29 June 2020 – Sport has played a defining role in the life of Waylon Murray. As a schoolboy, it led him to Westville Boys’ High (WBHS), then on to a professional rugby career, during which he wore the green and gold of the Springboks, and then, more recently, it led him back to WBHS.
In his primary school days, he attended Berea West where he initially excelled at cricket and athletics. “I really enjoyed my time there and I had a lot of positive people steering me in the right direction, especially with regards to sport,” he said in a recent chat with KZN10.com’s Brad Morgan at WBHS.
His mother did not want Waylon playing contact sports, but an approach by the Principal Philippe Paillard led to her consenting to Waylon playing rugby in grade 5. He ran out at eighth-man but, he admitted, he was undersized.
“Even when I got into high school, I was tiny in comparison,” he reckoned. “I had a growth spurt in the middle of grade 9 and into grade 10. I was also a year younger than most of my classmates. I finished school at 17.”
Waylon’s move to high school also coincided with a move to the backline due to his speed and footwork. “I enjoyed tackling, so I gravitated towards centre. It was close to the action. I started in the pack and then ran away from it when I got into high school,” he said with a laugh.
Although many of his classmates made the move to Westville, for a long time Waylon had no idea what lay in store for him regarding a secondary school destination. He explained: “At that time, I didn’t come from a privileged background. Philippe Paillard suggested, with the help of a few teachers, that I apply for a scholarship. I didn’t know where I was going to be. I was very fortunate that sport gave me an opportunity at Westville.”
As the son of a single mother, he would not have had an opportunity to attend Westville without that scholarship, Waylon said. “Nestor Pierides and Trevor Hall decided to take a chance on me and I came to the school.”
Initially, it took him a little time to adjust to Westville because he was, in his own words, “very introverted”, but he felt protected because of the support of Nestor and Trevor. “They were very supportive and they gave me a lot of opportunities to excel at school. My mom lent on the school a number of times when she couldn’t manage and every time they helped and were there for me.
“Being involved in team sport, even though I was socially awkward to a degree (in grade eight, I was still trying to figure out who I was), I was very grateful that I played with many good leaders and good people. It was helpful that I could play sport, coming in as a small fish into a big pond.”
Westville has a well-earned reputation for academic excellence and that, fortunately, was not a difficult transition for Waylon. He explained: “I have always been a disciplined person…and I assumed the role of head of the household (at least in my head) because my mom was a single parent.
“I always carried that weight of expectation with me. Whatever I did when I was at school, I was incredibly disciplined, which helped me in my [rugby] career. Obviously you need talent, but I wasn’t the most talented rugby player to ever have a professional career, but I did know how to be a professional and work hard. That helped me jump start my career.”
Sport helped Waylon integrate into life at Westville and he excelled in many different sports, playing for the 1st football team for three years, the 1st cricket side for three years, the first rugby team for three-and-a-half years [before the introduction of Bok Smart, which nowadays would have prevented that happening]. He also shone in athletics: in hurdles, long jump and the triple jump.
In 2018, Waylon presented his Springbok blazer to Headmaster Trevor Hall. The blazer now resides in the WBHS Griffin Room. (Photo: https://www.facebook.com/westvilleboyshighschool/ Westville Boys’ High on Facebook)
He named Doc Cowie as being a big influence on his cricket. Waylon was an opening bowler and middle order batsman who in matric played with future Dolphins’ batsman Martin Bekker and future Dolphins’ all-rounder Robbie Frylinck, who would go on to play T20 cricket for South Africa.
“I used to bat a lot in the middle order with Robbie Frylinck. He’s obviously matured and got a lot better after school,” he smiled. “I remember a lot of innings where we batted together, and we also bowled together, of course.”
In his matric year, when he was also the Head of School, he found that he had lost some of his love for cricket because of the long hours it demanded of its players. He started to turn his focus towards rugby. “I thought that was maybe a sign that I needed to concentrate more on rugby, even though I continued to play first team cricket. In football, I was never amazing, but because I was good at most sports I could manage to some degree.”
He added: “I enjoyed playing different sports. Looking back on it now, I am very grateful that I knew every season Nestor would come to me and say what he needed me to do. It was quite refreshing; after a long rugby season you look forward to football, and after football you look forward to cricket.”
In matric, though, there was disappointment when he missed out on selection for the KZN Schools rugby team. “I had a good year, but I was a bit young at only 16-and-a-half,” Waylon said.
The Westville 1st XV of 2003 included Waylon Murray as captain and Njabulo “Jabz” Zulu, his centre partner, who today coaches the Westville 1st XV with Jeremy McLaren.
