The local tennis community boasts some of the top coaches in the world, and with this wealth of talent available, New York Tennis Magazine took the opportunity to pick the brains of some of these coaches. These coaches share their thoughts on a wide variety of tennis topics and issues, ranging from junior tennis to the professional game.
Meet the participants:
Gabriel Balesterois a tennis professional at Generation Next Tennis in Great Neck. He is a former number one singles player at Adelphi University, where he was an all-American student-athlete. A former Top 20 player nationally in Brazil, Balestero has experience competing in international and professional tournaments, and has now transitioned into coaching.
Alex Bessarabovis a Tennis Professional for the NTC Tennis Programs at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Bessarabov played high school tennis at Lindenhurst High School before playing collegiately at Farmingdale State University, where he was named first-team All-Skyline Conference during his senior year. Earlier this year, he was honored with USTA Eastern's Junior Team Tennis Award.
Gilad Bloomis a former Israeli Davis Cup player and two-time Olympian, played on the ATP Tour 1983-1995, reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open in 1990, reached a highest ranking of 61 in singles, was Israel Singles Champion three times. Bloom has been running his own tennis program since 2000 and also was director of tennis at John McEnroe Tennis Academy for two years.
Jay Harrisis the Co-General Manger/Director of Tennis at SPORTIME Roslyn and the Director of John McEnroe Tennis Academy’s College Recruiting Combine. He was the Head Men’s Tennis Coach at Brown University for eight years, before joining the SPORTIME team in 2010.He was named USTA Eastern's Tennis Professional of the Year in 2019.
Ed Krasscoached the Harvard Women’s Tennis Team to four consecutive Ivy League titles from 1986-1990. Ed is the founder and director of the Annual College Tennis Exposure Camps, which are taught exclusively by all head college coaches for high school-aged players (15-18). Ed is also the founder of One-On-One Doubles tournaments, which have been played at USTA, ATP, ITA and USPTA national events.
Lawrence Klegeris co-director of the John McEnroe Tennis Academy. He is recognized as one of the top developmental coaches in the United States. He has trained more ranked juniors than anyone in the history of the USTA Eastern Section. His students have won numerous National and Regional Championships, and 20 USTA Eastern Year-End Sportsmanship Awards.
Chris Lewitis a former number one for Cornell and pro circuit player. He is a high- performance coach, educator, and the author of two best-selling books: The Secrets of Spanish Tennis and The Tennis Technique Bible. He has coached numerous top 10 nationally-ranked players and is known for his expertise in building the foundations of young prodigies. Chris coaches in NYC and year-round at his high performance tennis academy in Manchester, VT, where players can live and train the Spanish Way full-time or short-term.
Ognen Nikolovskiis the general manager of CourtSense and director of tennis at Bogota Racquet Club. He is a former top junior from Yugoslavia who went on to play college tennis at Rollins College where he became an all-American. He went on to become a world-ranked singles and doubles player on the ATP Tour and was a captain of the Macedonia Davis Cup team. He joined CourtSense in 2008 where his passion and experience has become instrumental in developing the program.
Shenay Perryis the newest addition to the team at The Cary Leeds Center for Tennis & Learning, where she will work as the Associate Director of High Performance and Adult Programming. Perry won nine singles and seven doubles titles on the ITF tour, and reached a career-high ranking of 40th in the world in singles.
Conrad Singhis the Chief Operating Officer of Tennis & Director of Coaching at Centercourt Club & Sports. He has held Head Coach and Director positions in Australia, England, Japan and China, and has been involved in professional tennis player development for well over two decades. Singh came to Centercourt from Shanghai, China, where he helped to develop a top high-performance player program, which saw more than 200 athletes train under his system.
Michael Smookleris the Club Manager & Tennis Director at West Orange Tennis Club, as well as the USPTA Eastern 1st Vice President. Coaching and directing tennis since 1989, Smookler was the 2019 USPTA Eastern Pro of the Year, and the 2017 USPTA Eastern High School Coach of the Year. He has trained with retired pros Guillermo Villas, Mats Wilander, Rod Laver and more.
