While Singapore can be a transient place for expats, plenty stay for the long haul. Frank Bruinsma, managing director of high-profile tennis coaching company Savitar, has notched up a third of a century – enough time to see huge changes to the city where he lives and the sport that he loves.
Where are you from originally? How long have you been in Singapore?
My parents are Dutch, but I was born in Australia. I moved to Singapore in January 1977. I went to college in California in 1986 and, after that, moved to Perth, Western Australia. We moved back to Singapore in 1993. This is my 33rd year here.
Where did you go to school?
Dover Court for a year, then UWC Dover for six years, and I finished with a year at the American School, so I had a taste of different education systems. Spending most of the time at UWC it naturally had the most impact, and I feel that I got a wonderful education there, both in and out of the classroom. I was very involved in the tennis and also helped as an assistant PE teacher. I think this is what gave me the teaching “bug”. I was also heavily into sport at SAS, and the social life there gave me a great foundation for college in the US. And I met my beautiful future wife, so that was a big bonus!
Singapore must be a different place now from when you were a teenager.
The constant change is a great thing about Singapore – it’s probably why we’ve stayed so long. Some changes have been for the better, some for the worse; in the mid 1990s, there were lots of negative things happening with “old” Singapore; shophouses were demolished, wet markets “revamped”; it was a shame watching the livelihoods of the older “kampong” generation being uprooted. However, Singapore has always had a vision and seeing how these changes were just a path to what we have now makes me appreciate and understand it better.
You live in a black-and-white house in Seletar. Where else have you lived in Singapore?
I’ve lived in a black-and-white house for 31 of my 33 years. I lived in Adam Drive growing up and that was an amazing experience. The whole area was surrounded by jungle, with kampongs set amidst the jungle. I walked through these little villages on a daily basis and was a familiar sight to everyone who lived there. Our part-time amah and gardener lived close by in a kampong and there were always lots of friendly smiles and hellos coming from the elderly people and the kids. The dogs were a little scary though.
My wife Edith (who also spent six years here, from 1977 to 1983) and I moved to the Seletar Air Base in 1994, back before it was accessible from the CTE. Nobody really wanted to live up there and we loved that. The house was wonderful; very open, with no windows, just shutters, plus a huge garden and some exciting wildlife, including cobras and boars.
Did you go directly into tennis coaching or were you a player first?
I played a lot of tennis growing up and thought I was pretty good. I had some good regional results, playing tournaments here and in Malaysia. I took my Tennis Coaching Certification in 1984 and my dad said it could always be something to “fall back on”.
College tennis was a huge eye-opener as the standard was very high. I struggled with injuries and quickly realised that playing as a career wasn’t going to happen. But that wasn’t really my goal anyway. What was my goal? Not a clue!
Then I found myself coaching some friends at college for fun. When I moved to Perth, I was having a hit at a club there and the Tennis Director approached me and asked if I coached. I said yes, and then it started. He was a great mentor; I worked for him for a few years. I had a number of jobs in Perth including managing a small hotel and bar. These all contributed to what I do now: teaching tennis and managing a team of coaches.
What was your first coaching job in Singapore?
I came out here to work for a Singaporean who was just setting up a coaching company. In 1993, he was ahead of his time and very ambitious; before we knew it the company was managing several facilities. I would work seven days a week and often spend 10 hours a day on the court. It was tough but I quickly realised I was doing something right and that teaching this great sport was my destiny.
After five years, I was offered a job with the Singapore Lawn Tennis Association – a perfect change. It allowed me to really focus on tennis as an industry, training the National Junior Team and overseeing a team of 32 coaches in six locations. It was also a challenge dealing with the different characters and personalities of the coaches and figuring out ways to teach them new things.
And what does your work encompass now?
In 1999, I joined a friend that had recently started up a sports marketing company, Savitar. Rolf, the founder and director, has a very strong tennis background and had studied at Princeton. Along with another coach, Gary, we quickly developed the platform for a tennis management company and slowly but surely started growing.
Savitar now has 25 coaches and manages tennis programmes in four beautiful clubs, four prestigious hotels and four international schools in Singapore. We have a corporate office with three fulltime staff keeping everything running as smoothly as possible. We run tennis camps for the Singapore Sports Council and have a great Special Needs Tennis program held at UWC for the Genesis School. Recently, we’ve expanded overseas into Malaysia and Thailand.
Other than managing these programmes, we’ve also been directly involved with every professional tennis event in Singapore since 1999, the latest being the WTA and IPTL at the end of 2014, where we worked closely with organisers and management companies to run road shows, pro-am events, clinics with legends and top players, and so on.
We also ran an “on-road” tennis event in Orchard Road in October last year. A section of Orchard was closed, and we built 30 mini tennis courts and one full-size tennis court, plus a “fun zone” of 20 or so stalls. It was a huge success.
