Steve Flink: Robbie Koenig Masterful Behind the Microphone

The tennis broadcasting industry overflows with gifted analysts, skilled play by play communicators, and experienced individuals who excel for a multitude of reasons. These announcers work remarkably hard at their craft. They appeal to fans of varying degrees of passion and knowledge. They all have brigades of boosters, people who sit at home expecting to be informed and entertained, followers who can be immensely loyal yet extraordinarily demanding as well. They realize that some will judge them harshly. They are appreciative of those who assess their work more generously.

Many who watch the game regularly on television erroneously believe that commentary is essentially an easy craft. That is simply not the case. In fact, it is hard work for broadcasters to raise the awareness of viewers who are inclined to think that they know best. It is a tall challenge to address diverse audiences with preconceived notions of what they want to hear and how they would like it to be presented. The golden rule is that aficionados are by their very nature demanding, opinionated and highly critical.

No one understands those demands better than Robbie Koenig, a former player from South Africa who climbed into the top 30 in doubles and reached three major semifinals in mixed doubles and one in men's doubles at the majors during a career which concluded in 2005. Koenig has become a universally popular and revered figure in the broadcasting world. He did some part time work in that field while still coaching a couple of players in 2006, and by 2007 this dynamo took his considerable talent onto the World Feed for the ATP World Tour. Ever since, Koenig's stature has grown significantly. He stands indisputably as one of the premier announcers in tennis. He possesses a distinctive voice. His enthusiasm is infectious. His capacity to dissect the intricacies of a match set him apart immeasurably.

We spoke by telephone last week. At the beginning of the conversation, Koenig shed some light on how he played, the way he thought as a player, and why that may have led him into the broadcasting arena. "We played a lot of serve-and-volley tennis in my time," he reflects. "I wasn't blessed with an intimidating physique so I never had the height advantage I probably needed on the serve to be an effective serve-and-volleyer [in singles]. I think you have to be a minimum 6'1" or 6'2". and that was never how my makeup was. I played a lot of singles qualies and qualified for a couple of Tour events but it was always difficult for me to compete week in and week out against the better players."

In doubles, however, he found a forum that suited him to the hilt. He recollects, "As a serve-and-volleyer in doubles you don't need to have the bigger serve. After focussing on singles for six or seven years in my career, I qualified one year at the U.S. Open at the U.S. Open in 1997 and made the quarterfinals in the men's doubles. In one week I made more money playing just doubles than I had pretty much the whole eight months leading up to the U.S. Open. Doubles was such a natural fit for my game. I made the decision to pursue doubles outright. In 1998 I made it to the semifinals of the U.S. Open men's doubles. From a financial perspective it was much better and I was competing at the biggest tournaments week in and week out. It was a good decision for me to follow my passion."

Elaborating on what made him so comfortable performing in doubles, Koenig asserts, "I had really good hands at the net and good anticipation. So the net game was far and away the best part of my game. Because I didn't have any major weapons, my ability to read the game and analyze it, and to understand tactical play, was my strong suit."

Keeping that fact in mind and knowing how Koenig looked at himself as a tennis player, his journey into the broadcast booth must have been almost inevitable. How did it start? Replies Koenig, "It was a chance meeting if you can believe it. I had done the odd broadcast here and there in South Africa for the local broadcaster during Davis Cup. I enjoyed it, but it was never more than that. When I had finished playing, I was coaching Wesley Moodie and Mahesh Bhupathi in 2006. I was living in Wimbledon at the time. One day I was walking to the Southfields tube station and I ran into Jason Goodall, who lived two doors down from me. I knew Jason, but not very well. We hade a conversation and I talked about my coaching. He was doing the World Feed commentary and had been working for them for about two years. Jason asked if I would be interested in doing some commentary because John Barrett was retiring at the end of that year. I said, 'Wow, that is definitely something that would interest me.' "

Goodall—a former British player who had smoothly made the transition to broadcasting—asked Koenig to try some test commentary when he could find the time while traveling with his players, "to see if you are any good or not." Koenig welcomed that opportunity.

As Koenig recalls, "I was never desperate for the job. What helped me was I was very relaxed and just gave my opinions. My analysis of the game helped me in that situation. I remember doing it at a couple of events including Monte Carlo and Rome, just the odd event here and there. Then in the summer when I got to Cincinnati I did some work there in the booth. Just before the weekend in Cincinnati, the head of production for the World Feed said he liked my work and offered me all of the Masters 1000s they were doing in 2007. So I quit my coaching at the end of 2006 and started the commentary at Indian Wells. Knowing how the tennis business works, I always saw a much longer and more stable career for myself with the commentary versus the coaching. Federer and Nadal were playing some of the best tennis our sport had seen so I felt it could be fantastic to sit front and center and commentate on these greats of the game."

In those early years as a World Feed announcer, Koenig found himself gaining knowledge about his new field, and benefitting enormously from Goodall's wider range of experience. As Koenig explains, "I learnt so much from Jason. He was an excellent mentor for me. Jason is an extremely disciplined and very professional broadcaster. From day one, it was all about preparation and doing the best possible job. I felt when we were commentating together that if I didn't know my stuff I would be shown up. That was the last thing I wanted. Jason would give me always an honest assessment. In our industry, a a lot of people might take offense to [constructive criticism]. They like to be told how good they are and to get a pat on the back, but Jason is not like that. There was no b.s. in his feedback and I appreciated that. I had no problem with somebody pointing out if I was poor and telling me why."

