In another special, from our Dreamers series, we caught up with Zamir Mohamed Yacob, who is a 33-year old tennis coach from Malaysia. Currently, he is a full-time tennis coach in Bali, Indonesia where he works with tennis players of all ages and levels.
Tell me a little bit about your own background in tennis? How did you get involved with the sport?
I got involved in tennis at a very young age; I had two older brothers, who are a lot older than me, who used to play at a semi-professional level. They were both state champions in their respective age groups.
When they went to the tennis courts; sometimes to the public courts, near our housing area, sometimes to the courts in the high school that all four of us attended (the other sibling is my sister, who never played tennis but loved the sport), and sometimes to a tennis club in town, I used to beg them to take me; they used to have trouble controlling me when I was on the court as I would run onto the court while they were rallying with their friends and teammates.
They had to teach me how to behave in court. On the days when they would go earlier, say before their teammates or coach would arrive, they would allow me to have a hit on the court and it elated me.
I would hit balls around the house too. This was when I was about two to six years old, I can’t recall much, I base this on what they told me.
Then when I was seven years old, I went for my first tennis lesson with a coach, and I didn’t like it, because I wanted to go into “full-on whack-the-ball” mode, but he controlled me and stopped me from doing that.
He was the most well-known coach in our state and many people in Malaysia know him, Mr Durbara Singh. He was a great coach, old school, but he produced quite a few decent players in Malaysia.
I was told I had good strokes, so that made me happy. But after a few sessions, I stopped.
I diverted my attention to football (soccer) because it was with a large group of friends, there was a lot of high intensity (which I didn’t see in tennis yet) and contact, and I enjoyed being rough, as a defender; sliding tackles, jumping and diving for headers, clearing the ball like a “loose cannon”, overlapping, sprinting and so on.
At age nine, I went back to tennis, this time with a different coach; Mr Syed Auladali, I still played football, but I started enjoying tennis again because it was with a group that I could have fun with.
Then I once again stopped but played from time to time because I used to play football, sepak takraw, handball and volleyball in school, and start competing in tournaments playing those sports.
We didn’t have tennis in the primary school that I attended, so whenever I stayed back in school until late, it was only football, sepak takraw, handball and volleyball.
All these sports are the reason I became an overall athlete and developed so much as a tennis player later on.
When I was 11 years old, I came back to tennis, but this time I never left! I had a close friend who lived nearby and played at the same places I played tennis in our hometown; he was the top-ranked junior in Malaysia; he had equipment and apparel sponsors since he was nine; he was that good.
He was also one of the people who inspired me to play tennis, plus looking at him using the Wilson Pro Staff 5.0, which he had 4 of and dressed in the Fila apparel, I wanted that too and this drove me to train hard.
I didn’t get to train with him at first because I wasn’t good enough, then I slowly had my chances, and there were quite a few good players in our state, I used to train with them too and I improved quite a lot. I also trained with a coach who developed me into the player that I am, Mr.Chan Ah Seng.
He was an amazing coach, he’s so proud that I became a tennis coach myself. Remember, I said I like to be rough on the battlefield? This is when I started getting very intense on the court, approaching, coming to the net a lot, poaching like mad, etc. I was having fun!
Then there came the traveling, the tournaments, competing at individual events, team events, national and international junior events, I had a great rollercoaster ride there, which was life-changing. I never had a world ranking, always wanted to have a one, but it is what it is… I still love tennis!
Unfortunately, my friend, who ranked number one in the country and was a prospect for Asian tennis, passed away when he was 16. His name was Raj Dormani, a child prodigy.
A great son, brother, friend, teammate, opponent, student, and overall an amazing guy, may he rest in peace. Basically, I got into tennis through the support and influence of family, coaches and friends, and by watching a lot of tennis on the television and reading books on tennis.
How popular is tennis in Malaysia, and is the sport quite common there?
Tennis is popular in Malaysia, but not as popular as it is in other parts of Asia, Australia, Europe, and America. In tournaments, it’s normally the same players and faces competing all year round, about 200 of the same players travelling all over the country. Most of us know each other too.
I heard some countries have separate divisions, and up to 2,000 to 10,000 active players in ladders, leagues, and the ranking system. The social tennis scene is also fun in Malaysia, it’s always tennis, fun, and food.
There are many recreation clubs in the country that have tennis courts, and this attracts many members to join.
We have great talent in Malaysian tennis. We had a former top 400 ATP ranked player, Selvam Veerasingam, top 200 WTA player, Khoo Chin Bee, top 30 ITF junior, Christian Didier Chin, and quite a few others who have done very well in the Davis Cup, Fed Cup, Asian Games, SEA Games, Futures, and ITF junior events.
So many up-and-coming players are shining, we’ll be seeing a lot of them shortly.
The sad part is that tennis is not recognized as a sport that contributes “medals” to the country, therefore the funding from the sports governing body is very little.
