Heart Court

Everyone who has taken a lesson from Robert has cried at one time or another,” said Anna Maria Fernandez, former number 17 in the world. I first read that quote in World Tennis magazine when I was 14-years-old. Many years later (still young enough to be optimistic) I had my first tennis lesson withRobert Lansdorp. 

As I approached the court I saw this stocky towering presence of a man with big dark shades and a mop of jet white hair hugging his racquet staring off at the South Bay view. The first question Lansdorp asked was if my black Nikes would mark up his court? I decided to trade barbs with him. “C’mon, Pete Sampras wears black Nikes.” Stone silence. He fed me forehands low and high. I didn’t grasp what he wanted me to do. Lansdorp would say, “You’re not listening. You’re not listening. You can’t do whatever you wanna do out here. Don’t dip your racquet. Keep it up.” He gave me his infamous “10 on the baseline.” (A drill known to cause even nonasthmatics to wheeze.) He ran me corner to corner and I sucked it up and did it. At my age I guess he did not want to kill me with his just as infamous “20 on the baseline.” I was still gasping for air when he was ready for me to do it again. “What’s the matter?” he muttered. This isn’t a sport for wussies! You gotta get in shape.” His ball feeds and insults kept coming.

“Have you seen Something’s Gotta Give?”
“Yeah.” 
“Well you remember when Nicholson [Harry Sanborn] is trying to make it up all those stairs?”
“Yeah.”
“Well, you’d never make it.” 

An hour later I was slumped over in a courtside chair and he was already hitting balls to his next student, a 13-year-old kid. Robert stopped feeding to show him an adjustment. As he walked by he said to me, “You did good.” Okay, first of all it was enough that he fit me into his busy schedule. Second, he didn’t kill me. And then to hear words of praise from this supposed tyrant? Inside, I was euphoric. But slowly I began to wonder. Has this guy mellowed? Two and a half years and countless lessons and conversations later I discovered quite the contrary.  

Tracy Austin, Pete Sampras, Lindsay Davenport, and Maria Sharapova. Four number one’s in the world all developed by Robert Lansdorp. Undisputedly one of the best tennis coaches in the history of the game if not the best in the modern game. In 2005, he received the USTA lifetime achievement award. At 66, he still teaches 6-8 hours a week at a private court in Palos Verdes, California. And today after more than 40 years of teaching he still gets excited about the potential of his latest students. He is especially high on 8-year-old Calin Xie of Chinese descent who Lansdorp says, “Hits a one-handed backhand better than Eliot Teltscher did.” 

Taskmaster. Guru. Tough. Obnoxious. Crusty. Sarcastic. And old school. Just some of the many descriptions people in the game have given Robert Lansdorp. Surprisingly in the same breath the same people say that Lansdorp is a nice guy. And then they find out he is actually funny. Quite a contradiction when you hear him yelling at one of his players for having a bad attitude. Today, kids are taught that they are special before they are actually special. It is good to build self-esteem in a kid, but doing so too early sets the kid up for failure later when he or she finds out under extremely tough situations that they were inadequately prepared. Parents who understand the process (and those who don’t rely on his track record) keep bringing their kids to him because they know he will instill the discipline that’s needed to develop their kids into champions or at least the best that they can be and then some. 

Lansdorp uses a “sink or swim” system but quietly creates a catch-net in the event of failure. His method works with anyone to help reach their potential. Case in point, his champions come in all shapes, sizes, and styles—two and one-handed backhanders, big serve and volleyers, and one and two-handed backhand volleyers. What are the keys to his success? To uncover his core essence I wanted to obtain insight on three major aspects of Lansdorp’s life:

(a) to learn what life events formed Lansdorp’s tough, yet intuitive character and leadership qualities;
(b) to learn exactly why he coached so many professionals to great success (i.e., what did Lansdorp know or learn along the way that separates him from all other tennis coaches);
(c) and assuming sufficient physical talent, what makes a tennis player potentially great in the eyes of Robert—how much is God-given talent, how much is learned (or not learned due to resistance by family members), and how much is pure mental toughness.  

To begin, perhaps it was Lansdorp’s difficult upbringing that makes it hard for him to settle for anything less then maximum effort from the rich kids on the hill. 

Some fast and furious details on the life of Robert Lansdorp. Several thousands of miles away from the exclusive residential neighborhoods of Rolling Hills Estates, California, Lansdorp was  born in Semarang, Indonesia, in a Dutch colony, located in middle Java in 1938. He grew up in a Japanese concentration camp there during World War II. His father was imprisoned and tortured by the occupying Japanese forces for four years. Once the war was over the Indonesians sought independence from the hated Dutch. One night the Indonesians were taking all of the Dutch people from his town out to the field and slaughtering them. Machine guns went off, people screamed, all fearing for their lives, and according to his mother, the then 8-year-old Robert, while holding his father’s hand said, “Well dad, if we have to die, then we have to die.” Perhaps it is this fearlessness that would later be instrumental in his success as a coach and eventually passed on to his future tennis prodigies in developing their mental toughness. He and his family narrowly escaped death from the Indonesians when they were rescued by the British army patrol. The Red Cross then shipped them to Holland. There, Lansdorp studied tropical agriculture hoping one day to work his own plantation in Indonesia or the Belgian Congo. But, as he tells it, “parts of the world kept falling out as I was in college.” 

When his family finally immigrated to San Diego in 1960, Lansdorp tried immersing himself into this new American culture (“I even tried selling encyclopedias, but that was so ridiculous it only lasted one night”). The army seemed like a good idea. Lansdorp instead battled his way to earning a full college scholarship one day when he beat the number one tennis player from Pepperdine University in a tournament. (He was selected for national training by the Dutch LTA when he was 16 and was a member of Holland’s 1959 Davis Cup team.) He played the number one position in both singles and doubles at Pepperdine becoming an All-American. He didn’t turn pro but was close, losing to future Hall of Famers Arthur Ashe and Dennis Ralston by scores like 6-4, 6-3.

In 1968 he began his coaching career in San Diego at Morley Field. He moved on to a bigger opportunity at the Jack Kramer Tennis Club where he began working with 7-year-old Tracy Austin and 10-year-old Eliot Teltscher who went on to be number six in the world.

After the Kramer Club, Robert plied his trade at The West End Tennis and Racquet Club where he continued his success with Lindsay Davenport and Pete Sampras. Lindsay was just recently quoted at Wimbledon as saying, “He had a huge influence on my game, especially the years I was developing my shots and my strokes. He’s the one that really molded my game in that regard.”

Robert’s next move was to the Riviera Tennis Club. A father had just seen Lindsay win the U.S. Open final and liked the way she struck the ball and wanted his daughter to hit the ball the same way. So one day a little girl walked onto his court and asked if he could possibly fit her into his busy schedule. Eight years later Maria Sharapova played her way to becoming the 2004 Wimbledon champion. – Paul Hing

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