“The Sharks at that time expressed an interest in me and they wanted me to do post-matric. I came back and fortunately I made the Craven Week team. I wasn’t on the radar for SA Schools or anything like that. But I played all the Craven Week games. We had a really talented team.”
The KZN line-up included Alastair Hargreaves (DHS), who captained SA Schools, future England international Brad Barritt (Kearsney), who also made the SA Schools side, and Westville’s Chris Micklewood (who would make SA Schools the following year) and Njabulo Zulu, among others. Zulu, Waylon’s partner at centre for Westville, is now coach of the Westville 1st XV with Jeremy McLaren.
Throughout his high school career, Waylon had paired with Brad Barritt when turning out for Pinetown and Districts. Missing out on the Craven Week team in 2003 was a big blow, but reuniting the following year was an enjoyable experience, he said: “It was good to be back with him that year and to finally get what I felt was recognition for my talent at the time.”
He joined the Sharks Academy in his first year out of school, but was in for a nasty shock when he didn’t crack the nod for the College Rovers under-20 side. But that proved to be fortuitous.
“Someone approached me at the Union and said there was an opportunity for me to go to Jaguars and play in the Premier Division, so I would jump a few levels. He felt I had been overlooked.”
It proved to be a fantastic move for Waylon. At Jaguars, he joined up with players, many of them from the Sharks Academy, who were part of the development programme.
“It became one of the best teams in the Division at that time,” he said. “JP Pietersen was in that side, Dusty Noble ended up playing for the Sharks, Howard Noble played Springboks Sevens, so we were a bunch of misfits in a sense and we landed at Jaguars. We just exploded. We were beating teams with a really young side. Most of us were under-20, under-21.”
Dick Muir was coach of the Sharks at that time and re-introduced club trials which, again, proved to be to Waylon’s benefit.
“Dick Muir had three rounds of trials. The Sharks players could watch. At the final trials, if you were chosen (I think there were 30 players), you then had a chance to have trials against the Sharks.
“Dusty, JP and I ended up making it all the way through. From not making College Rovers, to going to Jaguars, to going to Currie Cup trials and being chosen for the Currie Cup squad that first year was an incredible, fairy tale start for me.”
It was a remarkable elevation in a very short time and it was mind-blowing for the young centre. “I was star-struck. I was a year out of school and suddenly playing with these professionals I looked up to,” Waylon said. “But I was very fortunate that the Sharks had a very experienced group of leaders at the time. A lot of youth was injected, so there was a really nice mix.
“John Smit, AJ Venter, Percy Mongomery, all these guys that were in that group did so much for the development of the young guys. It was a really nice culture. You weren’t afraid to fail. It was a good place to be. We went on to have a good season a year after.”
His debut for the Sharks came against Griquas at King’s Park. In a game he doesn’t remember too clearly, one incident stood out: “I remember chasing through a kick and thinking I was about to score a try and Henno Mentz came in and got there before me,” he said with a rueful grin. “It’s all these weird memories. The pace of the game meant there was no let-up. For me, the whole game was over in a flash.”
Waylon had started studies in marketing when he joined the Sharks Academy, but his rapid ascent to the senior team soon put them on hold. In retrospect, he said, that was a good thing as marketing was not something he was interested in at all.
A screenshot taken from a YouTube conversation, dated 25 April 2020, between Waylon Murray and Jabz Zulu during the Covid-19 lockdown (Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h9HxFTxaywQ)
By 2007, Waylon was in the Springbok reckoning and when Jake White opted to rest his frontline players ahead of the Rugby World Cup, Waylon got to pull on the famous green and gold jersey during the Tri-Nations.
Then, when Jean de Villiers was injured in the first game of the World Cup, it appeared that he was in line for a call-up to the biggest tournament of them all. Jake White, though, had other plans and opted for Wayne Julies, a player he was more familiar with, but one who had played little rugby for the Bulls that season. It hurt, Waylon admitted.
Nonetheless, during that season he got to spend valuable time with a very experienced Springbok squad. “I absolutely enjoyed being a part of the set-up,” Waylon said. “That Springbok team was really special in terms of talent. They knew how to win and they were a different breed.
“I stayed with them for a couple of months, even in the games I wasn’t playing, as part of the tour party. That was enjoyable. I got to spend time with incredible players, some of the best to ever grace the game.”
In 2007, Waylon also helped the Sharks top the Super Rugby table. They then downed the Blues 34-18 in the semi-finals at King’s Park to secure a home final against the Bulls. In a thrilling back-and-forth showdown, the Sharks were pipped 20-19 in the dying moments of the title-decider after a Bryan Habana try which had resulted after a disputed steal in the loose by Pedrie Wannenberg. It is the closest the Sharks have yet come to lifting the Super Rugby title.
