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|Amanda Coetzer is a tennis player who has been ranked in and around the top 20 for several years, and lives the grueling, year-round nomadic life of a tour veteran with a training base in Florida, family back in South Africa, and tournaments all over the world. I first saw her play in Key Biscayne against Gabriela Sabatini in 1993, and I thought Coetzer won. It was only when I met up with her on the terrace outside the players' lounge at Wimbledon that I found out I was mistaken. But with the power she packs (astounding, given her relatively small stature she's 5'2") and her feisty competitive nature, it's an easy mistake to make. Known as a bit of a giant-killer, it was she who ended Steffi Graf's 32-match winning streak last summer in Toronto. More international attention came at the '96 Ford Australian Open, where her semi-final battle against Anke Huber of Germany was nothing short of a statement in defense of women's tennis, which some argue isn't at all interesting outside of Steffi, Monica, and Arantxa. Coetzer has the sensible, polite, and feminine air of Chris Evert, along with a similar penetrating baseline game, both of which will be on display later this month at the U.S. Open.
TINA: So, are you excited?
AMANDA: Oh, yeah.
TINA: The atmosphere here is so electric. Of course, I won this tournament many times in my imagination as a kid.
AMANDA: It is very exciting playing here, unlike anything else. And I love playing on the grass. It's like playing in the garden.
TINA: You know, after you phoned me last night, I had a dream that you were playing doubles with Maggie Maleeva.
AMANDA: Oh, we all have those dreams, that's funny.
TINA: While you were on the practice court, I bumped into her and I couldn't stop laughing. And I saw Pete Sampras swathed in towels and being followed by a camera crew. But what's the story with that buffet in the lounge? Pitiful. Like any of you would eat those pastries. Where's the pasta and the salad bar?
AMANDA: I don't really eat pasta.
TINA: Are you doing the protein thing? Cutting down your carbs?
AMANDA: Well, I just find a lot of the food at tournaments to be heavy.
TINA: I'm a cheese freak, myself.
AMANDA: No meat?
TINA: Oh, definitely meat. I was over here in March during the Mad Cow scare, and I didn't care one bit.
AMANDA: I don't know how you can avoid it, really.
TINA: Not eating pasta is probably one of the reasons you're so lean. Your body fat is probably next to nothing.
AMANDA: Yeah, well, ever since I've been working with this coach, Gavin Hopper. We've done a lot of work, and he's not into carbohydrates. I think he takes protein supplements. He won't go and have a steak he's really into eating the right sort of stuff. He says there's too much fat in meat that you don't need. But I don't much care for protein supplements. I'll take it in the normal way.
TINA: I've been around many tournaments, and they always feel like a circus coming to town. Every place you go, there are all the people involved in putting up the show. I can spot agents, Italian television commentators, there are the racquet company people hawking their wares ... but the players, of course, are the stars.
AMANDA: That's what they think, too! Well, that's a fresh way of looking at it. If you're a player, it's pretty much the same every week. We don't always realize the outsider's view of us coming into town and taking over. And we do, whether you play at a club or whatever we pretty much do barge right in.
TINA: Do you ever stop and think, god, my life is so glamorous!
AMANDA: (laughs) Yeah, I think I do, when I can take a step out and get perspective on it all. When I look at my friends, or people my age, or my sisters.
TINA: How old are you now?
AMANDA: I'll be 25 in October. One of my sisters just finished medical school, and she'll be going into Surgery, and I have an aunt who's 93 years old and in the hospital. When I was last home we went every day to visit her, and every time I walked into that hospital, I thought, 'oh my goodness, I'm so glad that this is not my job, to have to work in a hospital every day.' We don't always take a good look at what we're doing and realize how, well, if you want to call it glamorous.
TINA: But it is!
AMANDA: It really is a fun job, I think.
TINA: It's a fun job! Not that you don't work hard, my god.
AMANDA: Doing something I really enjoy. I've always enjoyed it. Since a young age, I've loved playing tennis. I was fortunate.
TINA: Which leads me to: how did you get here?
AMANDA: How did I start?
TINA: Yeah. It takes an enormous amount of drive, I would imagine, from a very young age, to get to number 14 in the world. And you're tiny, too.
AMANDA: It's funny, but I never really thought when I was young, 'oh, I want to be a professional tennis player.' I have two older sisters, and when I was really young, from what my parents tell me, my dad spent a lot of time trying to teach us tennis. We had a court at home, so it was very easy. But my sisters are a year apart, and then I was a little bit younger, so it was always a struggle for me to play with them, to be accepted by them. And I was never good enough or big enough to play with them, and they let me know it. It ended up that my dad built a separate little box alongside the court with a backboard, and I would hit against it while he was busy with them.