Khrystsina Tryboiis currently the director of marketing and a 10U tennis coordinator for MatchPoint NYC. She is a former Division II tennis player from Belarus, and is currently working for MatchPoint NYC in their QuickStart tennis program and is leading their marketing team. She is highly involved with USPTA and USTA to help grow the game.
For young players who start out at an early age, how can they avoid burnout from the sport as they get older?
Gilad Bloom: It is a very serious issue. I've seen so many kids get injured due to over training or poor planning. The key thing when you coach juniors is to keep a close eye on the kid's physical and mental condition; you don't want to overload the growing body. I always give them a day off after tournaments, and every few weeks I like to give them a few days of rest to let the body and mind refresh because high-performance tennis can be grueling. A big factor in injury prevention is doing off-court fitness and taking care of the body with regular physical therapy treatments, a daily stretching routine, nutrition and sleep. I have a fitness instructor on my staff for that reason. Rest is an integral part of training and the body needs time to absorb the hard work you are putting in.
Conrad Singh: The Golden rule is to listen to your child. If they are starting to show promise but are giving you the fatigue signals, it’s time to pull back. Balance is key—the ultimate way to find that balance is to mix in team sports and other interests into the weekly schedule. If heavy weeks are occurring you might need to manipulate the following week. Never forcing a player to the court and letting them ask for more or less is one key that has never let me down. It is then essential that a positive relationship is in place between player, coach and parent.
Chris Lewit: Burnout risk can vary relative to the individual, so there isno perfect prescription to prevent it. It’s a much longer discussion and I have devoted entire podcasts and articles to this subject. In general, however, junior players should strive to have an off-season during the tournament year—just like the pros do. Sometimes this is referred to as preseason in a periodized development plan. This is a time to play less tennis and focus on physical development and injury prevention. Players should also be certain to rest one day per week. Typically top level juniors will train about six days on/one day off schedule. I have had some top national kids push these limits and train more than 10-14 days straight, which I don’t recommend. The more consecutive days straight you train, the higher your risk of overuse injury and burnout. Remember that some kids can burnout playing five days a week/only afternoons and some can play seven days a week/twice daily sessions and survive, and even thrive. Every player is different. The key is for the parent and coach is to monitor the player carefully and be ready to adjust the plan as needed through the junior years. The flip side of burnout, which is often not discussed, is that if you are too cautious and don’t train hard enough, your kid will never become a great champion. You’ve got to take some burnout risks to become great.
Ed Krass: Players can avoid burnout from playing tennis by participating in other sports like baseball, track, soccer, lacrosse, basketball—as all will help with furthering the athletic skills developmental process. I remember playing Little League baseball in St. Petersburg when I was 11 and 12-years-old, along with flag football. I wanted to stay away from tackle Football, as I knew what could happen there! I also enjoyed watching other sports live and on television to keep my competitive mind healthy and full of dreams!
Alex Bessarabov: Younger athletes need to be on a long-term development path. For that, playing a multitude of sports can be extremely beneficial. When kids are young they are seeking activities to be interested in and if they are limited to playing one sport that creates the potential for future burnout. Finding other sports that kids can participate in, or any other athletic activities, can help develop a better foundation for tennis. For example: having them take up dancing to practice footwork and staying lighter on their feet, or trying boxing to help them develop good hand-eye coordination and judgment of proper spacing as well as better core strength. In addition to those, soccer can also be very helpful; playing for a team working on leg strength as well as all kinds of footwork patterns are aspects that are highly translatable into tennis. There are many more benefits to playing other sports, everything between cardio development, less fatigue in different muscle groups and most importantly they will have this wide range of activities to enjoy so they don't have to be overwhelmed by just playing tennis.
Mental health is an important topic that has been brought to the forefront of athletics recently. How often and how do you engage your players on their mental well-being, both on and off the court?