As a young player making his mark, considerations of playing elsewhere were not at the forefront of his thinking but, after a very good run of over five years with the Sharks, Waylon found himself with a crucial decision to make when the Lions made an approach for his services.
“I think it is a crossroads for every professional rugby career,” he said. “You mature with the game and you learn to have honest introspection with yourself, including when it is the right time to go. I remember at the time the Sharks still wanted me to stay, but I had had a couple of injuries. I went to the Lions.
“It was a hard decision to leave, but I was probably going to get more opportunity with them. It was difficult leaving my safety net. As a competitive person, you want to prove people wrong and show you can come back from injury, even stronger. There was unfinished business. Going to the Lions felt like a fresh start.”
The transition was difficult in the beginning, and Waylon questioned himself, asking why he had made the move. But those misgivings disappeared. “When you push through an uncomfortable space and just stay and hang on, you get the reward,” he said. “That was the case with Joburg. I absolutely loved it. I loved playing for John Mitchell. It was nice to get the full backing of a coach.”
Mitchell has earned a reputation as a tough coach, but it was his straight-forward nature that appealed to Waylon and he took lessons from that approach. He explained: “John didn’t skirt around honest conversations and I enjoyed that. That’s how I have tried to maintain my relationships afterwards with coaches. You tell me exactly what you are thinking, rather than let me assume what it is. To have those hard confrontational talks, especially in pro sports, can be difficult. But I would much rather have that honest feedback.”
Towards the end of his time with the Lions, Waylon underwent a knee operation, which ultimately led to him leaving the union and signing with the then Southern Kings. Injuries, he said, are something every player has to deal with through the course of a season.
“I think every rugby player, to a certain degree, never comes into a match fresh, even if they are injury-free. You are always carrying some sort of knock. It’s about trying to get through the season and staying as fresh as possible, which is, I suppose, the nature of the game. Injuries are tough [to deal with], especially when you get a bit of momentum. I was hurt at different times when I had built up momentum.”
Recalling the first time he had to deal with a serious injury as a professional player, he said it was challenging, but also a time of growth: “The first time around, it is quite a dark place to be. You can’t see the finish line and you are forced to focus day in and day out on what you are doing. It’s quite tough to find motivation. In that time, I learnt to find some inner resilience, in terms of being more professional and setting new goals, smaller goals, and managing them.
The Southern Kings’ experience was memorable, he said, because of the people of Port Elizabeth and how they wholeheartedly supported the team.
The next five years were somewhat nomadic as he turned out for the Bulls, the Sharks again, and the Kings after that. In 2016, he tied the knot, marrying Nicci Goodwin in a wedding that was shared on Top Billing. Then, in 2017, he moved abroad to join the French Fédérale 1 club Mâcon. It proved to be a pivotal decision in Waylon’s life.
Waylon’s wedding to Nicci in Durban was a stylish affair which was featured on Top Billing.
Recalling that time, he said: “I went to France. My son Grayson was born there. It was an incredibly difficult time, but I loved France. I was there for 16 months, not very long. I should have gone earlier. I was with Mâcon, so I was close to Lyon. It was always a dream of mine to get overseas. I was not playing in the top division, but it was still a chance to travel.
“That season put a lot of things into perspective. I didn’t feel a pressure not to achieve – I was always professional and I worked hard, no matter where I went – but understanding where I was in my life, what I wanted next, and what I wanted for my family became clearer and the decision became a lot easier as the season went on. I could have milked another one or two seasons, but I thought it was time to have a little bit more stability.” The question became what form would that stability take?
“I had spoken to [Westville Headmaster] Trevor Hall throughout my entire career,” Waylon said. “I had reached out to him when I first got to France and asked how things were going at the school. We started to talk a little bit more and he told me that if I wanted to come back he would create an opportunity for me, which would give me a chance to give back to the boys through my experiences.
“At the time it wasn’t at the forefront of my thinking, but near the end of the season, after my son was born, I wanted to start afresh and try something different, and put my mark on a different project.” The move to Westville was agreed upon.
Waylon with Guy Coombe, who coached the 2003 Westville 1st XV that also featured Jabz Zulu, and senior sports officer Thomas Jackson. (Photo: https://www.facebook.com/westvilleboyshighschool/ Westville Boys’ High on Facebook)
When he arrived at the school, Waylon was tasked with guiding, counselling and supporting high-performance players across all sports. But the position of Sports Director was soon to become available.
