person. I remember seeing him in Barcelona when he was 15. When he was in the gym, we were all standing on the terrace and saying, “Wow, he’s impressive for that age.” Fast forward four years and what makes him so special is that he has everything (in his game). He has shown maturity in the way he has handled the pressure and from a tactical front, he has the ability to come into the net. He’s got Nadal’s fight, Djokovic’s return game and a bit of everything like Federer. He’s so complete at this age, but the scary thing is he’s still improving. Physically, he’s still going to get bigger and stronger and mentally, where he is now is only the start because normally, you develop it over time. I think his team has done an absolutely phenomenal job. His coach Juan Carlos Ferrero saw the talent, took him in and grooved the guy. A few years ago, Alcaraz already had the whole team – the agent, trainer and physio – so they honed him from a young age. He is so fit that it’s actually remarkable. When you watch him on the court, he doesn’t even breathe heavily. Now everyone is talking about Alcaraz and he is the next generation. Let’s see how he handles the best of five sets because that is what has made the Big Three so good.
Sport24 asked: Your take on the ever-polarising Nick Kyrgios?
Jeff Coetzee: Nick Kyrgios has a lot of talent and is an entertainer if you want to put it that way. Nick and his doubles partner Thanasi Kokkinakis deserved to win the Australian Open men’s title because they played really well. But on the other hand (in terms of on-court antics), it’s what you get with Kyrgios. You either like the guy or you don’t. I don’t agree with certain things he does, but he’s a born entertainer. I think he’s good for the sport in some ways, but you also have to draw the line at some point. It doesn’t matter which player you are or what ranking you have, there needs to be consistency. The umpires really need to get on top of these guys because they really push the boundaries with some of the rules. Without taking away from the players themselves, the umpire is there like a conductor. The top players have such a pivotal role to play not just on-court but off-court too. They are role models and a lot of children look up to them so they need to behave accordingly.
Sport24 asked: Do no points at Wimbledon make it pointless?
Jeff Coetzee: It’s very tough because ultimately, the money is there, but the points are not. You play for money because you’ve got to make a living, but as tennis players, we compete for ranking points. The four slams have the biggest points and ultimately, what we play for is to win and defend our points. It’s a very difficult situation for the ATP to deal with and I think this issue is bigger than the sport. Personally, I think that whatever we come up with, there isn’t an easy answer. The UK government said there would be no Russian or Belarussians. I personally feel like the Wimbledon organisers could have gone to the ATP/WTA and said, “This is what the government has told us and how can we work together?” Instead, we just saw the player ban from those countries splashed in the media. As an organisation, we stand for anti-discrimination so they had to do something from a tour perspective. That was probably the only card they had (to remove ranking points from Wimbledon), but it’s not the best way forward. This year the players will suffer, but hopefully, the ATP/WTA has some leeway and negotiations with Wimbledon are fruitful in the future. We want the sport to keep growing and the fans to keep coming. The top players don’t need the money so I don’t know if they will play. As the biggest female athlete, Naomi Osaka doesn’t need the money and would just like ranking points. She said as much with no points at Wimbledon making it “pointless”.
Sport24 asked: Is Serena Williams set for a Wimbledon comeback?
Jeff Coetzee: From what I have heard, I think she will start (her season) at Wimbledon and will be preparing for that. There is no reason really for her to play because there are no points and she doesn’t need the money. But I think Wimbledon holds a special place for her and she would like to play. What the Williams sisters have done for players of colour in the sport has been huge. I watched the King Richard movie on one of my flights and it was amazing to see Serena’s drive from the beginning. She has had a remarkable journey and I think we are going to see a lot more Serenas and Venuses over the next 10 years or so. The Williams sisters made a huge difference in a predominantly white sport and if they can do it then why not others? In South Africa, I think the picture is changing, but when I was there for two years, my aim was to do it (transformation) in the right way so that black players don’t become a number. I was very firm in terms of doing it on merit.