One prime example of the learning process for Koenig was his request from the director to provide certain shots from the court that he wanted to see. Goodall got him aside and pointed out in a sensitive way, "Robbie, you don't tell the director what shots you want. He is the one who chooses the shots, okay?" Koenig, always willing to improve, secure about who he was and how much he wanted to thrive, got the message immediately. He says now, "I hadn't realized that the director was the boss down there. We all work together but 80 percent comes from the director and maybe 20 percent from us in the booth. Jason would also be honest with me if I was talking too much, or using the same adjective all the time.

Tennis is a repetitive sport and you are often seeing almost the same thing over and over. But I had to learn to describe the same thing in a different way. Jason's input was invaluable."

So, too, was Koenig's own quest to make the most of himself. In virtually no time flat, he turned himself into one of the sport's most insightful analytical authorities. Looking back on his evolution, Koenig says, "I would say that about three years into my commentary, that is where tennis seemed to take off because of the rivalry that Nadal and Federer had, and then the Djokovic and Murray surge later. That coincided with television rights starting to become more expensive. More and more sports networks around the world started taking the World Feed commentary from places like Singapore, New Zealand and Australia. It really was the perfect storm. Suddenly my voice together with Jason Goodall's gets heard every day. You work very long hours but gain so much experience. And what the World Feed commentary taught me was to do both play by play and expert commentary. It also gave me so much exposure worldwide that I got other gigs like the Australian Open. Why? They heard me all year round on Masters 1000 events."

Meanwhile, over the years, through so many enthralling moments and compelling matches, Koenig lifted his game and enlarged his understanding of his vocation. He says self-deprecatingly, "Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. As far as I am concerned, I am very lucky. I have always had the attitude of being a hard worker but I was lucky that things came together. I constantly listen to commentators in our sport and a lot of other sports to find out what sounds good. I must say in the second half of my commentary career these last five years, I have been really impressed by the guys who do basketball commentary in the U.S. I like their enthusiasm because it draws me in as a viewer."

Hearing Koenig say that, I was struck by how often I have listened to him announcing matches and how dynamically he conveys what he is seeing. Koenig lets it go with appealing emotional force more than many of his peers. The fan in him emerges. He does not overdo it or go overboard with his effusiveness, but Koenig reacts to spectacularly played points with unbridled joy. He shares his passion as well as anyone in the commentary field, perhaps even more so.

"Everybody develops their own style," he explains. "When I was listening to some of the well established NBA commentators, I would be sitting on my coach at home screaming at the television. I thought to myself that is how I want to be to tennis fans sitting in their homes. I come from a very positive and exuberant family so I think a little bit of my style was innate, but I often listen to myself back on highlights or a set or two of tennis that I am commentating. I am asking myself, 'Was that too much or did that sound good? Was that the right amount of excitement?' A lot of commentators don't like doing that but I feel if I want to get better and set the right tone it is imperative to listen back to what I have said. You filter out the bad and save what is good."

Koenig estimates that he will be on the road 24 weeks across the year. He still does all of the Masters 1000s, some of the ATP World Tour 500s, The Doha men's and women's events, and the Australian Open. The U.S. Open may well be on his agenda this year. Much of his work remains on the World Feed but he has widened his base. No matter where or when he works, Koenig delves deeply into the ever evolving nature of the game and its players. How would he describe the evolution of tennis during his tenure as a commentator over the past decade?

"That is a great question," he replies. "It is so great to see the athleticism that these guys can produce now from the back of the court, but we don't see the match-ups that I grew up watching between the great serve-and-volleyers and the great base-liners. String technology and racket technology have played a massive role in that. Even the court speed has gone so much in favor of the baseliner. The game is so physical now for those three reasons. Watching this unfold has been fascinating to watch. But as a serve-and-volleyer, a part of me is disappointed that it seems to be a dying art. You have got to give the serve-and-volleyer half a chance. The one thing that could change and help with that is speeding up the courts. That is what I liked about the Australian Open this year. Those courts allowed for more attacking and that was one of the reasons we saw the results we had. Why should you discriminate against the serve-and volleyer? I believe it is the job of the authorities to make it as fair a playing field as possible, but still I must say our sport has gone to new levels."

How does Koenig feel about the players trying to cut into the supreme authority of Djokovic, Murray, Nadal, Federer and even Wawrinka? He answers, "I am looking for players who can take the ball on the rise and take time away from their opponents, and also finish points off at the net. We are seeing more and more of that. Looking ahead, it may take a long time for players that have both of those things and a major weapon in the serve. Raonic if he stays pain free will definitely be a major contender at the majors. Alexander Zverev is going to have to add something to his game and add another dimension. He has the skills to be a top ten player but to dominate the sport or at least be a multiple Grand Slam champion, he has to improve in taking the ball earlier and finishing at the net. Nick Kyrgios would probably be not far away game style wise but there are question marks about him between the ears. I don't see anybody dominating in the next five to ten years apart from the old guard. Certainly it is going to be difficult to knock the old guard off their perch. It will be be at least three years down the road before guys are going to be able to win multiple majors."