He explained: “When I came here, Sharmin Naidoo was the Director of Sport, but he was in the process of leaving. I had the opportunity to start something different with the Sports Department. Sharmin was here for 10 years and he did incredible work, but I wanted to do things in a different way.
“I wanted to educate and help the kids to understand that sport is great and we would like [some of them] to have professional careers, but what is more important is your contribution to the world and how well-rounded you are when you come out of the school. It is about managing expectations and trying to create good individuals that are going to return to our legacy when they leave school.
“If they make it as professional sportsman, so be it. For me, what keeps professional sports going are the kids that continue to play after school, including socially. That’s why I always encourage kids that if it is their passion, in rugby, for example, but you’re not making it professionally, just play because you love it. There is a shelf life to your sporting time and you won’t have those gifts forever.”
It is important, too, that boys should enjoy the process of learning and growing together and not just focus on fixtures and results, he added. “I tell kids they always think about their big match on the weekend, but the actual room for growth is in the week.
“I recently spoke with Brad Mooar, who is an assistant coach with the Crusaders, and he was a really good mentor for me, because he was with the Kings before he went to the Crusaders, and he always used to tell me not to worry about the weekend, the week is where you have fun and grow. The matches are extra. As soon as you look too far ahead you stumble.”
Returning to Westville has been an enjoyable experience, Waylon said: “It is a very supportive environment and I think that’s always what makes Westville unique. It’s a really comfortable place where you feel you can be yourself.
“For me, it’s that mind-set of being of service to others, so I felt when I got here there were so many people that wanted to help. I am the type of leader that doesn’t want to have all the answers. I want to lead and grow with people. You learn from others and you get ideas from them.
“I am really grateful to be able to come into a place where I can be creative and try to do something special in a school that has changed, but which has maintained the foundations it was built upon.
“For me, it’s kind of a fairy tale [to return to Westville] because during my rugby career it was tough going contract to contract and moving to new places. Now, I have come to a place where I can finally breathe and relax, where I don’t have to worry about getting up and performing. It’s a different type of pressure. Being in this environment is very conducive for growth.”
Back in the Westville colours and loving his job as Director of Sport, Waylon Murray.
Casting an eye to the present day, 2020 looked poised to be a memorable year for Westville sport, especially the winter sports of rugby and hockey. The rugby team was expected to be one the school’s best teams yet, while the hockey side was coming off an undefeated 2019. But then Covid-19 flipped school sport and the world on its head.
Reflecting on what Westville and the school’s leading sportsmen have missed out on, Waylon said it would have been great to have outstanding teams, but the focus has switched to helping the boys deal with the disappointment of missing out on their season: “We’ve tried to be in constant conversation with the boys in terms of what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling and not concentrating on the loss, because that is what it feels like.
“Expectations were high and they wanted an unbeaten season, but it is sport. We hoped the season would turn out that way. We don’t know now and will never know [how it would have turned out]. We know who we are and we understand the boys are most important to us.”
He expects them to deal with the setback well, he added, saying character and resilience define the Westville boy.
“We’ve got a great leadership group under Gavin Sweet, who does our leadership,” he added. “I work closely with Gavin and share a lot of ideas. We do a lot of videocasts, interviewing people, so we are really like-minded in that sense. We definitely support each other when we are dealing with an issue. That culture of collaboration is vital. We grow as people, so leadership and emotional intelligence are important.”
Concluding, he said: “It’s been incredible coming back to see what has happened at Westville, the successes the school has had, the good years and the bad years. There has definitely been a shift since I was in school, with Westville continuing to rise and excelling in sport and academics.
“We always say sport is a good outlet for the boys, but academics is their primary focus. They need to understand that.” And those words, coming from a former professional sportsman and the school’s Director of Sport, are sage and pleasing words indeed.
9 June 2020 – Born and raised in Westville, Robbie Koenig turned a love for tennis into a pro career and when that was over he took his connection with the sport to even greater heights by becoming one of the world’s leading tennis commentators. KZN10.com’s Brad Morgan chatted with him recently.
As a young sportsman at Berea West Senior Primary school, Robbie also showed talent in cricket and was good enough to represent Natal B as “a bit of an all-rounder, jack-of-all-trades, but master of none.” But tennis was the sport he excelled in and when he moved on to Westville Boys’ High, which his brother had also attended, he became part of a remarkable hotbed of talent.
