July 23, 2009
By Pete Iacobelli
SUMTER (AP) – Chuck Kriese has sat in the Wimbledon coach’s box, battled swarms of mosquitoes in his home and carefully sidestepped pythons in his first year of molding Southeast Asian tennis in Thailand.
Through it all the former longtime Clemson tennis coach has managed to keep his sense of purpose, winning over players wary of a foreign-born leader.
“I don’t know how else to say this, but God sure must have a sense of humor,” Kriese said between sessions at a tennis camp in Sumter.
It’s one explanation for how Kriese was unable to win an NCAA championship in 33 seasons with Clemson’s men, yet helped direct 17-year-old Noppawan Lertcheewakarn of Thailand to the girls singles and doubles titles at Wimbledon earlier this month.
The championships made Lertcheewakarn, known as “Nok,” a national celebrity in a country without much world sports presence. Kriese was asked after the Wimbledon wins if he would go home to bask in the adulation and celebration.
Kriese answered with the same advice he received long ago from former Clemson baseball coach Bill Wilhelm: “If you’re any dang good, you’ll stay in the background and push your players forward.”
That’s what the 59-year-old Kriese has tried to do with his daunting new job. As the tennis technical director for Southeast Asia, he’s been charged with coordinating the sports’ efforts for 15 far-flung and, at times, culturally disparate countries.
“Essentially, my boss said there are 800 million people there and only four make a living playing tennis,” Kriese said. Southeast Asian national federations are “all too small not to work together,” he says.
That’s why Kriese was the right person from the start, said Robert Davis, a former Clemson player and tennis touring coach who first pitched Kriese for the Southeast Asian position.
“I cannot help but think that this could be his greatest contribution to the tennis world,” Davis said in an e-mail. “Developing not one player, or a team, but an entire region for generations to come.”
The transition hasn’t always been smooth. Travel is long and grueling. Southeastern Asian nations are often rivals, so much so that it took all Kriese’s persuasiveness to get Indonesia’s Davis Cup team to train at Thailand’s tennis facilities.
For Kriese, wife Claire, and their three preschool-age children – Lillian, 5; Paul 3; and Adeline, 22 months – “living has been hard,” he acknowledged.
Forget that Bangkok’s a city of close to 7 million – more than 580 times Clemson’s estimated 12,000 residents – Kriese must walk several blocks for fresh water to cook. At night, he blasts the air conditioner to freeze out the swarming mosquitoes that invade the home. “All five of us have to sleep together,” Kriese said. “That’s the best way to handle it.”
And then there are the snakes. Two of Kriese’s former Tigers, Ryan Young and Nate Thompson, played in a Bangkok tournament for professional tennis hopefuls and found a 30-foot python near the courts. Claire has seen two large snakes and Chuck is always looking down to avoid surprises.
After a few weeks in Thailand, Claire wasn’t sure she and the children could last. The Krieses, though, called on their faith and drew resolve from the friendly faces they’ve met.
“Look man, millions of people live here and they do fine,” Kriese said he told himself. “You get your priorities right and you’ll be fine, too.”
They returned to the United States as planned in April, then Chuck began traveling Europe with Thai tennis players like the 17-year-old Lertcheewakarn.
She had won the junior girls doubles crown at the French Open and Kriese honed her game for Wimbledon. The biggest job, Kriese said, was convincing her she could excel against higher-seeded opponents.
Lertcheewakarn, seeded fourth, defeated top seed Kristina Mladenovic of France, 3-6, 6-3, 6-1 in the finals. A day later, the Thai teen combined with Australian partner Sally Peers for a straight sets victory in the doubles event. Kriese connected with several former players and tennis friends in England. He also gained heart from Lertcheewakarn’s success, and left confident he could continue the job he began a year ago.
The Krieses will return to Bangkok in September ready for year two. “I believe in this mission,” he said. “And it’s a great one.”
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