Tennis guru Peter Burwash says future of the game is in Asia
Famed coach Peter Burwash says the time has finally come for players from the region to claim their rightful place among the game's elite
Coming to Asia always excites Peter Burwash. Not because he's flying the best airlines or staying in the best hotels or enjoying the best food, but because he knows Asia is entering "a great new era" in world tennis.
Kei Nishikori's victory at the Japan Open last weekend and Zhang Ze's ground-breaking success at the China Open, where he reached the quarter-finals, are cases in point that Burwash - tennis guru, motivational speaker, author, world traveller, master coach and ex-athlete - knew were coming years ago.
"It's a great era because now Asian players believe," said Burwash, who was in Hong Kong this past week as part of a whirlwind Asian tour, speaking and providing corporate training.
"Part of being a good athlete and part of becoming a winner is that you have to believe, and most of the Asians didn't believe in their hearts they could win before. I love what's happening now. Nishikori beating [Canada's] Milos Raonic - that's a classic example of the smaller player beating a big, booming server."
Burwash can speak from experience, having been a top player (albeit not on the ATP circuit), amassing 19 singles and doubles titles during his pro years from 1967 to 1974. But tennis was not his first love. He was drafted by the St Louis Blues in the National Hockey League long before he was Canada's number one tennis player.
Burwash has been to Hong Kong many times before. Since starting his company - Peter Burwash International (PBI), the world's largest tennis-management company - 37 years ago, the 67-year-old has enjoyed the buzz Asia creates. And he's excited Asian players are beginning to make their mark.
Michael Chang set the foundation in 1989 by winning the French Open, and Li Na's glorious victory at Roland Garros last year was another milestone. Now Burwash is impressed by Nishikori and Zhang's triumphs on the men's side, which he said would lay the marker for other Asian players to try to emulate.
"The Asians have the best hands," said Burwash. "They are very creative from table tennis or anything they do with a racquet, and the question has always been, well: Why haven't Asians done well in tennis before? There was always a misconception, which I always opposed, that the Asians were not good enough to compete against the Europeans. That's the argument I always got before and I refused to accept it.
"When Michael Chang came through I said, 'Finally, it has nothing to do with size or height'. Finally, that belief was there. A number of other Asian male players like Thailand's Paradorn Srichaphan [who Burwash coached as a junior] also came through the ranks."
Asian players are beginning to hold their own on the court, and it won't be long before there are more players like Li and Nishikori taking the sport by storm, according to Burwash.
"You have to have the right artillery to go to war. In many ways, sport is similar to war. You have to have the tools to be able to handle that. Why did Nishikori beat Raonic? It's because he had a really good offensive and defensive foundation. He defended himself well but he was also very aggressive. And that's the perfect combination."
Burwash is one of the world's most renowned coaches, having travelled widely and coached in 134 countries. He has logged millions of air miles over the years. He's coached top players such as Venus and Serena Williams as juniors, as well as Greg Rusedski and Canadian Sebastien Lareau, doubles gold medallist with Daniel Nestor at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Now he's expecting the Asians will make an even bigger mark in the near future. He's particularly excited about one young Asian-American girl under his wing. He strongly believes she's the best of the 3 million players who have come through his system since PBI was formed in 1975.
"Claire Liu has won the under-12 Orange Bowl, which is the best in the world for her age. She's from a really nice family. I coached the Williams sisters at the same age, but she's more talented. She can do more with the ball than the Williams sisters could do at her age," Burwash said proudly.
"Put it this way: If she had the mental toughness of the Williams sisters, with her skill and talent, she could be the best player ever on the women's tour. She played one of the top men in our club [in California] and she beat him 6-0, 6-0, 6-1.
"The guy said, 'I wanted to lose to an 11-year-old all my life'. When I first taught her, by the end of the first day, she was already executing backhand overhead smashes. She could do anything. She's the only player I have ever coached who could do 100 per cent of what I asked her to do on the first day. She's incredible. She's very small but she's strong, and she's got athlete's legs and an athlete's mind in terms of what to do."
If Liu, who just turned 12, wins Wimbledon one day - which doesn't sound far-fetched given her phenomenal skills - Burwash would rather not be mentioned in her victory speech. For one thing, he rarely gives interviews and contends he never takes credit for other people's success. He says tennis is one of the greatest gifts parents can give to their children, and that alone gives him personal satisfaction.
"I don't own anybody. I don't ever want to take credit if Claire does become a success, because teaching is a privilege.
"Nobody is my student and that's very important to me. But what I like about this part of the world is there's a strong sense of humility.
"I don't care if my name is mentioned. It's not important to do interviews. I'm doing this because I happen to like Asia and there's a future for this.
"If a kid reads this article and says, 'I believe I can be a champion', then that's a worthwhile reason to do an interview. This is their time and this is their era. I stay away from publicity. We give these things to give people the gift of tennis, and not to promote ourselves."
The California-based Burwash feels his teaching methods are different from, say, Nick Bollettieri, because the biggest concern of Burwash's team is to teach a practical approach to tennis. "My background is in kinesiology. Whatever we teach has to be medically sound. Most of what is being taught today is not medically sound, and the end result, as you will notice, is that almost every player on the tour gets injured, because they're doing this motion," Burwash said, making an arc with his hand.
"People also teach players to keep the thumb off the back of the racquet, and that's what causes tennis elbow. Most of what's being taught today is causing potential injury. So we are very medically sound."
1. Played Davis Cup for Canada and reached a world singles ranking of 63 (pre ATP); winner of 19 singles and doubles titles (pre ATP).
2. Formed Peter Burwash International in 1975 after ending his playing days. He employs 80 professionals who operate in 32 countries.
3. Runs several charitable organisations, including one in India with his two daughters, Kim, 22, and Skyler, 17.
4. Author of 10 books and a certified sport physiologist and nutritionist.
5. International Tennis Hall of Fame Educational Merit Award is among many achievements and awards conferred on him through the years.