TINA: Oh that'll do it every time. A childhood inferiority complex, coupled in your case with the old Electra Complex.
AMANDA: (laughs) Well, that's what drove me! The day I finally beat one of them it was just heaven on earth. Oh, we all laugh about it now. My parents keep telling the story of how one day I walked on the court, and I was all dressed up, that's what I did all the time: the whole outfit, just for a practice hat, wristbands, my only tennis dress, everything and nobody wants to play, so I had to go over to the backboard again. One day I'd had enough of it, and I said, 'okay, nobody wants to play with me?' And I went to lie down in the middle of the court, right at the T on the service line. I said, 'if I can't play, then nobody can play!'
TINA: So you're living and training in the States part of the time now?
AMANDA: Yeah, since 1993.
TINA: Is Gavin affiliated with the Bollettieri Academy?
AMANDA: No. He's Australian, and that's where he started originally, but we've been training at Seguso-Bassett's in Florida. They allow him to use the facility and he can bring in whoever he's coaching. Then I still have my apartment in Hilton Head, where I used to train, at Dennis Van Der Meer's. I'm not working with them anymore, but once in a while I still train there.
TINA: What's been your most thrilling match so far?
AMANDA: Well, I think it sounds bad, but probably the day I beat Steffi. It was just a very special match, not only because I beat the number one and al, but also because it was a week I was really struggling. I didn't really want to go play the tournament because I felt a little bit tired.
GAVIN: Excuse me for interrupting.
TINA: Oh, no, go right ahead.
GAVIN: Amanda, Maggie wants to hit tomorrow at 4:00 on Centre Court.
AMANDA: Yeah, okay. (Gavin leaves.) Did you hear that? Your dream I'm hitting with Maggie Maleeva tomorrow.
TINA: Wow, that's weird. Funny coincidence. No, actually I'm a part-time psychic.
AMANDA: I swear, things like that have been happening to me a lot lately, too. Everyone's been making fun of me because I keep telling them I'm psychic.
TINA: Anyway, back to that match with Graf...
AMANDA: I think right before that week, my ranking was dropping, I wasn't seeded for that tournament. That specific week, my ranking dropped to 28, when I'm usually in the top 20. I'd been working with Gavin on some new things, and from what our goals were at that time I was supposed to start feeling the work that we'd been putting in. I was supposed to start playing well, and I wasn't really there yet. I was kind of doubting what I was doing.
TINA: And then you beat Graf.
AMANDA: Yeah, that match was great, but with the circumstances surrounding it, it really meant a lot to me.
TINA: I think the first time I saw you in person you were beating Sabatini at the Lipton International in '93.
AMANDA: No, it was the Virginia Slims of Boca.
TINA: Really? The weather was terrible.
TINA: No. I was wearing a leather jacket.
AMANDA: Hmm. Well, that day I beat Gabriela, I remember it very well, it was a three-set match, and it was so hot, Gaby started getting cramps in her hands.
TINA: Well, so much for my memory.
AMANDA: But that week it rained a lot. I played a match against Judith Wiesner that got called for a rain delay two points before match point. So we had to wait, and then return to play two final points.
TINA: What a drag. Who's your nightmare opponent?
AMANDA: Oh, there are a few.
TINA: Oh, come on name names!
AMANDA: I think any opponent who's smart is always difficult, somebody who's able to use her strengths.
TINA: Somebody who's got a plan B, plan C, plan D if necessary.
TINA: You play Federation Cup for South Africa, and you'll be competing in your second Olympics this summer. What's it like for you when you go home? People must recognize you on the street.
AMANDA: More and more they do. But still, we don't often get the chance to play in South Africa, and the television coverage back home is usually the semi-finals and finals of the Grand Slams, so they don't really get to see me that much. But when I go back home to the little town I grew up in, people knew me as a little girl, so they don't really look at me any differently. It's really refreshing for me when I go back, not to be looked at as a tennis player.
TINA: I just had a look at the draw. Have you looked at it? (As the 14th seed, the draw would ideally have her meet Monica Seles in the fourth round).
AMANDA: Yeah, I play Elena Wagner in the first round.
TINA: Have you looked beyond that? I know some players say they only look as far as the next match. I don't know if I believe that.
AMANDA: Yeah, I've looked. It's in the back of my mind, what my draw is like. It's a tough draw. But I know what my opportunities and possibilities are.
TINA: The mental power that it must take to stay focused ... I mean, first of all, we were already talking about the atmosphere surrounding tennis tournaments.
AMANDA: The circus.
TINA: Then on top of that, this is Wimbledon. I mean, it must get on your nerves.
