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I'm An Animal Out There
Barry McDermott
January 17, 1983
Johan Kriek is the world's 12th-ranked tennis player in spite of his penchant for tanking matches, baiting umpires and breaking things
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January 17, 1983

I'm An Animal Out There

Johan Kriek is the world's 12th-ranked tennis player in spite of his penchant for tanking matches, baiting umpires and breaking things

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Sometimes Kriek seems amazed at his own behavior. "I do say some outrageous things, but I don't mean them," he says. "Baseball, that's the game I love. Fifty guys come running out of the dugouts and get in a free-for-all. It's great! Then the umpires. The players throw dirt on them! They spit on them! Can you imagine me doing something like that? If I spit on an umpire, I'd be barred for life. Someday I'm going to do something really outrageous at Wimbledon. Like they do in baseball. Right before Princess Di."

Like the little girl with the little curl right in the middle of her forehead, Kriek, when he isn't being horrid, can be very, very good with tennis officials. "I like him," says Herb Kosten, an umpire from Memphis. "He's not like some of the players who turn their backs on you when you are introduced before a match. With Johan it's, 'Nice to meet you, sir. Let's have a good match.' " Kosten was in the chair early last year when Kriek almost walked away from one of his most important tournament victories. With Kriek leading Tim Gullikson in the second round of the U.S. Indoors in Memphis, Kosten gave him a warning for yelling an obscenity. Kriek claimed he hadn't said anything off-color, and was defiantly heading for the locker room when a friend intercepted him and talked him into completing the match. Kriek went on to upset McEnroe in the final.

In March Kriek drew an automatic 21-day suspension from Grand Prix tournaments for accumulating more than $5,000 in fines. He appealed one of the penalties and it was reduced, which put him under the limit, but he told tour officials he wanted to be suspended anyway, and they complied. Says Kriek, "That way I could start over with a clean slate. I'm a 'schizo' when it comes to tennis. On the court I'm like an animal. I've got no respect for anyone. People hate me for what I am on the court."

At times Kriek seems more interested in skipping out than in playing. Shortly before the WCT Tournament of Champions at Forest Hills last May, he was on the telephone trying to contact his doubles partner, Tracy Delatte, who was ranked 496th in singles and 69th in doubles. Kriek wanted to default the doubles because he simply didn't feel like playing tennis that day. Failing to reach Delatte, he played, and they won, earning Kriek $9,000 and reinforcing the opinion of Rennert, who says, "If you play doubles with Johan, there's only a 50-50 chance he'll show up. But if he does, there's a 50-50 chance you'll win the tournament."

In singles Kriek is even more unpredictable. Kriek smashes the ball. His opponent floats it back. Kriek creams the next one. The ball is wafted back. Kriek strokes it into the fence. Steam curls out of his ears. He twirls his racket. "It's time to go fishing!" he yells. In the stands, Tish starts thinking about packing. The Kriek Tank, a classic, is under way. He will lose very quickly.

"Something snaps in me," he says. "I don't want to play anymore. Afterward I get mad at myself. No one can talk to me. And the next day I don't feel like showing my face. I feel guilty. I feel terrible. And yet it happens."

The Kriek Tank never was better performed than in Tulsa last May at the Bank of Oklahoma Tennis Classic, an eight-man event. Against John Sadri in the semis, Kriek won the first set 7-6 but then began questioning line calls. The crowd responded with jeers. Kriek quickly lost the next two sets 6-0, 6-0.

Kriek can't understand how players can knock themselves out week in and week out, actually trying. He mimics what he calls the "burnout" cases, putting on a glazed and doltish stare. "Johan isn't going to burn out," says Tish. "Half the time he doesn't even go out there to play. In 1981 he must have tanked nine straight weeks. I told him I wasn't going to stay on the tour and put up with that stuff. I had to blackmail him. Now he's better."

"I don't tank in big tournaments," says Kriek. This helps explain his ranking as well as his record at the U.S. Open, in which he has reached the semis once and the quarters twice in the past five years, and at Wimbledon, in which he made the quarters last summer and in 1981. Before taking the court against top-seeded Bjorn Borg in the semis at the 1980 U.S. Open, Kriek said, "He will have to kill me to beat me." With a dazzling display of speed, touch and power, Kriek reeled off the first two sets 6-4, 6-4. Then, in one of the sport's most dramatic reversals, Borg grew steadier and Kriek suddenly started missing. Borg won the next three sets 6-1, 6-1, 6-1.

In 1981 Kriek lost 6-2, 6-1 to Mel Purcell at the U.S. Pro Indoor Championships in Philadelphia. On match point, Kriek slammed a serve return into the stands and stormed off the court, pausing only long enough to stuff his rackets into a garbage can. In the locker room, another player, Freddy McNair, was sitting by a blackboard when he was startled by a crashing noise. Kriek had put his fist through the blackboard. He then walked a mile through the icy January night back to his hotel.

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