Who wouldn't love this 5'2" South African. With her talent, warmth, kindness and love for the game, she really is the best thing in Pro Tennis. In 1971, a little bundle of joy entered this world on October 22nd. She was named Amanda J Coetzer. Don't ask what the J stands for, I don't know. Perhaps all will be revealed…later.
Amanda's a counter puncher, plain and simple. Her playing style often mirrors her frequent childhood opponent, the wall behind the Coetzer family clay court in Hoopstad, South Africa.
"It's a sad story," says Amanda who then giggles. "My two older sisters are only one year apart, and I was three and four years younger. I was always the little one, dragging behind, wanting to play with them, whatever it was. So my Dad built a little black box behind our court so I could hit against the back side of the wall while they played. My sisters were pretty good, and I was too small, so it was the wall, hour after hour."
Eventually she moved onto the ball machine. Her father, Nico Coetzer, a Hoopstad lawyer, would offer her financial rewards for nailing targets.
"That's how my professional career started," she jokes. "I think my father stopped that whole system of paying me for hitting targets because I would hit on the ball machine for an hour and a half before he would come out. I could make quite a bit of money from him."
All three sisters played in junior tournaments and it wasn't long before Amanda finally beat one of them. She kicked Martelle's ass when she was just 14 years old.
Tennis is an important part of the Coetzer family, which also includes mother Suska and baby sister Nicola, who is 7 years younger than Amanda but also several inches taller. "I'm third in age," jokes Amanda, "fourth in length!"
"I think a big thing in the early years is that I didn't overcoach Amanda, a mistake I made with her sisters," Nico Coetzer states. "She has always been a good athlete. But the one thing that set her apart, and it still does, is her incredible love for the game."
Several seasons into her career, the love began to wane as the losses mounted. In 1991, she lost even as she won, reaching one tournament final but never getting past the quaterfinals at other events. She finished the year ranked No.67, the same region she hung around the two previous seasons. (No.63 in 1989 and No.75 in 1990.)
But 1992 offered a new promise-and greater rewards. Sanctions against South Africa, triggered by their government policy of apartheid, had been dropped, allowing the country's best women pros to compete again in tennis' Fed Cup competition and the Olympics. The prospect fueled Coetzer's early season success (semifinal finishes at the Virgina Slims of Florida and the Italian Open).
"The whole idea of the Olympics and Fed Cup encouraged me," Amanda says. "It was something new, and I got a lot of energy from that. I know the older players were really caught up in the(controversy surrounding apartheid)and had people throw things at them on court. But by the time I started playing professionally, it was pretty quiet."
She doesn't talk much about life before and after the apartheid. Raised in a town devoid of stoplights in South Africa's Western Free State, Amanda led a sheltered life among fellow Afrikaners. She admits that the English schools were preferable to the Afrikaner schools which she attended, where teachers "never taught the children to think for themselves." As for her interaction with blacks in the Hoopstad area, it was mainly restricted to domestic workers, with whom she was-and still is-very close.
"It's a tough thing to talk about because I can understand it really looks strange on the outside, but if you're part of the whole African culture, not only South Africa but Zimbabwe and all of Africa, (black domestic workers)are part of the family. We still have the same people working for us. They looked after us as kids."
Her encounter with Nelson Mandela at the 1992 Olympics, when she and fellow South African athletes met him in Barcelona, still ranks among her most exciting moments, both personally and professionally. "It really meant so much to me, honestly," says Amanda who also received a phone call from Mandela congratulating her on her performance at the 1997 French Open. "I got a lot of energy from that."
By the end of 1992, Amanda was a Top 20 player, chosen by Australian Tennis magazine as the Most Improved Female Player. She had gotten fitter and received the academy-like training-"hitting a lot of tennis balls with a lot of different players"-that her serene upbringing never offered. Amanda won her first and second tour titles at the 1993 Melbourne Open and in Tokyo.
But then she flatlined…again. For 4 years she struggled to play at her 1992 best, although popular among her peers (she won the 1995 WTA Sportsmanship Award) she decided to bring in a new coach to pump her up and train her like she had never trained before.
Gavin Hopper, once Mark Phillipousis' coach whipped Amanda into shape, changing certain aspects of her game. "Amanda was unbelievable from the start," exclaims Hopper. "She has the work ethic. She had total faith in what I was saying. There are not too many players who would make such major technical changes at this stage of their careers." "When I saw how hard Amanda worked and how she put up with the pain, I said to myself that this girl is going to make it. She had open blisters turn into blood blisters on her hand. It must have hurt her so bad. It was unbelievable. We were hitting a million balls in the searing heat." But would this little cutie plead for a lighter workload? No! Just goes to show you what she's willing to go through in order to improve her game.
He changed many things including her forehand. Amanda made these adjustments and also switched to an extra-long 28-inch Prince Thunder Longbody 750. "I had to work hard on my balance to accommodate the adjustments, and I think that's helped me tremendously. I have a whole new understanding that if you want to hit the ball harder, you have to be balanced. With that understanding, my backhand has also gotten better."
All these changes in her strokes, style and stick pale in comparison to what adjustments her body would undergo via Hopper's off court training regimen. "When I was younger, I trained real hard for track and field, so I know what it's like to really push your body. But I had never done any weight training before Gavin." "Gavin has really brought my game together. Every day I go to the practice court and feel like I'm learning new things. Gavin is one of few coaches I've ever worked with who actually didn't want me to overhaul my game. Ironically, he has probably made the biggest changes to it. But he's the one coach who from the first few weeks I started to work with him, I got the feeling that he liked my game and just wanted to add to it."
All these major changes helped Amanda to defeat former No.1 three times in one year, the best thrashing being that on Steffi's home ground. Amanda kicked ass by winning 6-0, 6-1 in Berlin, the event that Steffi had previously won nine times. Very few players have been able to get under Steffi Graf's skin as Amanda has.
Amanda may be a veteran, but she considers herself reborn. "I think I relate better with the younger players, because I consider my game so young the way I'm playing right now. It's a very young game, because I haven't been playing this way very long."
That's a good thing, because it's not getting any easier. Amanda believes she has seen the future-and it's bigger (5'10"), stronger and more intimidating. Says Amanda: "(Fifteen year old Mirjana) Lucic hits it hard off both sides."
In other words, Lucic hits a Coetzer ball.