“Westville was number one in the country,” Robbie recalled. “I’ll tell you the team that won the national schools championships. It was the top four players in the team, playing singles and doubles. It was me; Ellis Ferreira, a Grand Slam champion in doubles; Roger Mills, who went on to play College tennis in the states; and Kirk Haygarth, who went on to play on the Tour as well. Myles Wakefield might have been there already. Maybe it was six guys. Myles went on to a good career on the Tour too.
“Westville in those days and Natal, in particular, were unbelievable. I remember we played one of the Joburg schools in Joburg, and the winners got a trip overseas.
“We had such a rich history. Going back a number of years, there were people like Royce Deppe, Grant Adams, and Bruce Griffith.”
The Westville 1st tennis team of 1988 included three players who would go on to play the game professionally: Robbie Koenig, Myles Wakefield and Kirk Haygarth.
“School was just a happy place for me,” he said. “The environment at Westville was just so positive. You had people like [future Headmaster] Trevor Hall, who was the Deputy Head when I was there. He taught me some accounting. Again, an ultra-positive guy, so supportive of the tennis environment, because he was a former tennis player.
“Overall, my over-riding feeling was that it provided such a supportive framework. Whether you were excelling in academics or sport, you were given the same credit. Doing well at tennis, I was made to feel as good as the guy who was dux of the school. It is testimony to the teachers that were there, so many good people. They knew people skills.”
From an early age, Robbie was coached by John Yuill, who had ranked as high as 52nd in singles in the world during his career. “He was far and away the most instrumental influence in my career,” Robbie acknowledged.” John’s outstanding ability as an exponent of the serve and volley game would later help Robbie become a four-time Grand Slam semi-finalist, three times in mixed doubles and once in men’s doubles.
An incredibly talented squad of youngsters until the tutelage of Yuill also helped Robbie develop his game further. Then there was his uncle Guy (Gaetan) Koenig, who had represented South Africa in the Davis Cup. He served as an inspiration.
In club tennis, he learnt lessons playing mixed doubles that would later prove invaluable. “I remember playing mixed league on the weekends at Westville Tennis Club when I was 15, 16 years old. Ladies of a certain age, around 45, didn’t move that well, so I had to learn how to cover 90 percent of the tennis court,” he said.
“You become unbelievably good at reading so much more. You learn how to help your partner and close down the gaps on the doubles court, things that a lot of other people maybe don’t learn. Playing much more structured league, like men’s doubles, you don’t have to worry about your other half of the court because that person has got it covered.
“I’ll tell you what, Barbie Walker made me do a lot of covering when I was playing at Westville. I probably have got to thank her for a couple of my mixed doubles semi-finals at the Grand Slams as a result of that.”
Anyone who has heard Robbie commentating on tennis will know of him as a tremendously enthusiastic and positive person. Those traits come from his dad, he explained: “My dad was one of the most outgoing, positive people to be around. I think I inherited a lot of that from him, a love for life and my enthusiasm. People like to be around me because of my positive energy. I definitely got that from him.”
Wimbledon 2017: Robbie Koenig with one of his former doubles’ partners, John-Laffnie de Jager; Wayne Ferreira, who was part of the same generation of young South African tennis talent; and David Friedland.
As a rising talent in a generation of top South African youngsters, Robbie received offers from Pepperdine University and the University of Miami, but a decision by Tennis South Africa to establish an Elite Squad to go along with the previously formed Super Squad, which included players like Wayne Ferreira and Marcos Ondruska, meant Robbie chose to forgo the university route.
The support from the national federation lasted 18 months and helped get him into the pro ranks. Seeing players like Ferreira and Ondruska (a player he regularly beat as a junior) perform well at Wimbledon and the French Open respectively, also provided inspiration that he could make it as a professional.
Reaching that level, though, took a lot of hard work because, Robbie admitted, he was not one of the most talented of the young South Africans. Kevin Ullyett, who became a three-time Grand Slam champion in doubles, described him as a never-say-die, fight-for-every point type of player on court, which Robbie appreciated.
“That’s awesome to hear that coming from a guy who had the career he had. But I needed to be the toughest fighter because I didn’t have the talent he had. I’ve always had a great work ethic and good discipline, but that was because I didn’t have the talent of guys like Ellis Ferreira and Ully, especially. He was unbelievably talented.”
On the ATP Tour, Robbie enjoyed some success in singles, but quite early on in his career he had to deal with knee problems. As a smaller player – five-foot eight and no more than 70 kilograms at his heaviest – his body was not prepared for the demands of life as a pro. He had to endure two knee operations, which sidelined him for 13 months.
“I came back after that a lot smarter,” he said. “I used to do a lot more bike work, a lot more non-impact stuff. I wish I had known that when I was 16.
