Tennis Prose



Classic Biofile with Johan Kriek

By Scoop Malinowski

Status: Australian Open winner in 1981 and 1982. Former ATP no. 7.

Ht: 5-9 Wt: 168

DOB: April 5, 1958 In: Pongola, South Africa

Early Tennis Memory: “I was invited to go watch the Australian Open when I was 12-years-old. And I had top row seats, way in the back, behind the steel beam. And I saw Connors play and Ashe and a whole bunch of guys. 1972. And I knew I was gonna be a pro. That was a tennis memory.”

Tennis Inspirations: “I think that there was a lot of people that inspired me. Obviously, where I come from, there was one guy (Ziegried Trieger) that played locally at our club in the small town of Pongola, South Africa. There was maybe a couple hundred people in the town. And one of the guys – he was an English speaking guy (Ralph Peddy) – and I didn’t speak English, I speak Afrikans, my natural language. He would tell me, Rod Laver held the racquet like this. Ken Rosewall slices the backhand like this.”

Greatest Sports Moment: “Two of them. Really, one was the first time I won the Australian Open (1981), because you work your whole life to win a big tournament, and to get to the finals – I didn’t sleep because it’s my first time in a Grand Slam. I didn’t want to mess it up. To win that one was huge. The second one in 1982 was unbelievable for me. Played the same guy – Steve Denton. And the one that equals that was winning the South African Open in ’84 (d. Dowdeswell of Zimbabwe 64 46 16 75 63), two years later, in front of my parents, family and everybody was there. Because my dad was in a wheelchair, he couldn’t travel to Wimbledon and all those places. That one, for me, was an extremely emotional event. Because I had a tough time in South Africa with the press and different things, and becoming an American. Traveling the world, South Africa was a pariah country back then, politcally. And it was a very tough situation for me to win the South African Open and the first Australian were two highlights of my life.”

Most Painful Moment: “Oh there were lots. I think probably losing in the big tournaments. Like, I lost to McEnroe in Dallas. I lost to some big players. It was very painful leading Borg two sets-to-love in the 1980 U.S. Open semifinal – after I beat Wojtek (Fibak) in a five-set epic. Then I lost to Borg in five. I was up two sets-to-love. And he came alive. Borg is Borg.”

Favorite Tournament: “For me, obviously New York is crazy. It’s the biggest tournament in the world. It’s where my career really started. Because when they first moved to Flushing Meadows from Forest Hills, I qualified and made it to the quarterfinal and lost to Vitas Gerulaitis. This tournament, I was telling my wife, driving down the Merritt Parkway, going over the Whitestone Bridge, there’s a lot more traffic now than there used to be. For me it was like deja vu (to be back again this year) – I felt like I was re-tracking my steps when I would play the Open. I would think about who I was playing and drive my little Porsche. It’s crazy, it’s great, all in all it’s a wonderful tournament.”

Funniest Players Encountered: “Oh my God, there’s so many – Vitas Gerulaitis is one of the funniest bastards I ever met. Eddie Dibbs. Absolute nuts. Nastase’s a nut. Yannick Noah was funny. Henri Leconte. There’s a lot of funny guys.”

Toughest Competitors Encountered: “That’s tough. I can’t really single them out. Playing Borg and you just know this guy is just never gonna be ruffled mentally. Connors was tough, but I beat him a few times. McEnroe was always tough to play, whether you win or lose, you know you had to do some work. Lendl was just a beast, he was an animal physically. He was the Nadal of our time. The top guys were the toughest guys for me.”

Strangest Match: “I have played some unbelievable matches at the U.S. Open. Borg. I lost to Agassi one year on Armstrong after I wanted to beat the pants off him. And I beat him the following year badly in Memphis. I had some tough matches on court that I won – Fibak. I had eight match points against me against Roscoe Tanner one year. And I beat him in five sets. That was a strange match. Funny enough, there was an article written about the no-name players that made a huge impact at the U.S. Open. The guy wrote an article – I wish – I think I still have it – but the guy wrote it in the Wall Street Journal, just as an editorial, on a match that left him completely drained of emotion – was me and Roscoe. He was telling how I was the fiery one, fighting hard and bleeding everywhere, diving for balls. And Roscoe had eight match points and lost. And it was really cool to see a guy write about it. And it was for me, one of the most emotional matches of my life, playing him. Because I should have never won but I won.”