AMANDA: That's why the goal for me is pretty much to concentrate on every shot I make, to really execute that shot, and then go on to the next. It's so easy when I'm practicing to have that mentality of making each stroke, but the minute you get into a match situation, or even a point situation in a practice, you get excited when you see the open court. Especially on grass.
TINA: It's like boxing okay, the guard is down, pow! Boxing without the head injuries. One-to-one combat. It's so psychological.
AMANDA: With grass, the bounce can do anything, so you really have to force yourself to stay in it and not get anxious.
TINA: It seems so much easier said than done. And because the competition is so much about the psychological, and you have to be so focused, week after week, the entire year, how do you escape it?
AMANDA: Well, it's important to have somebody around you to act as a soundboard, someone who can take all the bad moods. I'm kidding, but that's probably what my boyfriend would say. But I try to take a step back and have a look at it and not get too caught up in what I'm doing. Then it's easier to relax and really see the big picture. That helps me to relax and get a grip on things.
TINA: That's great for you. I see that Jennifer Capriati is in the draw. What do you think of the whole trajectory of her career?
AMANDA: I think in a way it was great when she came along, to have a young American. It was so exciting and it did a lot for women's tennis, but it is also unfortunate that someone could do that well at such a young age. Hopefully the competition will become stronger and stronger so it won't be that easy for such a young player to be that good. I think it should be more gradual, instead of girls just being thrown into it there's so much attention, and all the money all of a sudden.
TINA: When did you go on the tour?
AMANDA: I left school when I was 16, and I started with the satellite tournaments, and built my way up slowly. So even though I was young, too, it was a gradual process. I don't think I could have handled all that even at 16.
TINA: She was 14 and had a television crew following her around Europe.
AMANDA: It was difficult for me in a way because I didn't have my family, unlike Jennifer, who had her family traveling with her. But then again, that might be the best thing.
TINA: That seemed to put a lot of pressure on her.
AMANDA: Yeah, that might be more pressure. For me, the only pressure was, you know, if I don't make it, I'll have to go back to school, and that would've been a bit of an embarrassment, to say, 'hi, I'm back!'
TINA: So your boyfriend travels with you?
AMANDA: Here and there, when he gets the chance. Not full-time.
TINA: Boy, that's got to be tough, to maintain a relationship with this career.
AMANDA: I think I'm a lot better off than many other people. He's in tennis as well, and when he's not playing, he coaches here and there, so he understands what it's all about, and he is able to travel once in a while. It would be really difficult to have a relationship with someone who's committed to a full-time job somewhere and couldn't travel at all.
TINA: Well, that would just be impossible.
AMANDA: Yeah, I think it would be.
TINA: How are you going to feel when, someday, you decide, 'okay, that's it, I'm gonna stop, have kids,' or whatever. What's it going to be like to get off the roller coaster?
AMANDA: I've been thinking about it more and more every year, and I'm just not getting any answers. It would be a dramatic change, because there's so much that you go through every day, all the adrenaline from playing tennis, all the excitement around playing tournaments. I don't know how I would easily find something to replace that.
TINA: Just all the moving around the globe.
AMANDA: Yeah. SO I don't know. But you would have to be very sure about what you wanted to do after, otherwise it would be a difficult transition to make.
TINA: How do you deal with all the travel?
AMANDA: I think I'm really fortunate because in the past couple of years I haven't really felt jet lag at all. The only time I can feel it is when I go back to South Africa, and I stay in one place for a month over Christmas, and then I have to go to Australia. But even then, I sleep easily on the plane.
TINA: You probably don't take any caffeine, either.
AMANDA: (sheepishly) I do, yeah.
TINA: We won't tell Gavin that. Someone suggested I ask you about the Lesbian Factor on the tour. Is that an issue for you at all?
AMANDA: No, it's not an issue.
TINA: I didn't imagine that it would be. You're a professional athlete. But you know, there have been stories most likely created by men who are interested in what goes on in the Ladies' Locker Room. Do you think most people still believe that competitiveness and femininity are mutually exclusive?
AMANDA: Unfortunately, yes.
TINA: After Wimbledon, the next Grand Slam tournament is, of course, the U.S. Open. What do you think of New York City?
AMANDA: Oh, I love New York. To me it seems ideal to be able to walk out the door and be in the middle of everything. It's very exciting.
TINA: Maybe moving to New York would be the perfect thing for you.
AMANDA: Yeah, or central London.
TINA: What's been your greatest indulgence?
AMANDA: I haven't really had one.
TINA: Oh, Amanda, not even a sports car?
TINA: A spontaneous trip to Bali?
AMANDA: No. But I definitely think I'm on the verge of doing something a little crazy.