Driving his white Chang An Ling Mu “City Baby” compact past the 5th Ring Road into the far west precincts of Beijing Coach Johnee surveys the grey murk ahead in the distance.
nov 2 2008, 12:00am
Pictures stolen from Johnee's website, johneetennis.com/
Driving his white Chang An Ling Mu “City Baby” compact past the 5th Ring Road into the far west precincts of Beijing Coach Johnee surveys the grey murk ahead in the distance. “I’ve been driving out here every day for three months and I still haven’t seen the mountains.” Where just two years ago there wasn’t anything but farms now there are shopping malls, gas stations and packed-to-the-brim McDonald’s. “Wait until you see this parking lot, it’s huge,” and indeed the Beijing Wu Huan Zhuang Yuan Sports Club does have an expansive parking lot, practically deserted at 9 AM. Across from the sports club a massive rectangular glass-roofed building with air conditioning ducts all along its side looks like the bastard child of the Pompidou Center and a luxurious greenhouse. Surely this edifice was not influenced by any architectural ideas of “dematerialization,” it’s more a symptom of the Chinese penchant for haphazardly mixing opulence with ugliness, leaving electrical wires unconcealed, and erecting entire subdivisions of $2 million “villas” directly beneath power lines. The monstrosity turns out to be the “Four Seasons Botanical Gardens,” combining the national appetite for co-opting famous American names with a fondness for being extremely misleading. Instead of a botanical garden what’s inside is an ostentatious restaurant with tropical-looking flora planted between gargantuan white tables. This early in the morning it’s quiet and empty, and the only sound that can be heard is faint hammering coming from the nearby skeleton of a building under construction.
Johnee Kop is a former professional skateboarder from Honolulu who rode for Hosoi and Vision during the 1980s and has the historical distinction of being the first person ever shown boardsliding down a handrail in Thrasher (in a June 1986 Town and Country ad, for the record). He was later the drummer of Chokebore, a band that put out several albums with Amphetamine Reptile in the 1990s, before he left the worlds of skateboarding and music to move to his ancestral homeland ten years ago. He shook hands with Kurt Cobain when Chokebore opened for Nirvana just weeks before the end, enjoys videotaping himself arduously running up steep hills, and somewhere along the way became a United States Professional Tennis Association Level 1 member. Now he runs his own tennis-teaching program to nationally ranked juniors and others in both English and Mandarin, with a distinctive pedagogical style that often incorporates his talent for impromptu rhymes. “My name is Tennis and there's nothing higher/You want to play with me/Then you’re gonna feel the fire!” is just one of many, many examples. Pulling a shopping cart filled with tennis balls and lugging an assortment of racquets, Johnee hobnobs with his students as they get dropped off and then, to their giddy amusement, gyrates around the lot on one of their snake boards.
Inside the Fragrant Hills Tennis Center the German basketball team is playing Spain on the big TV broadcasting the Olympics, and down the hall doors are ajar to the dorm rooms in which the center’s workers live. Johnee and I walk past the tennis courts to the soccer field where tennis class starts with warming up and playing there for 20 minutes. As things get going a student gives Johnee some chocolate, to which he responds, “Thank you, you’re my best friend” in a tone that blends sincerity with a tiny dose of benevolent mockery. There are four girls and four boys between the ages of nine and fifteen, and they run back and forth, laughing and kicking the ball. A dank smell comes off the Astroturf and plastic bottles and cigarette butts litter the ground near an underused trashcan. Johnee munches on the chocolate bar, issuing orders and directives, and proclaims “I love my job, I can eat and play at the same time.” Right away chocolate is established as a recurring theme, used as a motivating factor both for the students and the coach himself. “You’re so good, I’m going to give you chocolate!” with the syllables relished and elongated into “ChocooooLITTTT” is shouted out to a small nine-year-old girl wearing round glasses, a red t-shirt and a white tennis skirt. During a break, a 12-year-old boy invites the coach to his birthday party, breathlessly stating, “There’s going to be Xbox and PlayStation.” Coach Johnee gently demurs, and says to me out of the corner of his mouth, “Dude, I’m like 50 years old, I can’t go to his birthday party.” It’s abundantly clear the kids like their coach very much, and that they respond to his ability to effortlessly shift between the opposite roles of compatriot and authority figure. That delicate interplay is a winning combination, its success evident as the students veer from joshing Coach Johnee one moment to listening to what says with rapt attention the next.
As the mountains remain shrouded in gloomy, polluted mist the students troop off the soccer field and separate onto two adjoining courts, where the coach walks between them yelling “A-ya!” whenever someone bungles a shot or “BAM-BOOM” when they hit an overhead slam. They start at the net, go to mid-court, then back at to the baseline where they hit the ball with much more power than they do near the net. Johnee repeats “Zhan Wen ["steady"] …Good.” Facing them with his arms crossed he alternates between joking and traditional coachly sternness. His legs are extremely muscular and utterly hairless, and though the glasses, blue shorts, and white tennis shirt are perfectly normal, the fanny pack and straw farmer’s hat give him a touch of eccentricity. The girls volley from the baseline, over and over as he hits to them from close to the net, making a forehand motion to demonstrate, ending with the vocal ejaculation of “Boom!” Over and over, forehand, ending with “Boom!” After 20 minutes they stop and take a drink of water and rest, and there’s the slightest hint of perspiration on their foreheads.