He also decided to focus on doubles which, with the benefit of hindsight, he wished he had done a little earlier in his career. John Yuill’s coaching and days spent playing mixed doubles at the Westville Tennis Club were about to pay off. The fact that a lot of South African tennis was played at altitude in Johannesburg was another plus, he added.
“Many of us grew up playing or competing at high altitude, which almost made it a necessity to be able to serve and volley. That became an important part of your game and you learnt that skill from a young age. Obviously that translates so well onto the doubles tour.”
Furthermore, in doubles one had the advantage of being able to share the load with a partner, whether in victory or defeat, and the switch proved to be an easy one.
The world-renowned tennis commentator with his former doubles’ partner and former South African Davis Cup captain John-Laffnie de Jager.
“When I teamed up with John-Laffnie (de Jager), I couldn’t believe how easily I made the transition to top level doubles. It came very quickly. The first big tournament we played together was the US Open. We qualified there and made the quarter-finals.
“That was my decision to give up on my singles, really, because in one week at the US Open I made more money than I had made in the previous eight months playing singles.”
Robbie went on to make four Grand Slam semi-finals in his career, one in men’s doubles and the other three in mixed doubles.
Early on, there was a tendency to look to partner with South Africans. Later on, it was about finding players whose games melded with his, which created opportunities to win, Robbie said.
“I always felt if I had a decent partner alongside me I could do some serious damage. For a while, I think in some of the partnerships I had I was the slightly better player, but I needed someone who was better than me. When I played with guys who were better than me, I found it easy to win.”
Robbie achieved his biggest successes in mixed doubles, teaming up with the Belgian, Els Callens. He remembered teaming up with Annabel Ellwood, an Australian, and playing Els and her South African partner Chris Haggard at Wimbledon one year. They won, but he thought to himself that he and Els would make a good team.
“I bugged her for about a year or two [to play with me]. At this stage she must have been a top 20, if not top 10, player in women’s doubles. Eventually, she said ‘Okay, Robbie, let’s play’.
“It was easy to win with her. We beat some good teams. I remember beating Martina Navratilova and Leander Paes at the US Open. We made the semis there, the semis in Oz, the semis at Wimbledon in mixed. I wish she had stuck around a bit longer, or I had got hold of her a little earlier, because her game fitted perfectly with mine.”
One of his most memorable matches was the aforementioned quarterfinal with John-Laffnie de Jager at the US Open because the victory made a telling difference in his life.
“In the quarterfinals, we played Piet Norval and Neil Broad. They were top dogs at the time. The difference between losing in the quarters and losing in the semis was that the prize money had started to double by then.
“My wife was pregnant and I knew if we won this quarterfinal match and made it to the semis of the US Open we would have more than enough cash to put down a substantial deposit on my place in London. I remember being pretty nervous going into the match.
It was also played before a clash between Andre Agassi and Karol Kucera, which had to be completed, with their contest locked at two sets-all on Louis Armstrong Stadium.
“They always put a match before a match that needs to be completed,” Robbie explained. “We walk into the stadium, 8 000 people, a full house! They weren’t there to see us, they were there to see the end of the Agassi match, but everybody wanted to get there early and make sure they had a seat.
“We played a really good match in a hostile environment. We ended up winning it. It was a great match, we played unbelievably well and ran away with it in the end [winning 5-7, 6-4, 6-2].
“That was one of the coolest matches I ever played because I remember the relief when we were winning, thinking I’m going to buy that apartment in London now.
“It carried so much significance, with my wife being pregnant and now we were going to move in there. I could finally afford my own place, because we had been sharing houses in London with other people. I think from a significance point of view, making my first semi-finals at a major, it was big at the time. Obviously winning titles was big, but that’s the one that sticks in my mind a lot.”
Halfway through his final season on tour, he turned his focus to coaching. Mahesh Bhupathi, then ranked number one in doubles in the world, asked him to be his doubles’ coach and Wesley Moodie asked him to be his singles’ coach. “Basically, I had two people in my stable, so I could retire from tennis, knowing that I had a gig.”
The timing was good. Robbie had endured a frustrating time with the chopping and changing of his doubles’ partners. He had partnered with Thomas Johannson, the Australian Open doubles’ champion, but fate stepped in to bring about a change his plan when Johannson suffered an injury from a mishit ball, which struck him in an eye and put him out of tennis for half a year.
“That would have been my doubles partner, which left me without anybody to get into the events with. It’s amazing how fate turned out. I would have been relying on Thomas to get into tournaments and the next thing you know the guy is injured for the next six months. Who knows how the chain of events thereafter would have unfolded,” Robbie said.