Gilad Bloom: My old coach always said that a tennis coach is 95 percent a psychologist. The mental aspect of the game is huge and it is mainly the coach's job to instill the right mentality every day during the drills and match play. When kids get serious and start to compete in higher level tournaments, I recommend working with an expert on specific problems that need to be addressed. As a junior coach it is very important that the kids show up with a positive outlook and that they are enjoying the game. It’s highly important to communicate with the parents about the child's mental condition at home, and it is equally important to have conversations with the student and keep asking how they are doing, develop a personal relationship and be aware if the kid is having a hard time coping with situations.
Jay Harris: I was able to study and receive a Master’s Degree in Sport Psychology from Miami (Ohio), and that has allowed me to really weave the aspects of mental well-being into my coaching throughout my career. As the head coach at Brown University, this was especially helpful in teaching life skills to extremely talented individuals. Obviously there are a lot of academic stresses at such a prestigious university, and we constantly felt the importance of developing new skills every day to learn to overcome obstacles, get our players to feel the way they wanted to feel, and of course, to perform at an elite level. Here at Sportime and the John McEnroe Tennis Academy, I have been able to take more of a leadership role with off-court mental and emotional control training, and in doing so, have helped hundreds of players work through many of the battles they face on and off the court.
Shenay Perry: I think that encouraging players to openly speak about their feelings is productive in managing their mental health. I think that working through their struggles not only makes them better players but is beneficial to their health. It is also important for players that are struggling with their mental health to speak to a sports psychologist to help manage their thoughts and struggles both on and off the court.
Khrystsina Tryboi: I try to introduce mental game aspects into training as early as kids playing with red balls. Mental well-being is crucial to an overall athlete's performance and happiness. It’s crucial for kids to identify and understand reactions they are having on the court. Since the start of early specialization there are more cases of burn out and I think coaches and parents should address mental well-being on and off the court.
What’s your advice for players who may be executing in practice, but struggling in matches?
Gilad Bloom: It is the eternal problem of a tennis player, and there is no magic answer. Most players have a drop in their level when they play tournaments, knowing that is a start. Having a clear game plan before matches can help, also working on tight match situations can help. For example, working on serving for the set or how to play when you are up a break point. Besides the point management, there is the mental issue. We can overcome the fear of losing by just focusing on the game plan and not thinking about winning or losing, but instead just playing one point at a time. It’s imperative that you develop a routine between points that you can go to in pressure situations, and doing something that you worked on in practice can help.
Lawrence Kleger: I try to make it crystal clear that at the developmental stages, there should be a definite distinction between practice and matches that count. It is pretty clear what the intention is in a match that counts.......WIN! Follow the rules and the etiquette of the sport but compete to win. In practice, you should be working on your game. If you are working on your game in practice, even if you do not play your best, you will have accomplished something and have reason to be positive about your tennis. If you do not win a tournament match, your opponent’s name goes to the next round. It does not read “your opponent’s name” but “your name played great all week in practice.” By the same token, if you win the match, it doesn’t have your name and “but lost the cross court, cross court play it out game on Thursday night and finished on the bottom court.”
How do we continue to expand the sport of tennis in our area and make it more accessible to everyone, regardless of economic status?
Jay Harris: This is something that I am truly so proud of the John McEnroe Tennis Academy for. The Johnny Mac Tennis Project is a venture that has allowed thousands of families access to some of the top tennis coaches and instruction in the world, and to do so within their economic means. John understands the importance for tennis to cast as wide of a net as possible in order to allow the possibility for better athletes to develop in the sport of tennis. It’s a numbers game. If thousands of kids are “priced out” of tennis, then that means we are losing the potential of many great athletes choosing other sports instead of tennis, and losing the potential of many of those great athletes to develop into elite level players. Every tennis organization should find ways to be creative so as to allow for this very important migration of talent into our sport.
Chris Lewit: This is a tough question that I get asked frequently. Playing tennis in the NYC area is very expensive—too expensive. There are some excellent programs like the NYJTL that are doing a good job helping underprivileged youth get in the game. The Cary Leeds facility is a prime example of a wonderful outreach program/center for inner city kids. We need more places like that. On the high performance side, I would like to see more recruitment of athletically talented inner city kids into the game—from a very young age. We need to get kids very young before they choose other sports. The USTA could spearhead this type of scholarship program. There is just no way the typical family with modest means will choose tennis over other less expensive sports. There has to be a lot of money and scholarships thrown at the problem. I love tennis a lot, but it is an expensive game to love—especially in NYC.
