Six years ago, when Jeff Coetzee started coaching the Columbian doubles team of Juan Cabal and Robert Farah, they were ranked 55th in the world. This year, they won two grand slam titles, shot to number one status, and cemented Jeff’s reputation as the best doubles coach in the world.
The duo won their first grand slam at Wimbledon and right after, won their second at the US Open. They became the first Colombians to win a grand slam title and only the second South American pair to be ranked first. Of course, it is no exaggeration to say that this was because of the incredible coaching skills of Jeff.
Born and raised in the small town of Okiep in the Northern Cape, Jeff is himself a respected doubles player. When he started playing at the age of nine, he created his own tennis court in his backyard, using two orange bags for a net, on a surface made up of gravel. It was only when he moved to Johannesburg at the age of 11, that he realised he has the potential to compete in the top echelons of tennis.
Jeff’s goal was to become the top tennis player in the world but he first had to compete and win against the enemy called apartheid. There were some tournaments that a kid of colour could not compete in and then there was an incident that brought home how the apartheid system saw him. His coach, Bruce Davidson, was a white man and in order to avoid backlash from apartheid society, Bruce had to hide the fact that he was coaching Jeff. They eventually found out and when they did, they made it clear they were displeased by spray-painting Bruce’s car with the words, “kaffir lover”.
Jeff clearly won in his battle against the barriers that apartheid had set up for him. Not only was he the country’s top Junior champion, but in his final year as a junior, he only suffered one defeat on South African soil. After turning pro at the age of 19, he climbed into the top 30 in the singles division but an injury led him to concentrate on his doubles career. As a doubles player, he reached a career high of ranking number 12 in the world, winning 6 ATP Doubles Titles, reaching the Semi Finals at the Australian Open, playing in the Shangai ATP Masters, and competing against tennis greats such as Steffi Graf and John McEnroe. He also played in the Davis Cup for the South African team a total of 18 times as well as representing the country at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Tennis is a lucrative sport for top tier players, so by the time he retired at the age of 34 in 2011, he had already earned a small fortune of approximately R10 million. It is noted that he did not go on to become the number one tennis player in the world, but if you work hard, life has a way of rewarding you in unexpected ways.
After retiring, Jeff started working as a consultant for Shuttler/Waske Tennis University, where he assisted with the coaching of players such as the former world number one and 3 times grand slam champion, Angelique Kerber. His players have won Futures in both singles and doubles; and in 2014, he helped them make it to the US Open doubles semi-finals and win the US Open mixed doubles title.
In 2015, Stellenbosch University appointed him as their Head High Performance Tennis Coach and after having helped South-Africa get promoted to Europe/Africa Group I, he was appointed as the part-time high consultant to Tennis South Africa in 2017. It was however in 2014 that his road to coaching royalty really started. It was the year in which the Columbian’s, Juan and Robert, asked him to be their coach.
Jeff admits that when they asked him, he did not know much about them. They were ranked 55th and going nowhere slowly. They however told him that, given his reputation, they believed that he could coach them to the top, and they were right. After their multiple ATP and Grand Slam victories, the Columbians treat Juan and Robert like football stars and they have turned tennis into one of the country’s most popular sport. Jeff admits reluctantly that he has also become a bit of a celebrity in Columbia. In fact, they have embraced him as an honorary Columbian.
Jeff says that the person that inspired him the most is his mom, Mary, who always told him, ‘just let your racket do the talking.’ His father, Wiliam, passed away when he was 16 and being one of 6 siblings, family is very important to Jeff.
Jeff says that the best part of being a coach is that he gets to travel. With the birth of his daughter however, he started cutting back on traveling and took on jobs that allowed him to spend most of his time at home. Even when he is traveling, he makes a point of talking with his wife and daughter, now 7, every night over Skype. Having his daughter love books is very important to Jeff, so he is always there when his wife reads the bedtime story. One thing he won’t do is force his daughter to play tennis. He wants her to choose her own path in life and if she wants to become a tennis player, that will be because she made that choice.
When he is not coaching international players, he sees to the tennis academies he has launched, where he coaches promising young players. Along with his brother, who introduced him to tennis, he runs a tennis tournament every September with the aim of keeping kids focused on achieving their dreams. He is also involved with his own foundation, ‘Anyone for Tennis’, and he works with the Living Legends Foundation.
The moral of Jeff’s story is this. Sometimes, life has a way of pushing you in the direction of goals that you did not have in mind. You have a goal which you work hard to achieve and it is often the case that you do not reach that goal. Failure however, is the act of giving up altogether. Jeff did not give up. He worked hard, proved his worth and through his own determined will to excel, he became the best doubles coach in the world. He let his racket do the talking, and now everyone is listening.