Fate intervened again shortly after that when Robbie had a serendipitous meeting. “I was living in the UK. I’ve got an apartment just across the road from Wimbledon. It just happened that the guy two driveways up from me was a guy named Jason Goodall.
Robbie and Jason Goodall just before commentating on the Masters 1000 final in Toronto in 2014 between Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Roger Federer.
“I am walking to Southfields Tube Station, Jason is walking back. We meet each other at the corner. We were pushing our prams and I was with my wife and kid. Jason and I hadn’t seen each other for a while. I knew him vaguely.
“He stops me and asks me ‘Hey Robbie, how is it going? Long time, no see. What are you doing here?’ He said he lived just up the road. I said me too. He asked me what I was doing and I told him I was coaching Mahesh and Wesley. I asked him what he was doing and he said he was working for a company, ATP Media, and he was doing some commentary on the Masters 1000 events.
“I asked who he did it with and he said John Barrett (a Wimbledon commentator for almost three decades). He asked if it was something I would ever be interested in doing. I said not really. I said I had a good coaching gig. He said ‘If you ever want to get into it, or try it out, you’re going to be at these tournaments anyway, here’s my number. Get in touch if you want to give it a go.”
Later, at tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami, Robbie realised why Jason had invited him to give commentary a go. “At that stage there were only three commentators. There were the two of them and there was this guy from the States and the workload was insane.” And John Barrett, then about 80 years of age, was about to retire.
In Indian Wells, after finishing training one day, Robbie went to see Jason. He helped with commentary for a set or two. “It was fun. I wasn’t looking for a job, but I was very natural. Two days later, the same thing happens. I go in for a set here or there. The same thing happens in Miami and the same thing happens in Hamburg, when that was a Masters 1000 tournament. I would do a couple of sets in a row, but didn’t think anything of it.”
Robbie showing Andrew Rueb, a former doubles’ partner and current coach of the Harvard men’s tennis team, the booth at the ATP World Tour finals in London in 2014.
But then, after Wimbledon, Wesley Moodie decided he no longer wanted to work with Robbie. “Suddenly, I am only getting 50 percent of my income, because I was only working with Mahesh. That’s when I realised how fickle a coach/player relationship could be. You don’t have any contracts. When a guy says he doesn’t want to work with you anymore, you’re kind of left in limbo. It was right after that happened that I thought hang on, this commentating gig might be a nice long-term security thing for me.”
In Cincinnati, Robbie did some more commentary work and was then approached by the Head of Production with an offer for a full time job the following year. After a little back and forth, terms were agreed and the stage was set for the next stage of his career. “The bonus was I going to get paid in pounds and they paid for all your expenses,” Robbie said.
“I started in 2007 in Indian Wells. Those were the early days of ATP Media, the world feed. The first couple of years were brutal, just three commentators working 10 hour days. You basically did two sets on, one set off, the whole day. The beauty about that is that I learnt all the skills very quickly. I learnt how to do colour commentary and I also learnt how to do the lead. If I had joined an international company, like ESPN, I would have only been doing the colour commentary.
“My biggest asset was that I had always had a very good mentality on how to see a tennis match. That was my greatest strength, the ability to analyse a tennis match. I think that came across well to the viewers from early on, and certainly to the guys in the production team. My natural analysis of the match was on point. I was reasonably articulate. I didn’t have a funny accent. I had a nice neutral accent, which was for a worldwide audience, and Jason and I bounced off of each other very well.”
Since then, it has been a fulfilling journey for the Westville old boy. Last year, he joined Amazon Prime, which has taken over tennis in the United Kingdom from Sky Sports.
“You won’t hear me as much now in South Africa,” he said. “You’ll hear me at the majors, except the French I don’t do. I do the world feed for three of the majors. Now for the ATP 1000s and 500s, all of them I do for Amazon Prime in the UK. They’ve got the men’s and women’s rights now. Last year, they signed a four or five year deal for the ATP rights, and now they’ve got the women on board, so it is all on one platform.”
As a commentator, two matches have stood out as being very significant to Robbie personally: “The 2017 Australian Open final because, remember, Federer was 3-1 down in the fifth, he had just got broken. I put off my microphone and I looked at my co-commentators and I said ‘I can’t believe it, Nadal’s got him again.
“It looked like Rafa was going on to win it and what happens? Roger wins five straight games to win the match. It was incredible. The drama in that match was off the charts. Roger had just come back from injury and the atmosphere was mind-blowing. That was right up there, if you talk about big matches.