Michael Smookler: We have seen a spike in participation throughout COVID. We need to continue to promote the all around health benefits of Tennis from Fitness, Mental Health to Social Distancing. There are more and more people also playing on town and city courts. The USTA has wonderful grass roots programs which are affordable and in some cases, offer grants to help make Tennis accessible to everyone.
Alex Bessarabov: Growth can only happen with a constant influx of new people, as well as the retention of the majority of triers. The more people who can participate, the further word can travel, just like a ripple effect. One aspect that can have a positive impact on attracting and reducing the entry barriers for new participants is offering free courts at local parks. Often, such places feel like a backyard for locals and it can encourage people to try out tennis with friends and family. Open park courts take away one of the major expenses that prevents people from taking that first step into our tennis world as well as help diminish the stigma of a "country club" only sport. The more we can expand and maintain local free tennis courts throughout the country, the easier this sport can grow. Additionally, if these parks can also have partnerships with local Clubs, so these new players can seek instruction and other additional involvement, the higher the chances they'll continue to play for years to come.
How do you integrate off-court training with on-court training for junior players?
Jay Harris: This is a balance that simply is not easy for our junior players to create, especially when the off-court training is going to be at different facilities than that on- court training. However, it is surely an important aspect of development that cannot be ignored or pushed to the side. As a college coach, I always believed that if we could build a team that was more fit than all other teams that we were competing against, that gave us not only a huge physical edge walking into matches, but also, it provided an incredible boost of confidence. This is something that I try to have my junior players now realize.
Lawrence Kleger: Like most academies, at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy, we have a terrific Performance Team headed by Richard Mensing, Jr. In addition to having great conditioning coaches that understand that a tennis player should not look like a football player, one of our performance coaches is a physical therapist. Richard’s team meets and coordinates with our tennis coaches pretty much every day to ensure that we are all on the same page with our players. The game is so much more physical than ever before, off-court training and injury prevention are at least as important as the on court tennis training.
Conrad Singh: Looking at the overall schedule from a bird’s eye view is important. Players need all key areas to be developed including time for mental skills as well as the obvious ones. Finding a consistent time weekly early in the week is often best as it allows time for those skills to also be practiced. I have developed the TPU schedule which means: Teach (Mondays, Tuesdays), Practice (Wednesdays & Thursdays and, finally, Use (Fridays and Weekend). So its Mondays to Thursdays where that court work fit in nicely.
Michael Smookler: This is always the challenge. Players putting the time on the court is usually not an issue. It's motivating the juniors to understand what it takes off court to get them to the next level. Coaches need to promote this more and come up with off court training curriculums to provide for their students. There is great Netlix documentary called Untold: Breaking Point featuring Mardy Fish. It addresses all the challenges he faced on and off court and what it took for him to raise his level. When he lost some momentum, what he did to get it back. This is a must watch for every player and coach. It is relatable in so many ways.
Gamesmanship and cheating are always controversial topics at the junior level. How do we begin to try and eliminate those sorts of things from the game?
Gabriel Balestero: Tennis is a personal development tool. On the court we teach values that can be applied into every aspect of life. With an atmosphere of love and respect for the game there is no reason for a kid to cheat during a match. Therefore, the key is creating the right atmosphere during practice.
Shenay Perry: I think that education is a huge part of gamesmanship and preventing cheating. Teaching players at a young age that cheating doesn't make them a better player, rather hinders their learning experience is important. I believe that parents and kids need to be on the same page about what winning looks like instead of only feeling the pressure of having to win. Losing is just as important, if not more important than winning, because through losing you can see how to be better.
Khrystsina Tryboi: Well, we should start with practice. I like to implement character development as early as possible so kids learn concepts of sportsmanship, teamwork, independence and other important life skills. Three times a year each player receives an assessment and these topics are also a part of their overall grade. Cheating is a part of the game and sometimes kids do it because they get excited and see what they want to see instead of the place where the ball bounced. Kids will be kids.
With Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer all tied at 20 Slams each, who do you consider to be the greatest male player of all-time?
Ed Krass: I would say that Roger Federer is still the most impressive of the three due to his athletic, all-court and serve-and-volley Singles game. Roger may just put a Tom Brady like stamp on his career if he actually comes back from his injury and wins one last Slam! I do think that Nadal and Djokovic are both super special, legendary players in their own right. Both are beyond athletic and mentally tough with amazing shot making skills! The greatest of all time is still a work in progress!
Gabriel Balestero: The most complete in my opinion is Djokovic. He can play in any surface and developed his mental strength in a way that makes him an incredible athlete.
Michael Smookler: There is an argument for all of them. However if I am choosing from this group, Roger has done it longer throughout his career. What I liked about him the most when he was dominating the sport was his ability to change his game plan to exploit his opponent's weaknesses. For example, if that meant he had to serve and volley more, he would. His ability to change his game at the highest level was what always impressed me the most.
What is missing from the development of American tennis on the professional stage?
Gilad Bloom: The million dollar question! We have a number of good young players coming up on the pro tour, there is even a stronger presence in the women's pro game. However, what's missing is a Top 5 player, someone who can win a major tournament and set the spark for another generation of top players and increase the popularity of the game. This is a tall order because the competition is so deep and the level is incredibly high, and the big disadvantage that US tennis has is that tennis in the States is not really getting the top athletes of the nation. They choose to play popular team sports, whereas in Europe, tennis is attracting the top athletes since tennis is much higher in popularity. It also seems to me that the Europeans are a bit hungrier and desperate to succeed on the tour. This can be due to an easier life in America and the option to go to college and get a scholarship. Many good juniors pursue a college career and usually that is the end of their pro career.
Alex Bessarabov: Ever since tennis became more globalized and people from all over the world are able to participate it opened up the vast differences in cultures and how players develop from a young age. We are able to open up and learn on what works around the world and what doesn't. It feels like American tennis has a focus on hitting harder or going for bigger shots and we are missing a key element of how to construct points based on other factors, such as spin, variety, and depth. This is often a consequence of the limited number of clay courts in the US, when compared to most European countries. Learning how to "grind" while figuring out how to develop points in a multitude of ways, is often a differentiator between American players and most other prominent tennis countries. The tendency to play as aggressive baseliners is common in most players, regardless of their origin, but we seem to be missing more all court styles. "All court" teaches you to develop how to play behind the baseline as well as inside the court, and also shows you timing on when to put away a ball instead of going for more risk. We need to develop more styles and play on different surfaces, while expanding the player's ability to win points in more than one or two ways.
Chris Lewit: American tennis on the female side is amazing, and we have one of the best development pipelines and a high percentage of the best female players in the world are American compared to other countries. I wrote an article about this trend a few years back. American women are kicking butt. On the men’s side, however, it’s a sad story. We have a low percentage of men in the top 100 compared to other countries and we haven’t had a men’s grand slam winner since Andy Roddick in 2003. That’s an 18 year drought—incredibly sad! The main reason is probably that our most talented American boys are choosing other sports. In addition, and it’s controversial to say this, but for some reason, our best male prospects have not been as fierce or as willing to suffer as their female counterparts. We have not had the male equivalents of Venus and Serena for example. We have good coaching and a good development system in the US. Our federation is wealthy and offers lots of opportunities for young boys. I believe the tide will turn and some of the lack of success among men is simply cyclical. We need a fierce, breakout player to chase grand slams. Being satisfied with the Round of 16 or quarters at a slam simply isn’t enough—but unfortunately for many of our top guys today—it seems to be plenty.