Embarrassing Tennis Memory: “I played against the guy Olivier Delaitre, he was a French guy. And I was coming back and he was really good – he had like the Henin backhand of the men’s, one-handed backhand. I played him in my comeback in ’91 or ’92 in Lyon, France. We played indoors, really cold, late in the year, November or something like that. And he has match point. The moment he served the first serve – I thought it was gonna go in – all the lights went out. Pitch black, nobody knew where the ball went. So we stopped. And all the emergency lights came on, dimly lit, it took like an hour-and-a-half to get the court re-booted and the lights came back on. And after an hour-and-a-half, he serves an ace. To win the match. That was my comeback. I had surgery on my elbow – I was already 34-years-old. But I played pretty well, got to the quarters there.”

Last Book Read: “I read a lot of political stuff. March To Hell about America and radical Islam. It’s a scary book.”

Favorite Movie: “Gladiator.”

Favorite TV Show: “Modern Family.”

Musical Tastes: “I’m a huge music nut – Andrea Bocelli to Pavarotti to Lady Gaga. Jazz, smooth jazz. I like all kinds.”

First Job: “Farming with my dad, helping drive tractors and plowing. When you plow fields, it’s a wonderful feeling. You come home and nobody recognizes you because you have so much stuff on you.”

First Car: “Chevrolet Camaro 1978 yellow [laughs].”

Current Car: “Toyota Four-Runner. My wife has an Acura.”

Best You Ever Felt On Court: “One of the best matches I ever played was against Wayne Ferreira in Capetown when he was a junior. My dad was there. This was in like 1991, he was just coming on Tour, was really good, they said he was gonna be top 10. I beat Wayne 7-5 in the third. My dad said, I’ve never seen a better tennis match in my life. You guys played flawless tennis. I had to. It was a small, $75,000 tournament. It was the best I ever felt in my life.”

People Qualities Most Admired: “Straight-forward, up-front, honest. No BS. I’m kind of a straight-forward kind of guy. I like loyal people. I’m very loyal. I like loyalty in people.”

Career Accomplishments: Winner of two Australian Opens; Winner of 14 career ATP singles titles and eight doubles; Reached career high ranking of 7 in 1984.

You can read more Biofile interviews like this at

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  • Andrew Miller · October 14, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    My respect for J. Kriek just went up enormously. That was awesome!

  • Scoop Malinowski · October 14, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    Thanks Andrew. It’s one of the best Biofiles I did all year. Classic for sure.

  • Dan Markowitz · October 14, 2010 at 5:07 pm

    Good one, Scoop. I like Kriek, he’s a straight-shooter, and as someone told us at Delray, I think McEnroe, in his prime he was one of the fittest and fastest guys. Gotten a bit fat these days and shouldn’t be competing in these senior events, but he’s a free and easy guy, and what a powerhouse this dude is.

  • Malin Nilsson · October 14, 2010 at 7:06 pm

    Really enjoyed this Biofile. He seems like he’d be a nice, down-to-earth guy to chat with. Was it recently you interviewed him? I like his first car – I also had a ’78 Chevy Camaro but mine was red.

  • Scoop Malinowski · October 14, 2010 at 8:17 pm

    We did this Biofile just before the US Open in NYC. He comes across exactly what he is – a cool guy.

  • vinko · October 15, 2010 at 3:11 am

    He used to have a clothing line with a rhino logo. Does he still do the clothes?

  • RIP · October 15, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    I remember McEnroe saying that. McEnroe was asked the fastest players he’s faced or seen and he said a guy people sometimes forget to mention is Johan Kriek – fabulous speed and quick off the mark.
    I would say of all the players I’ve seen under 5-foot-10 Johan Kriek had one of the biggest first serves. He had a beautiful and simple motion, used his strong legs so well and had a great wrist snap and timing.
    He had that rare combination of power and speed. Also like the fact he does a lot of environmental work and really seems to try to help people. Interviewed him a few times on the old Connors Champions senior tour and Kriek was such a down-to-earth, interesting and, as he told Scoop, a no BS kind of guy. Great interview Scoop.



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