Koenig turns to Dominic Thiem and Grigor Dimitrov. "I love Thiem," he asserts. "He has got a real opportunity of winning on clay and certainly is a threat to win the French Open. But I am concerned about him being able to finish points off at the net. I saw that first hand when Thiem lost to Goffin at the Australian Open. It was a perfect example of a player who takes the ball early and finishes points off at the net like Goffin and somebody like Thiem who stands three to five meters behind the baseline and is extremely physical. At the end of the day Goffin was able to conserve more energy."

Addressing Dimitrov, Koenig says, "I have been a big doubter, even when he reached the top ten in 2014. I always saw his backhand as a glaring weakness under sustained pressure but I must say I saw a different Dimitrov in Australia. I am very optimistic about what he can bring to the table these next couple of years, but do I see him beating the likes of perhaps Murray and Djokovic back to back to win a major? That would be very difficult. I want to see a top ten finish for Dimitrov this year at the very least, and he has to at least qualify for the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. I want him to show me that consistency."

Koenig witnessed the classic encounter between Federer and Nadal in the Australian Open final. Does he believe that was a damaging defeat for the Spaniard after leading 3-1 in the fifth set, or will the resilient southpaw use it as a springboard toward a tenth French Open triumph?

"I look at Nadal as being one of the best, if not the best player in our sport at being able to wipe the slate clean. He moves on to the next match and the next tournament and the next place. So I think Australia is going to be a positive for him, knowing that his game is a lot better this season than it was last season. But in the back of his mind and in Roger's mind also, they are well aware of the fact that they didn't have to beat Murray or Djokovic. It is a different test when they step on the court with those two guys. Murray and Djokovic are going to be motivated even further after their early losses in Australia."

What does Koenig expect from Djokovic the rest of this year? "I am optimistic about Novak," says Koenig. "I almost want to pencil him in for two of the next three majors. That is what I think he can do. I honestly do. Novak is a different breed. Even if he struggles at the French I wouldn't be surprised if he won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. If there is one guy who I would want to play for my life it would probably be Nadal, but I tell you what: Djokovic would be right up there as well given what we have seen from him the last five years."

Speaking of the world No. 1 Murray, Koenig contends, "He will be feeding off everything that happened the last seven months. Last year was his best clay court season ever. He truly believes he can live with the best players on clay. Would I pencil him in for one of the next three majors? Yes I would."

Federer, of course, celebrated a fortnight unlike any other in his illustrious career when he took his 18th career major in Melbourne, knocking out four top ten ranked players, overcoming three of his seven adversaries in five set clashes, battling back gamely and improbably to oust Nadal in the final. How will he follow up on that stirring run in Australia?

Koenig responds, "It was quite extraordinary. He will take so much confidence from the way he is hitting his backhand. That one shot in particular could be the game changer for him. His best chance for another major this year will be at Wimbledon on the grass. But if I am being honest, if you had asked me before the start of last year if Federer would win another major, if all my money was on the line I would have answered no. If you ask me again now after Federer has won the Australian Open if he will win another major this year, I would say the odds are still against him doing it in my eyes. To be honest, he should have lost to Rafa in that Australian final. The manner in which he was able to pull it off was defying the odds, winning in five sets over Nishikori, Stan and then Rafa. It was incredible. And let's not forget Roger not having to play Murray or Djokovic. It was almost like a perfect coming together for Federer in Australia. Is it going to happen again this year? I honestly don't think so. We know he can be there in the semis and finals, but can he win another major in 2017? And why can he win it? That is the real question."

Robbie Koenig has demonstrated during this interview precisely why he is so highly regarded among his broadcast partners and out in the court of public opinion. At 45, he is a man at the height of his powers, a fellow fully immersed in what he is doing, a masterful professional who never stops striving to raise his standards and expand his horizons as a commentator.

"I am always trying to get better," he says. "In this day and age. I am trying to connect with viewers as much as I can through Social Media, getting feedback from them. There will always be 10% of people who think you are the best thing ever, and 10% who think you are the worst thing ever. If you can look at those in between and get a feel for what they like about you and what they like about other commentators as well, you can really learn from their feedback. So whilst a lot of people are scared of Social Media, I like to embrace it. I just try to be the best I can be every day. Sometimes it can be just a one liner here and there that people remember. When somebody comes up to you and says, 'Hey Robbie, you said this and it is one of my favorite lines I have ever heard,' that is the ultimate feedback when you know you have enhanced someone's viewing experience. I would rather be known for good commentary than being a familiar face. When somebody comes up to me to give me feedback on my commentary, that is ultimately what I do it for. I am doing it for the commentary, not to be a well known person."

In the final analysis, however, Koenig must be admired most for the lofty quality of his work, and yet his fame in the world of sports will steadily and justifiably grow. That is exactly the way it should be.

Read more articles by Steve Flink

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