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From Westville to the world, leading tennis commentator Robbie Koenig
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.”