The first time I picked up a tennis racquet at the age of ten, it was love at first hit. Before I knew tennis existed, I loved playing table tennis (ping-pong). As a matter of fact, I wanted to become a table tennis professional. However, after hitting my first tennis ball, I found my new passion. Ever since then, I could not stop thinking about tennis. I wanted to play everyday. My mother who saw my burning desire to play, enrolled me in some tennis lessons at the United States Tennis Association (USTA) in New York, where the US Open is held.
After training at the USTA for a couple of years in group lessons, a new coach named David Breitkopf, once a top ranked junior who also played the professional tour, joined the coaching staff. The coaches rotated throughout lessons, so I had the chance to work with David from time to time. One day he approached me in the lobby and asked to speak with me. I knew I was in trouble. Immediately, I thought of all the different things I could have done to wrong him. From what I remember, he sat me down and said, “I like your game and work ethics. I want to coach you for a small fee.” Although after a little while, my mom who was divorced at the time could not afford to pay him, so he taught me for free. I met with him about three times a week and got personal attention for hours. He coached me consistently until I went to college. Although I saw him less during my college years, he still made a lot of effort to coach and see me. I owe my tennis career to him.
He took me under his wings, teaching me many different aspects of the game. But most importantly, he helped me develop strong work ethics and instilled in me, confidence, which I lacked growing up. I grew up without a father during my teen years and David was like a father to me. He drove me to tennis tournaments when my mother was too busy working. From all the hard work we put in, I was able to win some tournaments in the juniors and reach my highest ranking, number 17 in the North-Eastern Division, in the 18 and under age group.
I received a Full-Athletic Scholarship to the University of Stony Brook in Long Island, New York, where I played top singles and doubles for most of my college career. At the end of my senior year, I was awarded Scholar Athlete amongst all the athletes in the University. Although I had a set back during my senior year from having herniated disk surgery in my lower back, I still wanted to compete.
After graduating college, I flew to Seoul, Korea during the fall of 2000, to train with tennis professionals. It was a good experience. However, at the time, with my back still not being in good shape, I struggled physically to keep up with the other players. The very cold winter was approaching and training became less frequent, so I decided to head back to New York. I trained in Korea for three months.
Shortly after returning home from Korea, I still had the desire to train with top players. I contacted the Evert Academy in Boca Raton, Florida for a spot in a teaching/playing program. They accepted me. For the next 8 months, from January-August 2001, I lived with some touring professionals and coaches. The best part was that I was able to train with top national junior players and professionals. The director at the time, Guillaume Raoux, once a top 30 in the world tennis professional, gave me unforgettable tips that I utilize until this day. Another highlight was when I had the chance to be a training partner for Andrew Ilie (50 in the world at the time) for two weeks before the 2001 US Open. The Academy decided to discontinue the teaching/playing program and instead, offered me a full-time tennis coach position. I was not quite ready to stop competing. So, once again, I decided to head back home to New York.
I continued to compete in local prize money tournaments, teaching more hours of tennis on the side to fund my tournament traveling expenses. I then reached ranking number 11 in the North-Eastern Open Division in 2003. However, the more time I spent teaching, the more difficult it became to train and play tournaments simultaneously. I played competitively for another year, then decided that being a professional tennis player was no longer for me. At the age of 24, I decided to solely focus my attention on teaching tennis. Initially, I started teaching tennis to make ends meet. Though the more time I spent teaching, my passion grew for coaching students on improving their skills, as well as, encouraging maturity in them through tennis. Looking back on my tennis development, being a part of the game has taught me to be a better person. It taught me how to win and lose like a good sportsman, how to work hard and to never give up in a game, to fight till the end. It helped me to be positive and focus on the task at hand, “one point at a time,” and much more. All these positive skills I’ve acquired through tennis still affects me daily. I want to share this piece of me with my students, of how my coach, David Breitkopf, has trained and inspired me. By the way, we still keep in touch.
Photo taken in 1994 at the National Jimmy Connors Tournament in California, sponsored by Reebok.
From Left to Right: Mike Silverman (Director of Reebok Urban Youth Tennis in NY),
David Breitkopf (My Coach), Me, Jimmy Connors (former #1 player in the world).
My Coach’s (David Breitkopf) Side of the Story
In 1993, after four years working as a journalist for upstate newspapers, I returned to teach tennis at the USTA National Tennis Center, home of the U.S. Open. I discovered a crop of very talented young players that were far advanced above the kids I had taught back in the late 1980s at the Tennis Center.
Many of these players would go on to become highly ranked, even nationally ranked players. At the time, it actually whetted my own appetite to compete again. I too had been a nationally ranked player in the 1970s, and had competed with or against players such as John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl.
One day during the summer of 1993, I was playing doubles with three of the best kids in the camp. One of them, a 13-year-old Korean boy, had a big forehand and a clever American twist serve that I had trouble returning. He was also a bit cocky, laughing when I couldn’t handle one of his shots. I studied him for about a week, making inquiries about him to all the other staff pros. None of them were teaching this young boy, Tae Byon, privately. None seemed particularly interested in doing so, which surprised me because he was so talented. But then again there was an embarrassment of riches at the Tennis Center that year, and all the pros were booked to the hilt with numerous talented kids. I suspected I had found a diamond in the rough.
I approached Tae and asked him if he was taking private lessons from outside the Tennis Center. He said no. His mother could not afford to give him private lessons. He had learned how to play mostly through Korean group lessons, which if you’re familiar with them can sometimes have up to 30 kids on a single court. There is not a lot of chance to delve into the intricacies of stroke mechanics in such an atmosphere.
It dawned on me that Tae had essentially taught himself how to play tennis, modeling it after his ping-pong playing. His story so inspired me that I told him I’d take him on as a student gratis if he promised to work hard and drop the cocky posturing, which I could see masked a lack of confidence. We practiced early in the morning, late at night, whenever we could. I drove him to and from tournaments, and Tae’s mother welcomed me warmly into the family.
The attention paid off. He became a highly ranked player in the East in both junior and men’s divisions. He received a full tennis scholarship to the University of Stony Brook, where he played number one singles. He eventually played professional tennis as well. Today he teaches tennis in Irvine, CA. He too has worked with world-class players. My relationship with Tae is unique, admittedly, and something that I would not expect to occur again.
Still it shows that in a sense we are all diamonds in the rough when we are young, even not so young. Everyone has their talents and their potential. It sometimes only requires that additional ingredient of someone paying attention and praising and nurturing those talents.
Written by David Breitkopf