As a commentator, calling the 2017 Australian Open final between two of the all-time greats, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, was an incredible experience for Robbie Koenig as he witnessed the Swiss maestro capture his 18th Grand Slam title five years after his 17th. (Photo: YouTube)
“The other one, I did for radio at Wimbledon was when Andy Murray won Wimbledon for the first time. He beat Novak Djokovic in the final. It had special meaning for me.
“I first came across Andy when he was 15 and Chris Haggard and I played doubles against him at Nottingham, which was one of the warm-up tournaments before Wimbledon. We played this wildcard pair, and he was half of that team, and I could not believe how well this kid returned serve. Chris was a lefty and had a nasty lefty serve on grass. In the first five games, this kid was incredible. If I crossed, he went down my line. If I didn’t cross, he returned it on Chris’ shoelaces. We were staring at him, trying to intimidate him.
“Anyway, we ended up playing everything to his partner, Martin Lee, who we both knew well. He eventually crumbled. This 15-year-old kid, Andy Murray, was as steely as could be.
“After the match, he walked over to his mom and his mom put her arm around him. I was speaking to my family and I walked over to them. I said ‘this kid of yours, if you’re the mother, he’s fantastic, an unbelievable talent’. Of course, it was Judy [Murray]. She said ‘Thanks very much, Robbie’. I said ‘If he just keeps it up, this kid is going to be a proper talent and I hope he can go on to do good things because he’s a proper player.’ Andy was standing there.”
Robbie kept following Andy Murray’s career and that included seeing him make a couple of Grand Slam finals before being beaten at the final hurdle each time.
“Eventually, he wins at Wimbledon. I remember – this is what made it so cool – I didn’t know for sure if I was going to be calling the final or not, because there is a big team of people. After he won his quarter-final match, I was lying in my bed one evening and I thought if I get to call the final what am I going to say if he wins? Because I often script. I have two scripts, one for each player in the finals, if they win. I want to do it justice.
“Something came to me that evening that Murray was going to win, and I had better have a good line when he wins because I had watched his journey.
“The words that I used were something to the effect that ‘There will be tears in Dunblane today, but they won’t be tears of sadness. They will be tears of joy because one of their own has won the greatest title our sport has to offer, and in doing so he has beaten the best player on the planet, Novak Djokovic’.
“That was my reference to the sadness that had gone down in Dunblane, because Andy was part of that shooting (16 children and one teacher shot dead and 15 others injured by Thomas Hamilton in March 1996).
“He was at that school. He wasn’t in the gym. He was in the next class to be in that gymnasium where that guy shot everybody. His mother had given lifts to the guy who had opened fire on the kids at the school. So, it was a subtle reference to that. It came to me in that moment.
Commentating on Andy Murray’s victory over Novak Djokovic in the 2013 Wimbledon final was an emotional experience for Robbie Koenig because of his connection with the British star. (Photo: YouTube)
“Andy won it, and that feeling that I had when he won makes me emotional even now when I think about it. I watched his whole journey take place, and I was part of it. I remember the Head of Production said to me that was one of the best closing lines for a match that he had ever heard. It was inspired in that one moment, lying in my bed at night. That’s why that sticks with me.”
A question he has often been asked is how he copes with being the father to three children and having to spend a lot of time far away from home. It turns out, it’s not an issue. In fact, if anything, it’s been a good thing.
“The big difference is that it is all my kids have ever known. It’s completely normal for Dad to come and go. My wife, Giselle, has been amazing.
“You still miss out on stuff, but I have often said I probably get to spend more time with my kids than a lot of parents who work a normal job, because when I am home I am free. I don’t have any work when I am here.
“I am at work 24 weeks a year. I always remind people I have 28 weeks’ holiday. How many people have 28 weeks’ holiday? That’s how you have got to think of it.”
He might spend a lot of time away from home, but Robbie Koenig gets to spend more time with his family than most fathers.
Travel, too, is not a chore. “There is nothing to complain about,” Robbie said. “Working for Amazon, you fly. What a company to work for, unbelievable. You’re flying business class everywhere.
“I’m watching the most golden generation of tennis and talking about it on a daily basis. I’ve got to visit some of the most beautiful cities in the world. If I am complaining about my job, I need a reality check. That’s the thing: I am so blessed to do what I do. I know very few people who absolutely love their job. I count my blessings every day. I get to do something and be involved in this generation of the Big Three.
“Now, my kids are a bit older. The family is starting to travel a bit more with me. We all went to Wimbledon last year, which was super-cool. We went down to Australia and New Zealand at the start of the year. They came to the ATP Cup for a few days before heading home.
“Hopefully I can keep it going for a few more years and my kids can get to see the world at the same time as me.”