Sports such as badminton (we had a world number one, Lee Chong Wei), squash (world number one, Nicol David), field hockey (top 10 in the world), football (South East Asian champions), sepak takraw (top three in the world) and some martial arts disciplines (world champions); these are some sports that contribute medals in big events like the Olympics, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and other big competitions, which get the highest priority.
There were a few years that we had ATP and WTA tournaments in Malaysia, some of our local players who are friends and former batch mates played in those events, they got wildcards into qualifying draws and some even into main draws because of the lack of tournament participation; it was amazing to see these girls and guys play against some of the world’s best, and some giving these touring professionals close fights.
Our players only take part in professional tournaments once or twice in a year. This is all because of financial constraints, proper guidance, and sometimes lack of discipline. But improvements are being made, our local players and coaches are working towards excellence and I hope to see Malaysian tennis grow.
Why did you decide to coach in tennis?
I became a coach because I love tennis so much. I realize how difficult it is to make it as a professional player; the discipline, the physical and mental aspects, and the biggest constraint being the financial part.
Plus, it was hard to convince a traditional Indian Muslim family (who wanted their kids to be doctors, engineers, or corporates) that I would earn a living as a tennis player, on top of everything, the chances are so slim to make it on the professional circuit.
I was ignorant growing up; I left out a few important things in my journey; I thought it would be easy to get ranked in the pro circuit, but nope! I completely ignored the sports science part because I was so busy doing the physical stuff, I overlooked this part and I also lacked discipline.
This gave me the drive to improve myself, my mentality and views towards tennis (and also towards all sports). Hopefully, I can nurture players to be a better version of themselves by guiding them the right way.
Tell me about your coaching journey?
I started my coaching journey in the apartment complex that I was living in during my first year of university. This was in Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur.
I started off coaching some little kids, then moved on to having sessions with their parents, grandparents, then some social players wanted to play with me and they would hire me as their hitting partner.
Then I also got to hit with some good juniors who lived around the area that were looking for hitting partners, during that time I used to share my experience and give them pointers and tips to help them improve and love the game more.
The best part was, it was tennis; I got to play it, learned and taught it along the way. It also gave me some side income, and that was also a motivation, and eventually, I made it into something full-time. I also got to assist in coaching my university team while serving as a player.
Then I started doing a bit of traveling around the city doing freelance coaching, in public courts, apartments, hotels, universities, clubs, and many other facilities.
I also had the chance to work with two former national players who ran academies, got a coaching gig with a regiment in the Malaysian army, a bank, some corporate companies, a medical facility, and many other spots.
I went back to my hometown from time to time, guided some players there too. I loved every minute. Then I met so many amazing people over my journey. I also used to work as a freelancer and on a contract basis in the creative media production industry, but I chose tennis over this.
In 2015, I made a trip to Bali to visit my girlfriend (now she’s my wife), and also play a tennis tournament (yes, I tried to compete from time to time, took part in a few national ranking tournaments and open tournaments).
Then, I met a coach in Bali who was a young Brit, and he was the head coach of one of the most prestigious recreation clubs in Bali; we were talking so much about tennis, we both found each other interesting (I hope so, did you, Paul?), he was looking to become a traveling coach and suddenly he offered me to take his place at the club.
I had an offer to go to Shanghai then, but I was still considering it. It took me some time to think about both the offers and I went with the gig in Bali as it was closer to home. And since then, a lot of great things have happened. I
I have been here since, moved from the previous recreation club to a newly built tennis center called Liga Tennis Center and Academy, and reunited with Paul who recommended me for my first coaching job in Bali, and this time we’re colleagues.
I’ve been so lucky to meet some of my childhood tennis heroes here, one of them being Karim Alami, a legendary Moroccan player who was top 25 in the ATP tour, I had the chance to work with his children.
I am also colleagues with Marinko Matosevic, former Australian number one and top 40 in the ATP. He runs the pro academy at our club. Last December we had Novak Djokovic come by to see our club during his visit to Bali.
What are some of the challenges of coaching?
One of the main challenges I have faced are people looking for a coach who judged me first; if you’ve never played in the pro-circuit, no world ranking, no Davis Cup record, then they wouldn’t respect me or take my advice.
Some of them seek comfort in being coached by a former world ranked player or pro-circuit player, and I was neither.
I was just a former junior player who loved tennis so much and became a coach, so they don’t really take me seriously. So I think this is one challenge that I faced throughout my coaching career at the beginning. Although, now it’s not so bad.
Nowadays, it’s the efficiency of me managing programs, students and other off-court administration, along with the hundreds of on-court hours, time with family, and doing courses for self-improvement, and so on. I find the timing, organizing and managing of all this challenging. It is something that I’m still working on.
Being in Bali also brings the challenge of minimal tournaments for junior players to compete in. Unless you travel out of the island, there are only about two or three tournaments a year for the kids to compete in. Our club is working on that, we’re looking to organize more tournaments on the island, especially junior age-group tournaments.
