Robert Kendrick is director of tennis at Sportime Syosset and co-director of the John McEnroe Tennis Academy Annex at Bethpage. Robert joined the Sportime team in the fall of 2012 after a decade as a successful singles and doubles player on the ATP Tour. Robert was an All-American at both the University of Washington and at Pepperdine University, where he was ranked as high as number three in the nation. As a professional, he was ranked as high as 69th in the world in singles (taking Rafael Nadal to five sets at Wimbledon in 2006), and 77th in doubles. Since 2003, Robert has been a member of Sportime’s own New York Sportimes World TeamTennis franchise, and played in his last professional match at the WTT finals in September 2012!
What intrigued you about teaching at Sportime and the John McEnroe Tennis Academy?
Kendrick: I have known Claude Okin, Sportime’s founder and CEO, since 2002, the first year I played World TeamTennis for New York when the team was the New York Hamptons and played at Claude’s original club in Amagansett, N.Y. He always told me that when I was done with my pro career that he wanted me to be part of the company. So, 10 years later, that is exactly what we are doing. I have watched Sportime grow for the last 10 years, including its expansion into New York City and the creation of the John McEnroe Tennis Academy at Sportime Randall’s Island. I am very excited to get to be a part of it and to come to Long Island as we open the first JMTA Annex at Sportime Bethpage. Not every former pro player is well-suited to become a coach in a club or academy setting, but I think I have what it takes to make the transition. I have always liked helping recreational and aspiring players to enjoy their tennis and to improve, in addition to coaching top junior talent.
How do you feel your experiences on tour will enable you to be a better coach?
Kendrick: I learned a lot in my decade on the Tour. I changed how I did things as I matured. Fitness and mental preparation became a much bigger part of my approach, and I like to think I became a true professional, though I certainly struggled with my share of injuries. What it takes to compete as a professional player is really a different world from junior tennis. I think I can help serious juniors figure out the best approach and plan for them. Do they want to play college tennis as a way to support their educational goals, or as critical step towards a pro career, or both? One thing for sure on the Tour is that you have to learn how to get the most out of your practice time and to stay ready. That is exactly what we want our Sportime juniors to do, so it is really a matter of applying the same strategies in a different setting.
How can junior tennis improve in the Long Island area?
Kendrick: Long Island has a pretty great history of making a lot of serious and seriously good players, but it has been quite a while since we turned out some great ones. Obviously, Sportime is very proud of Noah Rubin and what he has accomplished so far, and what we think he can accomplish. Noah was our male alternate this year for WTT, so I got to practice with him a few times and I look forward to working with him this year. I am hoping that JMTA at Sportime will really have an impact in the coming years and that I will be a big part of that. We need to find more great athletes and to get them started playing by the time they are six- or seven-years-old. Sportime will be doing our version of 10 & Under Tennis at JMTA, which we will call “MacStart.” We are hoping that we really start to build a foundation of serious young players that can be the next Johnny Mac, or the female equivalent.
What are your thoughts on top junior players playing on their high school tennis teams?
Kendrick: It depends on the player and the team, but in general, I support and I know Sportime and John agree, kids playing on their school team, and even playing additional team sports if they can make it work. You only get to be in high school once, and giving up that experience is no guarantee of tennis success. Many school coaches will work with serious players to allow them to continue to train with us, and to continue to play key tournaments, during the school season. Sometimes, the situation is not flexible or supportive and a junior will have to opt out.
Do you feel that a top junior can achieve his or her maximum potential while training on Long Island, or do they need a warm weather academy?
Kendrick: If you look at the world’s best players, they come from all different places and training experiences. Most did not leave home during their high school years to become world-class players and most did not go to large residential academies. Many did, but not most. I didn’t and a lot of my fellow American professionals did not either. I really believe it is the kid and the coaching and the support of the family that makes all the difference. We already develop loads of nationally ranked juniors at Sportime and on Long Island. We can absolutely develop world-class players in New York. Many of the best players in the world come from countries in Europe or Asia where there is no such thing as a warm weather academy. Our philosophy at Sportime and at JMTA is that the best environment for a junior player, prior to college, is living with his or her family, going to a regular school and leading a normal life. And we don’t believe in over-training or playing 40 tournaments a year. We create a customized developmental plan for our top players that we believe creates the best pathway for their development and success.
What players currently on tour would you want your students to emulate?
Kendrick: There are so many players on tour that are so talented and work so hard that truly love the sport. Truly the amount of talent and effort is pretty awesome, and there are also so many players that show great sportsmanship and friendship with the other players. I always wanted to win and I always competed hard, but I like to think that my fellow players will remember me for my friendship as much as for my serve. We use technology at Sportime that allows our kids to compare their technique to that of the best players in the game. So, obviously, we would be happy if all of our players were as fit as Djokovic, served like Roddick, and had Murray’s defense, Roger’s movement and Nadal’s intensity. But our job is to help our students develop their game based on their strengths and weaknesses. The great thing about tennis is that it is so personal and that there are so many ways to play that can work.
Should top junior players play college tennis or turn pro immediately? What factors in to that decision?
Kendrick: I am a big fan of college tennis for most juniors. Most 18-year-olds are not physically mature enough to handle the rigors of the pro game, and many who turn pro too early burn out quickly or suffer serious and ongoing injuries. But there is no one answer. It depends on the individual player, his or her maturity and skill-set, and the family and financial situation. I look forward to helping some kids to make such decisions in the coming years.
What are some of your coaching philosophies?
Kendrick: Have fun is the most important thing. I have trained with many coaches throughout my junior and pro career and I have taken a little bit from each of them. Good players can do that, and have to learn how to listen and be open to learning and then to use what works best and feels most comfortable. Some of my coaches that helped and inspired me the most were Peter Smith at USC; Richard Schmidt, Dustin Taylor and Matt Anger at U of Washington. All kids have different needs. I think I have the capacity to really get to know my students and I think I can give them each a clear path towards how they can play to be successful.
Do you think it will be difficult to make the transition from ATP tour player to junior player coach?
Kendrick: There are a lot of hard parts to being a pro tennis player. It can be lonely, frustrating, and even boring at times, but one thing for sure is that it is not a nine to five job. You have a lot of fun and freedom. You basically work only a few hours a day―maybe a little more with practice when you are still alive in a tournament―playing singles and doubles. So the real world can definitely be a shock to former pros. But I have been working on the transition for a while and I think I will do very well with it. I like to interact with people, juniors and adults, and I really like the club environment. I have done quite a bit of coaching over the years; both helping other players on tour and working with juniors and adults during my time off. I like to think I am going to bring a lot of spirit and a very high level of coaching to my work at Sportime. At Sportime, I have the responsibility and privilege to direct a large staff of pros at Syosset and to co-direct at JMTA, and I have the support of some great colleagues. I really cannot wait to make an impact,
What do you feel you will bring to JMTA/Sportime?
Kendrick: Fun, intensity, a lifetime of experience as a top junior, collegiate player and touring pro, and, most of all, friendship.