I'm An Animal Out There

Johan Kriek is the world's 12th-ranked tennis player in spite of his penchant for tanking matches, baiting umpires and breaking things
January 17, 1983

The sun is shining and U.S. 41, Florida's Tamiami Trail, is being eaten up in huge gulps by a yellow Porsche 930 Turbo. Johan Kriek is hitting 100 mph in third gear, his usual cruising speed, feeling good about life—the endorsements, the victories, the bridges burned, the latest umpire zapped. Kriek has fine, flowing hair and a classically chiseled profile. Perhaps a fluttering silk scarf would add a bit of panache. But no, that might overdo it. Spoil the effect.

Kriek, 24, has as good a grip on his life-style as he does on the steering wheel. On the tennis court he is part rabbit, part bull, making impossible gets and hitting spectacular shots. He is also part pugilist, intimidating and menacing. Off the court, he's just as dashing. A native of South Africa now living in Naples, Fla., Kriek has two Porsches (he has owned as many as four at the same time), a Jeep, a 1965 Corvette Sting Ray, an 18-foot Ski Nautique power boat, a 27-foot Chris-Craft Stinger and a wife, Tish, who could have walked out of the pages of Vogue. The Krieks live in a big house with great white pillars and a circular driveway. When strangers call at the front door and 22-year-old Tish answers, they ask, "Is your mother home?" From atop a flagpole in the front yard hangs a symbol of what has been responsible for all this opulence—a tennis shoe.

Kriek, who qualified for next week's Grand Prix Masters for the first time, is the 12th-ranked player in the world and the winner of the Australian Open, one of the four Grand Slam events, for the past two years. Given this evidence, one might suppose that he has come to terms with the sport. No way. He has a chip on his shoulder that would make a hunchback of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Kriek argues with officials, glowers at fans, cows ball boys. He slams balls in anger, tanks, boycotts awards ceremonies, antagonizes players and accumulates fines and suspensions as if they were going out of style. In 1982 he led the pro tour in fines, with $11,500, and twice was suspended for 21 days. In many respects, he makes John McEnroe, who was nicked for a mere $2,800 last year, and the Jimmy Connors of yesteryear look almost like choirboys.

In a second-round match against Victor Amaya at the U.S. Open last September, Kriek appealed a call to the umpire, Adrian Clark, but his complaint was ignored. On the changeover Kriek strode by the umpire's chair and shook it. Clark is a large, round man, and from his perch he couldn't see what was going on almost directly beneath him. What had happened, Clark wondered? An earthquake? Finally, the light dawning, Clark leaned over and called to Kriek, "That won't help you."

"Tennis," says Kriek, "gets in the way of having fun."

Kriek roars around the Everglades in his Jeep, going after baby wild hogs barehanded. He zips over the bays and inlets around Naples on water skis. And he disdains practice with the confidence of a man possessing supreme talent. Money is not among his worries. "I know I'm going to be a millionaire," he says. "I don't even think about it." His tournament earnings last year were about half a million dollars. He has a clothing deal with Ellesse, the Italian sportswear company. Rossignol puts out a racket with his autograph. His name is on Superga shoes. The money comes in handy. The Pirelli P7 tires on his Porsches cost $275 apiece. He has an insatiable appetite for adventure and excitement. "If there's a chance he can kill himself doing something, he wants to try," says Tish.

Kriek first made a name for himself in 1978, when he emerged from the muck and mire of the satellite circuit and reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. That was only the third Grand Prix event of his career. Since then, there have been a lot of ups and a lot of downs. "The graph on Johan goes like this," says Joey Gratton, a friend of Kriek's in Naples. Gratton makes a gesture suggesting a mountain range. The peaks include the two Australian Opens, the U.S. Indoors, which Kriek won last February, and the WCT California Classic in August. In that tournament he defeated Roscoe Tanner 6-0, 4-6, 6-0, 6-4 in the final, and took home $100,000. But oh, the valleys. Five times in his first nine tournaments of 1982 Kriek lost in the first round. Trey Waltke, ranked No. 157, and Eddie Edwards, No. 154, both defeated him. Last summer at the Hall of Fame Championships in Newport, Kriek, who was the first seed and defending champion, lost to Nduka Odizor of Nigeria, the world's 77th-ranked player, in the second round, after leading 5-0 in the final set.