I haven’t gone into becoming a full-time traveling coach yet; I wish to be one, and I know that will be a bigger challenge.
I also have a bit of trouble presenting my ideas and conducting training with my peers because sometimes I feel that I’m not good enough, and maybe they would not want to hear me out. That is also something that I’m working on.
I find an alternative way of sharing my ideas and providing training; I end up writing and printing them out. It has given me opportunities to run coaching workshops and certification courses, but I still don’t have the confidence to do it. I have to work on this, eventually.
How do you manage your own mental health and physical requirements while assisting and supporting other tennis players?
I try to stay active by working out apart away from the court. I also play a lot of board games to keep my mind active and alert.
This includes doing a lot of stuff off the court to stay healthy and not just limit myself to being on the tennis court all the time, although I enjoy it. Doing these things keeps me mentally and physically healthy to run my programs too and inspire the tennis players that I work with.
You train a wide array of players, from fresh starters to senior players. Tell me a little bit about those experiences?
It brings great joy for me to be a part of someone’s journey in tennis no matter what their levels are. If they’re beginners, I’d love to see them play the sport socially, able to hit shots well enough to keep rallies alive and fun.
If they’re good players, I love to see them get better, and so on, it’s a positive and progressive process which brings a lot of fun for everyone and keeps them physically and mentally healthy. I’m constantly learning, and I love to share what I can with the people I work with.
The similarities are that I have to approach everyone as a human first, leave all differences aside and assess them as a person, enable them to get comfortable with me and vice versa, adjust to them before getting deep into the tennis side of things.
We need to build a relationship with mutual trust and respect it. Another similarity is, the kids, the adults, the beginners, the intermediates, the advanced players, the pros — everyone wants to have fun playing the sport, so we need to make sessions fun and educational.
Sometimes dealing with the children of expatriates can be very challenging. (Don’t think I should be saying this), especially when their kids are raised by nannies and driven by chauffeurs, and are given anything and everything they want. They are very spoilt, it’s hard to discipline them on the tennis court. I was once in a situation where I had to say no to the kid, and he responded, “who are you to tell me no?”, and when I said I’ll speak to his parents about this, he said that they have never said no to him.
Well, I somehow got him used to obey the “no’s” that I say on the tennis court. I also worked with another expatriate’s child, he was a very coachable and the parents were very simple and supportive, Swedish-Australian kid, Oliver Jonsson, he had discipline, a good work ethic and at one point he was ranked number 1 in Bali in the under 12’s category. He moved to Bangkok last year but he comes to train at our club when they visit Bali.
What is it like living in sunny Bali, and coaching tennis players there?
It’s nice to be living in Bali, but it can get hot and humid. I think if someone can play tennis outdoors in Bali at 12 in the afternoon, they can play anywhere in the world with no problem.
As for coaching tennis players here, I lead the junior program in my current workplace and also used to head the junior program in my previous workplace.
Apart from that, I do a lot of individual and group lessons with people of all ages. I try to keep it as fun as possible because most of them are laid back in Bali, you can’t be too strict with them.
What were the biggest differences and lessons that you have gained, having coached in 2 different countries?
I’ve coached in two countries, Malaysia and Indonesia. If it was any other state in Indonesia, it would have been close to Malaysia, but Bali is very different to Malaysia. It’s very laid back, people are chilled out and take their time. As for Malaysia, it’s fast-paced. This requires me to adjust and also come up with new methods. I experiment a lot more in Bali than what I used to do in Malaysia.
The lesson I’ve learned in Bali is, life isn’t at all easy and we can’t just sit back and hang out on the beach with slippers and board shorts, we need to work hard and find methods to improve ourselves. That way we keep our minds working and active, this will keep us young and full of ideas, then we can reward ourselves from time to time with a hangout session at the beach with the slippers and board shorts.
How are you maintaining your career during the lockdown?
This unfortunate period is a blessing in disguise; it’s giving me so much time to work on myself. I’m doing various online courses, the ITF Academy has so many free courses online, so many top universities are also providing free online courses during this pandemic, so I’ve enrolled in quite a few and am trying to improve myself.
I also started a small “home kitchen” business providing food delivery, working on my food and beverage skills for the future. If I end up owning a sports club, I can create a food and beverage team and also run the tennis department.
What do you have in store for the future?
I would like to make tennis accessible for everyone, I would like to create play areas in schools, playgrounds, public spaces and use modified equipment to show people how fun tennis is, and get them interested, whether they’re kids or adults.
While doing this, I would like to do simple video analysis on them, show them what’s happening, what can be done better and show them simple “hacks”, then get them interested to go out there to look for a court and have fun playing tennis. The longer the rally, the more fun it’ll get.
What do you say to young tennis fans who want to start playing the sport?
If you have a chance to play this amazing sport, play it. Learn the basics and pay attention, then experiment with new things along the way and you’ll definitely have fun playing the beautiful sport.