A gangly, personable eighth grader named Daniel walks over and divulges that he’s from Edison, New Jersey, and that “I speak Chinese but my first language is English. I’m here for middle school but I’m going back for high school.” While the kids all take turns trying to hit the ball into an empty tennis racket bag on the other side of the net, Johnee threatens one girl with having to run around the soccer field if she doesn’t adjust her forehand grip before laughing and announcing “I’m the King!” At this she snickers “Yes, God” behind his back. They progress to the next exercise, sitting on the baseline cross-legged and trying to get the balls into the bag. “Hit the ball high like you’re hitting a fly/Don’t hit it low like it's going in a hole!” Getting the ball into the bag turns out to be extremely hard to pull off from indian-style, but not nearly as difficult as the next variation that has them lying on their backs trying to do the same thing. Only one boy manages the feat. When asked if he came up with the sitting down exercise Johnee admits with a touch of pique “Nah, I got that out of a book”, but brightens up about his inspiration for the full lie-down, “I made that part up, it’s called the ‘Coffin Serve.’”
Daniel and the other boys are a bit older and possessed of more self-assurance, particularly one with spiky hair whose attitude verges on cocky. The girls aren’t as boisterous and there’s strikingly wide range of size between the tallest, who is almost six feet tall and the very small, almost solemn Liu Yan Ni. Never speaking or smiling, she has big rough scabs on her right leg that look like road rash incurred from motorcycle spill. In fact, they’re from an overzealous dive for a tennis ball. While she purposefully and diligently hits away the tall girl appears to be enjoying herself to no end, and smiles indulgently when she demonstrates her improved forehand grip. As her parents watch Johnee yells “jin bu” (“improvement”) at her and then when she misses a shot “Ahhh, Jin bu LE,” inserting the past tense to negate the improvement. To that she just laughs again, seemingly unruffled. As the girls start a doubles game the three boys and a college student named Mr. Wong who has joined the class for the day begin to play on the other court, and the realization dawns that they are at a much higher level than previously evident. This is real tennis, not just screwing around, with solid serves, powerful strokes from the baseline, and much running to the net to make resounding, high bouncing smashes.
The boys’ doubles game draws to close, with Mr. Wong and the cheeky kid coming out on top and Daniel of the losing team proclaiming “Game Over” with an exaggerated Arnold Schwarzenegger-ish intonation. The winners are rewarded with taking on Johnee and Liu Yan Ni, who is such a diminutive wisp of a child it seems like match is sure to end up as a fiasco. Up until this point Johnee's abilities have remained a secret and it's been easy to wonder whether or not he's really their superior. As soon as they start, it becomes glaringly obvious that Coach Johnee is really, really good. When he serves it doesn’t look like the ball is going that fast put his placement of it is so precise the player trying to return the serve can’t, or sends the ball into the net, accompanied by a lot of head-shaking and consternation. When the spiky-haired kid makes a point he pumps his fist, but it’s a lost cause in the long run as Johnee repeatedly makes what look like impossible shots, putting the ball just right where the two opposing players can’t get it. What transpires is actual tennis, exciting to watch, and players from nearby courts stop and come over to observe. After a game or two Johnee takes off his sun hat, revealing a baseball cap underneath, and upon resuming occasionally strikes a pose with his racquet across his arm like a knight with a sword to taunt the opposition when they’re serving. Improbably, this ruse apparently adds to their misfortunes. “It’s stupid but it psyches them out," Johnee admits, "Well, at least it worked once.”
As the game ratchets up in intensity the only interruption is a shouted “Drink water!” every ten minutes. Does the mysterious Liu Yan Ni ever speak? “She never talks,” Johnee answers. Remaining eerily silent through long rallies, her serves are relatively soft and weak but when she hits a forehand and backhand from the baseline the ball arcs across the net with way more power than one would think a body that size could produce. She starts to grunt a bit, surprisingly making a sound, and when she’s returning a serve she drums her feet in a get-ready dance of utmost seriousness. After the carnage they all line up at the baseline for a round of everybody against the coach. He hits to one of them for as long as they can hit it back, returning every ball no matter where it goes, and after two or three successful parries they miss or hit it out and another student takes their place. Time for another rhyme: “Hit it in the air like you just don’t care!” When one of the girls sends over a too-easy shot he laughs and gleefully sings out “Thank you!” before sending her running to the far corner of the court with a surgically placed ball she can’t possibly return. Now class is done, and the tall girl gives the coach some more chocolate. To his “You didn’t put poison in here did you?” the comeback is a somewhat startling “No, just a dose of heroin.” Outside at the entrance to the Four Seasons four blankly expressionless hostesses in floor-length silk dresses are standing at attention, waiting for something to happen, and the kids getting into their parents’ brand new SUVs rambunctiously yell “Goodbye, see you tomorrow!” as Coach Johnee wheels his shopping cart across the parking lot.