While winning Newport in '81, Kriek bashed a big hole in the locker-room wall with his racket. In '82 other players waited expectantly in the locker room, having stuck a large bull's-eye on the wall to give Kriek something to aim at. Following his loss to Odizor, Kriek walked in, his face white with anger. With every eye on him, he collected his rackets and left.

Players hardly ever beat Kriek; he'd rather beat himself. "I don't know the meaning of the word 'choke,' " he says. "I never play the percentages. I could get 80% of my first serves in, but everybody would return them. So I gun it, get a couple of aces and get in 35%."

Kriek's overhead and volley also are fierce, and he may be the fastest player on the tour. But he scatters spectators with hopeless shots and averages nearly five double faults a match. "He reminds me of a race-car driver," says fellow pro Peter Rennert, who was once his doubles partner. "He has that intense look about him. It's almost a macho thing. He loves to live dangerously."

Sometimes Kriek seems amazed at his own behavior. "I do say some outrageous things, but I don't mean them," he says. "Baseball, that's the game I love. Fifty guys come running out of the dugouts and get in a free-for-all. It's great! Then the umpires. The players throw dirt on them! They spit on them! Can you imagine me doing something like that? If I spit on an umpire, I'd be barred for life. Someday I'm going to do something really outrageous at Wimbledon. Like they do in baseball. Right before Princess Di."

Like the little girl with the little curl right in the middle of her forehead, Kriek, when he isn't being horrid, can be very, very good with tennis officials. "I like him," says Herb Kosten, an umpire from Memphis. "He's not like some of the players who turn their backs on you when you are introduced before a match. With Johan it's, 'Nice to meet you, sir. Let's have a good match.' " Kosten was in the chair early last year when Kriek almost walked away from one of his most important tournament victories. With Kriek leading Tim Gullikson in the second round of the U.S. Indoors in Memphis, Kosten gave him a warning for yelling an obscenity. Kriek claimed he hadn't said anything off-color, and was defiantly heading for the locker room when a friend intercepted him and talked him into completing the match. Kriek went on to upset McEnroe in the final.

In March Kriek drew an automatic 21-day suspension from Grand Prix tournaments for accumulating more than $5,000 in fines. He appealed one of the penalties and it was reduced, which put him under the limit, but he told tour officials he wanted to be suspended anyway, and they complied. Says Kriek, "That way I could start over with a clean slate. I'm a 'schizo' when it comes to tennis. On the court I'm like an animal. I've got no respect for anyone. People hate me for what I am on the court."

At times Kriek seems more interested in skipping out than in playing. Shortly before the WCT Tournament of Champions at Forest Hills last May, he was on the telephone trying to contact his doubles partner, Tracy Delatte, who was ranked 496th in singles and 69th in doubles. Kriek wanted to default the doubles because he simply didn't feel like playing tennis that day. Failing to reach Delatte, he played, and they won, earning Kriek $9,000 and reinforcing the opinion of Rennert, who says, "If you play doubles with Johan, there's only a 50-50 chance he'll show up. But if he does, there's a 50-50 chance you'll win the tournament."

In singles Kriek is even more unpredictable. Kriek smashes the ball. His opponent floats it back. Kriek creams the next one. The ball is wafted back. Kriek strokes it into the fence. Steam curls out of his ears. He twirls his racket. "It's time to go fishing!" he yells. In the stands, Tish starts thinking about packing. The Kriek Tank, a classic, is under way. He will lose very quickly.

"Something snaps in me," he says. "I don't want to play anymore. Afterward I get mad at myself. No one can talk to me. And the next day I don't feel like showing my face. I feel guilty. I feel terrible. And yet it happens."

The Kriek Tank never was better performed than in Tulsa last May at the Bank of Oklahoma Tennis Classic, an eight-man event. Against John Sadri in the semis, Kriek won the first set 7-6 but then began questioning line calls. The crowd responded with jeers. Kriek quickly lost the next two sets 6-0, 6-0.

