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  • Interview with Robert Lansdorp If you can value a coach by the achievements of his players than you can consider Mr. Robert Lansdorp as one of the most important and most influential tennis coaches from the beginning of Open era till today. He is unique because he coached four players from their earliest junior days up till their top rankings: Tracey Austin, Lindsey Davenport, Pete Sampras, and Maria Sharapova.  

Story about Nikola Pilic

An extremely small number of top tennis players continue coaching careers and achieve even better results. Especially if both succeeds each other and last more than half a century -than it deserves our attention and respect.

Nikola -Nikki Pilic as a player, first amateur and later as professional, was one of the best tennis players in the world in the 60's and 70's of the 20th century, but what will be remembered is certainly his contributions as one of the pioneers of professional tennis , and his special coaching tennis skills which brought three different countries to the winning throne in Davis Cup competition.

Pilic slika stara

He started practicing tennis in his native Split (Croatia) and the beginning  wasn’t much promising because of the circumstances he faced. The first time (as a 13-year-old) holding the racket in his hand in 1953 when his good friend expressed a desire to try Nikola’s bike in exchange for the time he was able to try his racket. He loved this feeling of having a tennis racquet in his hand and continued  more often to come to Firule(one of the most beautiful parts of Split, Croatia), especially when he managed to save money and buy himself an 11 years old racket. Firule,with only two tennis courts, and a priority for their use for their members (recreational players), so often  Nikola had no place to practice. In addition, there was no sparring partner, not even tennis coaches who would help him improve his tennis skills. At home he had no ally in his father who wanted for his son to continue to study to become an engineer or to continue the family tradition - being a butcher. Often later Nikola repeated that it had been more difficult to convince his father to allow him to play tennis than to win a big tennis tournament. Yet ,despite all the difficulties, but with great enthusiasm he managed to become one of the best players in former Yugoslavia and those initial obstacles remained deeply engraved in his memory and helped him to develop perseverance and discipline and made it  easier to handle  all challenges that later imposed a life of a tennis professional.

Once, many years ago, while we were sitting in his restaurant of his newly opened tennis Academy near Munich, when Mr. Pilic noticed through the window that was separating us  from indoor courts, that a group of players were fooling around. He apologized, took off his jacket, took off his shoes at the entrance to the hall, grabbed the racket from one of the coaches, and said to the most mischievous among the players to stay on the base line, and hit the ball to Mr.Pilic who was standing at the net. In those five minutes I witnessed the most accurate volleys possible and I saw the young player moving all over the place to get to the ball and hit it back. After finishing the drill, making no volley mistakes, Mr. Pilic returned to the table and said "The young one will be quiet for a while." "You see, he continued," all these kids are very talented, but to succeed in professional tennis requires a lot of elements, in addition to good coaching, a high level of confidence, sometimes luck with the draw, players must have a high level of self-discipline and to do a certain routine over and over when there is, or there is  no desire for practice and to practice when no one is looking. "The fact that Mr. Pilic said is confirmed in the case of his most successful student Novak Djokovic, who besides his undisputed talent had also the discipline to prepare for competition or to have the discipline to execute  the game plan itself. Not to mention that Novak’s dietary discipline has helped him to become and stay number one for a long time. It is known that Novak's greatest treat after winning the Grand Slam was a - piece of chocolate! For Djokovic Pilic says that he was always been very coachable, and adds that Djokovic also had what it takes, in places that no coach can really reach, in the heart and in the head!

Nikola Pilic And Novak Djokovic

That the road was not always paved and safe in his game of tennis I learned more than 4 decades ago, when I was  reading the book "Thorns on the white road " where he describes his tennis career and and his travels around the world as a player, first as a junior and then as an amateur and in the end as a professional tennis player. And  this third part of his interesting and rich career is what Nikola Pilic separates  from the players of his time. As a very good player he was one of the " handsome eight," a group of players signed by Lamar Hunt in 1968 for the newly formed WCT (World Championship Tennis). The group was founded a year earlier by sports promoter David Dixon. WCT successfully existed till 1989 until the emergence of the ATP Tour in 1990. A number of tennis tournaments around the world were affiliated with the WCT and players were ranked in special WTC ranking according to their results in those tournaments.