Our latest project is the Savitar Tennis Centre on the 8th floor of the Fairmont Hotel, which is becoming the place to train and play (anyone can make a booking) in the heart of the city. It’s a six-court complex, two courts of refurbished artificial grass, and four Classic Clay courts. Classic Clay is an Australian product that looks, plays and slides like clay, without all the hassles of real clay, no red shoes and socks!
You reintroduced a tennis league too, right? Tell us about that.
As a junior, I had played in a small tennis league set up by some keen parents. It was called the Junior Team Tennis League, and it ran from 1979 to 1983. Back in 2007, I decided to restart the league; however, we were all very busy with coaching.
Luckily, in 2009 an ex-Federation Cup player from New Zealand, Niki Tippins, came to Singapore with her partner and was looking at joining us, but not wanting to teach full-time. So I shared the league idea with her and very excitedly she took the bull by the horns. The first KLM Junior Team Tennis League (JTTL) started with about 12 teams in 2009. Thanks to lots of hard work, the first season of this year’s league has 90 teams. With the endorsement of the Singapore Tennis Association, the JTTL has been a huge injection of match play for juniors here; it was the most important missing component in Singapore tennis for the last 30 years.
Apart from having great tennis skills, what does it take to be a good tennis coach?
Empathy. A good tennis coach needs to care. If a teacher has a passion about their subject and a passion to teach others that subject, they will do their job well. It’s not just about loading as much information on the student as possible, or having them hit as many balls as possible and shouting a few commands. Communication is key. If a coach really cares, it will show in their mannerisms and voice. Everything the coach says needs to mean something, whether it’s to a group or individual. The students will feel comfortable and become receptive to advice. This is especially true for juniors. It’s about ensuring the student improves; identifying their learning style and adapting your teaching methods accordingly. Good coaches are always learning and improving their own knowledge and skills. Twenty years of experience means nothing if they’ve been doing the same thing all that time, and having played on the ATP Tour doesn’t always make you a good coach.
Has Singapore’s sports scene – and tennis in particular – changed since you’ve been coaching?
Yes, lots of changes over the past 20 or so years. There are many more coaches now. This increased competition allows parents to find just the right coach for their kids. There are better group coaching options, with programmes using modified balls and court sizes, and a lot more match play. This has created a great base of 10- and 12-year olds, and there are some awesome kids at an international standard – the wave coming through now is the best I’ve seen. Very exciting for Singapore tennis.
There has been an increase in the number of highly ranked Asian tennis players in recent years, with several of them winning Grand Slam tournaments. Do you think Singapore is capable of producing such a player?
Yes! Belief is the key. If parents, coaches and most importantly governing bodies believe it can be done, then it will happen. Singapore is renowned for having excuses for not performing well on the big stage in sports, but I’m hearing it less and less in tennis these days, and that’s great.
Who are your favourite male and female tennis players to watch?
All of them! Everyone in the top 10 has something special we can learn from and watch, both men and women. But I do think Federer is overall the greatest player, for what he has done both on and off the court.
Does anyone serve and volley these days?
It depends on the surface. On a faster surface such as real grass at Wimbledon, it’s used a lot less than in the past; look at how courts wear out during the tournament – the baseline is almost a clay court by the end! Players sometimes using this tactic more on the slow clay at the French Open, which was extremely rare 15 years ago. The bottom line is this: to be a great player you need to be able to play every game style perfectly; you need to be an “all-rounder”. No player will survive with one specific playing style.
If you could have a front seat at any tennis tournament in the world, which would you choose?
Tell us about “beach tennis”.
It’s awesome. It is basically what beach volleyball is to normal volleyball. It’s played on the same size court as beach volleyball, with specially designed paddles. And it’s fast. Players always volley because the ball doesn’t bounce – the volley technique is the simplest in tennis, so players of mixed standard can have a great game. It’s fun but also great for fitness because of the resistance of the sand. And Singapore is a perfect place to play, with the huge beaches on Sentosa.
We’ve been running internal events up to now; however, my goal is to have a professional ITF Beach Tennis event here in the near future. There was an ITF event at the Outrigger Laguna Phuket Beach Resort in Thailand in December that I instigated, which was fantastic.
Outside of work, what are your hobbies in Singapore?
Simple: family and friends. We have two boys aged 10 and 11 and live in a great area with lots of friends. So most free time is filled up just being around the house and neighbourhood.
Favourite Singapore things
Restaurant? My barbecue! We don’t eat out much, but we do love the great pizzas at Trapizza on Siloso Beach.
Bar? The one in my back gazebo! Honestly, I prefer having a cold Tiger at Newton Food Centre. But I’d say the best bar is 1-Altitude – it has the greatest view in Singapore.
Local food? Komala Vilas in Little India.
Thing to do with visitors? Show them the view from 1-Altitude, and take them to Little India and Chinatown.
Thing to do with kids? The kids are always very entertained where we live at Seletar; we also love an evening on Siloso Beach – it always feels like you’re on holiday.
Nearby holiday destination? Arnalaya Beach House in Bali. Beautiful house, right on Canggu Beach (with a tennis court, of course!) – nothing compares to it.