Kriek can't understand how players can knock themselves out week in and week out, actually trying. He mimics what he calls the "burnout" cases, putting on a glazed and doltish stare. "Johan isn't going to burn out," says Tish. "Half the time he doesn't even go out there to play. In 1981 he must have tanked nine straight weeks. I told him I wasn't going to stay on the tour and put up with that stuff. I had to blackmail him. Now he's better."

"I don't tank in big tournaments," says Kriek. This helps explain his ranking as well as his record at the U.S. Open, in which he has reached the semis once and the quarters twice in the past five years, and at Wimbledon, in which he made the quarters last summer and in 1981. Before taking the court against top-seeded Bjorn Borg in the semis at the 1980 U.S. Open, Kriek said, "He will have to kill me to beat me." With a dazzling display of speed, touch and power, Kriek reeled off the first two sets 6-4, 6-4. Then, in one of the sport's most dramatic reversals, Borg grew steadier and Kriek suddenly started missing. Borg won the next three sets 6-1, 6-1, 6-1.

In 1981 Kriek lost 6-2, 6-1 to Mel Purcell at the U.S. Pro Indoor Championships in Philadelphia. On match point, Kriek slammed a serve return into the stands and stormed off the court, pausing only long enough to stuff his rackets into a garbage can. In the locker room, another player, Freddy McNair, was sitting by a blackboard when he was startled by a crashing noise. Kriek had put his fist through the blackboard. He then walked a mile through the icy January night back to his hotel.

There Kriek wrote a letter to Tim Gullikson, his doubles partner in Philly. Recalls Gullikson, "The letter said, 'This is a lousy game and a lousy way to make a living, and I can't do it anymore. You're going to be mad and I'm sorry, but it's something I have to do.' Then he slipped it under my door early in the morning. The next day I saw him checking out of the hotel."

Can this be the same fellow who is courteous, thoughtful-and mannerly away from tennis? Who is loved by his friends and respected by his neighbors? Who at a testimonial dinner given for him last April by the Naples Bath and Tennis Club delivered a moving 90-minute speech? One of Kriek's favorite pastimes is tending the flowers and shrubs around his home. He sweeps his driveway every day and cares for a yard full of stray cats, several of which once set up housekeeping behind the Kriek clothes dryer. As for full-time pets, he and Tish have two dogs, Barfy, a Lhasa apso, and TP, a Yorkshire terrier, and a loquacious parrot named Kato.

Kriek enjoys leading a secluded life in Naples. The ATP doesn't even know his phone number; for a time, the one on file there was answered by a voice that said, "Naples Solar Control." Kriek changes his number frequently, and his neighbors understand because in Naples privacy is cherished. The town is a haven for millionaires, but it has its share of rednecks as well. The two breeds co-exist, swollen checkbooks alongside swollen cheeks, with neither side infringing on the other's territory.

One afternoon last spring Kriek had to visit his bank. He needed $25,000 to buy a boat, and the bank didn't want to give him the money over the phone.

"Johan, can you step in here a minute," a bank official called soothingly as Kriek, wearing running shorts, a faded T shirt and sandals, walked by his office. "I told them to give you whatever you want," he said. "We'll get it done today." Five minutes later Kriek was strolling out the door with his check for $25,000.

One Kriek trait that sometimes causes difficulty is his bluntness. When the man who was selling him the new boat asked what he had as a trade-in, Kriek replied, referring to the 21-foot Glastron CV-23 that he owned, "A submarine. The bloody thing has been sunk twice."

Tish was not amused when she heard what her husband had said. "Oh Yo!" she complained. "Now he won't take the boat. I wish you wouldn't be so honest."

Kriek grew up on a sugar plantation in the remote Afrikaner farming community of Pongola, where Saturday night entertainment consisted of a movie brought in by truck. His father, George, who had been one of the best rugby players in South Africa, was paralyzed in a farming accident in 1965 but continues to run the plantation. Kriek was an accomplished athlete as a kid, playing rugby and running sprints. But he liked tennis best, even though the South African Tennis Federation did not pay his way to junior tournaments. In Kriek's view, he was passed over, at least in part, because he was an Afrikaner, of Dutch descent. Much of the federation and most of the country's top players were of English extraction.