As his highest achievement in professional tennis career, Pilic stands out at first when he won in 1970 the mens' doubles title at the US Open together with his French partner Pierre Barthes, by defeating Australians John Newcombe and Rod Laver in four sets. His best singles performance at the Grand Slam tournament came in 1973 when he reached the final of the French Open but lost to Ilie Nastase in three sets. Pilic says that he paid the price to his personal disorganization and passivity and learned a great lesson that he later used in his coaching. The eve of the finals with Nastase in Paris, it was raining for three days, and while Nastase (who lived in France at that time) went to train 20 kilometers south of Paris, where the weather was still dry, Nikola Pilic has simply  spent his time in Paris waiting for rain to stop. When the match finally began, the clay court was damp and heavy to play, Pilic was out of playing rhythm and match result is well known. Later, the  experience of that  unpleasant episode was certainly  installed in his tennis coaching philosophy , which the part of that I realized immediately upon arrival at his tennis academy where young players were practicing almost military discipline and also the way of thinking to always be ready to fight. Daily training plan was hung  at 7 am at the door of his office. The duty of the players  was to inform them self about the training schedule for the day and  to get ready for the practice. Sometimes, the first thing in the morning was conditioning, sometimes- technical training, the next day according to plan – nothing until the afternoon. Everyday’s plan was different ,so the player had to organize his free time on his own. By imitating the way how everything works: unexpected situations with travel and tournament schedule, weather delays etc, coach Pilic was trying to implement that element of flexibilities into his player's  DNA, which  later helped  making their carriers less stressful.

Pilic Sveto Visnja Players

One event that took place right after that the French Open tournament in 1973, showed the determination and the unity in young organizations of Tennis Professionals, and also showed how Nikola Pilic was respected among his colleagues. Virtually all the world top male players (81 of them), boycotted the most prestigious Grand Slam tournament-Wimbledon, and the reason was to support Niki Pilic who was suspended by Yugoslavian tennis federation from playing  in any tennis tournaments. Nikola Pilic the best Yugoslavian player at that time, decided to play (between French Open and Wimbledon)a professional tournament rather then to play Davis Cup tie in Zagreb,Croatia against New Zealand. Somehow "Kiwis" beat Yugoslavians (3: 2), and the Yugoslavian Tennis Federation blamed the whole thing on Niki Pilic not playing and they suspended him for the rest of the year. Wimbledon officials honored the suspension, but on the other side Association of Tennis Professionals decided to threaten a boycott over the right to play whenever and wherever they wanted. Some players did not go along with a boycott, and if you now ask Niki Pilic from the distance of over four decades, you would probably hear that the only reason those players played Wimbledon in 1973 was because they saw the opportunity to win in the most popular event in the sport.

Upon termination of his playing career in 1978, and the age of 39, Pilic, after pausing for a few years (till 1982)he started his successful  coaching career. Many agree that the period of his tennis career surpassed what he did as a player. He became the first coach to have won the Davis Cup with three different nations: Germany (1988,1989,1993), native Croatia (2005), and as consultant coach for the Serbian Davis Cup team (2010) which gave him a fifth victory. That's why he is also known as "The DavisCup Man." Also impressive is the fact that the coach Pilic during his tennis career of over 30 years has managed to "throw" more than 40 players into the top 100 on the professional list. His world famous tennis Academy near Munich,Germany was founded in 1997 and was put on the map when a young talented player form Serbia, Novak Djokovic made his name on the ATP Tour. Novak Djokovic often mentioned in his interviews coach Jelena Gencic  as his tennis mother and Nikola Pilic as his tennis father. For all its merits in the development and advancement of tennis in Germany, Pilic is the only one of 11,700 other German coaches which owns the title of "Master Coach" of which he is very proud.

Today  at the age  of 75, Nikola Pilic moved to Opatija, famous tourist destination on the coast of  Istria in Croatia. Interestingly, city of Opatija is located almost halfway between the place of his birth where he made his first tennis steps-Split, and Munich the city where he spent 33 years of his life and where he formed his family with his wife Mia Adamovic. His day is still organized around tennis and can be seen every day on the tennis court between 10-12 in the morning and 2-4 in the afternoon. He says that he cannot imagine himself doing nothing, and that he still has the desire and hope that he will launch another  big name in the tennis orbit. Nikola Pilic emphasized that he was very pleased that at this age he can still play tennis, and that is exactly what he knows and loves. Although he has recently had a lot of demands for training with many of young promising players,  he decided to work with a small group of four players with whom he spends time everyday on the tennis court. As always honest and critical, Pilic once again repeats  that  its "not easy to find a good young player willing to work hard, one whom you as a coach  can help become a great tennis player, and it is also very difficult to know," how Pilic said humorously, "if any of them will one day be the champion or a champignon".

Written by Sveto Matovic, 2015