By Kenny “Coach KP” Puvogel – Tennis Coach
During my tenure as vice-president of Warner Bros record, I worked closely with the rock band R.E.M. At an R.E.M. show in Atlanta in 1995, I met then #1 player, 4 time grand slam champ, Davis cup hero, captain, and now expert commentator Jim Courier. We struck up an immediate friendship that lasts to this day. Jim was an avid musician and I was an avid wanna-be tennis player. We talked endlessly about tennis and music and still do.
When Jim came to play at the Mercedes Open at UCLA in 1997, he invited me to sit in the player’s coach’s box with his then head coach Brad Stine. I sat there cheering him on for every match he played, and learned very valuable information from one of the best and most knowledgeable coaches in the game (Stine). Jim won the tournament that year.
I met many professional tennis players, coaches, referees, tournament directors through Jim. In 1997 Jim introduced me to another #1 player Patrick Rafter who went on to win the US Open in ’97 and ’98. I also met accomplished doubles player Sandon Stolle, son of former Aussie great Fred Stolle. Sandon and partner Cyril Suk went on to win US Open doubles championship in 1998.
Jim, Rafter and Sandon were total music junkies. Funny thing about tennis players – they would rather be major recording artists than tennis players. ME? I would’ve traded in my vice-presidency to be a pro tennis player at the drop of a dime!
Jim didn’t return to L.A. in 1998 to defend his title, but Rafter and Sandon did come to play as a doubles team that year. They invited me to be their guest at the tourney with tickets and passes to all their matches. In 1998, male player’s coaches were allowed to come on the court at ATP events and coach their players at changeovers and set changes. This has cease to exist at the present time.
Rafter and Sandon were playing in the quarterfinals on Friday night. Rafter had lost his singles match to UCLA’s own pro Justin Gimelstob earlier in the day. We were sitting in the hospitality suite waiting for them to go out and play and I asked, “So, are you two going to have a coach tonight?” (They hadn’t used a coach for any of their matches up to this point.) Rafter turned to me and said, “You are, KP.” Sandon laughed. Rafter said, “I’m dead serious. You are, KP.” I was dying inside.
We left the hospitality suite – they to the court, me to the coach’s box – sitting there by myself this time. I sat and watched intensely trying to think what I would say if I was called upon, hoping and praying they wouldn’t call me over. They lost the first set.
THEN IT HAPPENED!! Rafter looked me right in the eye and gestured with his finger for me to come onto the court. Coach’s pass hanging from my lanyard, I walked onto the court. At about the same time, the other team’s coach Cristo Von Rensburg, walked out to talk to his team. All I could remember thinking to myself was Cristo thinking “what the hell is this guy doing on the court going over to talk to Rafter and Stolle?”
Rafter said, “Ok, Coach, what has to change?” Me: “Patrick, you have to kick it up a notch. You have to play better. Sandon is carrying you. You have to forget about losing earlier!!” FUHGEDDABOUDIT, as they say in New York.
They went on to win the quarterfinal that night in 3 sets, and took the title on Sunday. They were the doubles champs of 1998.
That night and the whole weekend I had so many calls from friends who were sitting in the stands that night. Almost all of them asked three things: Was that YOU I saw walking on the court? What did Rafter and Sandon want from YOU? What the hell did YOU say to them?