With or without his country's blessing, Kriek was determined to pursue tennis. "He always knew he could be a great player," says Dave Creighton, a teaching pro who played doubles with Kriek when they were teen-agers. "People used to laugh at him, but he was sure. He was never scared of losing. I remember in one of his first pro tournaments, in England, he lost 6-1, 6-1 to Roscoe Tanner. He came back and said, 'I can beat him.' We thought he was crazy." Says Kriek, "Everybody else was losing to Tanner 6-0, 6-0. At least I got some games."

In 1976, at age 17, Kriek left South Africa for Austria, where he worked on his game and supported himself by teaching tennis. He was beginning to burn his bridges. Last summer he became a U.S. citizen. This winter he returned to South Africa for a series of exhibition matches as well as the South African Open, and was severely criticized by the media for having left his native country.

After spending a year and a half on the European satellite circuit, Kriek came to the U.S. in 1978 with a world ranking of 217. By year's end he had vaulted to No. 27. His third week here he met Tish in Bonita Beach, Fla., where she was watching a satellite tournament in which Kriek was playing. They went to a McDonald's one of their first times together, and Kriek, impoverished but gallant as always, insisted on paying. The next week he won a tournament and $1,500. He took half the money and bought Tish a necklace. "He always spent money on other people, even when he didn't have any," she says. They were married July 14, 1979.

Not surprisingly, in light of his spikiness on the court, the Krieks make their own way on the circuit. She calls her small group of friends "the un-clique." But being popular on the tour doesn't particularly interest Kriek, who thinks the life-styles of some of the pros are at least as bizarre as his own. "I can't believe the guys and drugs," he says. "I figure if you've got to stuff something up your nose, or put some pills in your stomach to get through the day, you're pretty bad off. You ought to take a gun and end it all."

So far Kriek has had no trouble getting through his days without the one thing some tennis observers think could be his: the world's No. 1 ranking.

Even Kriek recognizes that he has squandered his talent. Hank Jungle, a tennis coach in Fort Myers, Fla. who has worked with Kriek, often preaches to him on the subject. "A player who is No. 12 and who is happy, pretty soon he's going to be No. 20 and then No. 30," says Jungle. "The way to get ahead is to shoot for the top." Jungle, who began helping Kriek in mid-1980, also has given him specific advice. Most important, he adjusted Kriek's forehand, enabling him to hit the stroke with more top spin, and smoothed out his service motion.

Kriek has talent—not the sort given in dribs and drabs to the middle range of athletes, but the authentic stuff ladled out to a select few—and it has taken him to No. 12 almost in his spare time. As intense and contentious as he can be while playing, tennis is often far from his mind. Sometimes he goes for weeks without picking up a racket. He doesn't jog. He eats whatever is put before him.

In September 1981 Kriek and McEnroe were flying in a helicopter on their way to a tennis club outside of Nice, France, where they were to play an exhibition. The conversation was amiable. Suddenly, as they approached the club, a change came over McEnroe. Below, a crush of people were waiting for No. 1. Kriek could sense McEnroe changing from regular guy into superstar.

When the chopper touched down, McEnroe bounded out and was swept away by the crowd—Lindy had landed. Kriek wanted to shout, "Wait for me!" Instead, he just stood there, bewildered and ignored.

Kriek sometimes wonders if he might be better off staying where he is. He's already well off. Maybe it's not so important to be famous as well. "I look at some of the guys at the very top, and they always seem to be moping around," he says. "A lot goes into getting to be No. 1. In Naples, I'm happy with my life. You get to be No. 1, you have to share things with everybody. You don't have time to be yourself. The other thing is the work. I can't play tennis if I don't feel like it. I play best when I'm eager. If I'm not, I might as well not be out there. Maybe if I practiced more I could be No. 1, but would I be happy? Actually, I should put it this way: If I never become No. 1, I know I'll still be happy."

PHOTO PHOTOOff the court, as Kato knows, Kriek can be very, very good, but on it he can be horrid. PHOTOKriek's pad and a trio of Porsches: a 1979 930 Turbo, a 1974 911 and a 1982 928. PHOTOKriek believes in enjoying the roses while he may. PHOTOOn the tour, as she is most of the time, Tish enjoys a quiet dinner with Johan in Hawaii. PHOTOKriek tubes along at 30 knots behind his 27-foot Chris-Craft.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)