Ed Krass: It seems like American players need to relearn how to make their inside backhand a weapon, like Agassi did. I see 95 percent of American players wasting a lot of time running around their backhand to hit a Forehand. This disallows players to be able to truly take time away from their opponents; Forget about approaching the net when running around the backhand all day! I visualize a future of American players taking that inside backhand and forehand and displacing the opponent and closing the points out with a volley. This all-court play needs to be implemented in practice matches, and events like One-On-One Doubles, which is now UTR-sanctioned, help players develop these skills, which can be translated onto the tennis court. In order for American tennis to keep on improving, developing an all-around game is crucial.
Conrad Singh: This is a tough subjective question considering how many Americans are in the top 100; most countries would dream for that number! However, for me it’s the desperation and willingness to go through struggles that often creates the top competitors. Life is pretty good in the United States, hence players may be less likely to travel to the difficult places to compete, or to stay on the road for longer periods. Time on the road especially early in a career can mean the difference in the speed at which they transition. Many skills are learnt when life is less easy!
How has COVID affected things in terms of your coaching, business, or how you advise your players?
Ognen Nikolovski: Overall COVID has had a positive effect on tennis, as the reality is that due to tennis being one of the sports that “social distancing” can easily be applied, tennis has been very popular and the tennis courts in the US have not been busier in a long time. I think all the stats from the retailers show that as well, as the demand for tennis balls has increased, and in the business aspect tennis has recovered pretty fast after the initial two-month shut down in March of 2020. As far as coaching, I believe that the not much has changed prior to COVID, other than the extra precaution that each coach has been taking by applying the social distancing guidelines. The impact on the players has also been minimal, as for those that decided to keep on playing during COVID, we can possibly see that their engagement has been even bigger, especially with the adults who seem to appreciate being on the court even more than before COVID.
Shenay Perry: The facility in which I trained my players before coming to The Cary Leeds Center for Tennis & Learning was shut down, so that was very tough to have a set schedule for each player to do their daily tennis and fitness routine. I advised my players to make sure that they keep up with their fitness and mental aspects of the game if they couldn’t play tennis.
What impact will the success of young players like Raducanu and Fernandez have on other young junior players?
Ognen Nikolovski: It is always very positive to have young players like Raducanu and Fernandez have success on the world stage, as that only helps inspire more players from the younger generation to strive and do the same. Juniors feel connection to these young stars more than to the older generation, and I can foresee more young girls and boys get on the courts and try to do the same. I also think that this is great for women’s tennis in general as tennis remains to be the #1 sport for women in many aspects.
Shenay Perry: I think that the success of upcoming young players will be huge. We haven’t had many young champions in the last decade or so. I feel that a lot of young girls will be inspired to see others who are the same age or not much older than themselves achieve huge feats.
How has UTR changed the landscape of junior tennis?
Lawrence Kleger: UTR has had a definite impact on junior tennis. On the positive side, the ranking/standing system seems to be accepted as the most accurate when comparing players. Certainly college coaches are using UTR rankings in their recruiting process. UTR matches are giving juniors many more opportunities to play matches that “count.” I am a coach that believes competitive juniors need to play a lot of matches that count, UTR Tournaments and Matchplay Programs provide many more competitive outlets. The downside is when players and parents get so caught up in every decimal point in a UTR ranking that it consumes them and does not allow for the healthy tennis process of working hard to be the best player one can be.
Ognen Nikolovski: In general, UTR has been great for tennis in many aspects, especially in helping players establish their own level and match them with players of similar level. There is no question that the technology behind UTR is great and the fact that it keeps evolving will most likely make it become a mainstay in the industry, and maybe with time become the main world rating in all categories of play. I also think that it has had great impact on junior tennis, however at the same time it has further exposed some challenges for the coaches that work with younger juniors, as a large percentage of juniors and their parents are more focused on what is the UTR of the player rather than on the overall development of the player that would actually give them a better opportunity to have the chance to reach a higher UTR in the future. However this is a different conversation, and at this time I just hope that UTR is committed to keep investing in tennis and also in improving its algorithms, so they can really help players engage more with the game and with that grow the sport.
Khrystsina Tryboi: With more and more UTR tournaments happening, it’s easy to find play opportunities based on level. It’s great to see kids playing co-ed tournaments where gender plays very little role.