Across the grounds of the Dekker Warmond tennis club, one can hear the commanding voice of Irfan Aytug, the head tennis instructor. “No, not like that! Yes, that’s better! Heel mooi!” Whether you’re just beginning or already one of Holland’s top players, Irfan is willing to take you on and help improve your game. A founder of I’M Tennis, one of the largest tennis schools in the Netherlands, Irfan lives in Leiderdorp with his wife and two sons.
“I’ve had the same [business] partners for at least 10 years. The [former] name of our company was Impact … we [recently] took three new partners from a club in Alphen aan den Rijn … they wanted to join our tennis school … and then we changed the name from Impact to I’M Tennis and the school became three times as big.” I’M Tennis now offers lessons at more than 30 tennis clubs.
“There are other [tennis instructors from I’M Tennis] who also come [to Dekker Warmond] … But for me, [Dekker] is the head location, and this is where I do most of the work. We also have an office here.”
Irfan teaches students of all ages and levels, and offers both individual and group lessons. “My youngest student is 4 years old … I like individual [lessons] most because then you can make a lot of progress. When the students really want to improve themselves, and they have the focus to concentrate for one hour, then I like to give private lessons more than group lessons.”
“But of course with the higher level [students] I practice with them six days a week, and it’s too expensive to do [individual lessons]. So the higher teams [often] only practice in groups.”
“Some days I start at 7 o’clock. When I teach children before they go to school and they really want to make a lot of progress. And if you want to make a lot of progress, you’ve got to make a lot of hours. Some kids even practice in the morning and then they come back in the afternoon and they’ve got two sessions [per day]. We have students here who practice more than 10-12 hours per week.”
Irfan has been teaching tennis for more than 35 years, and along the way he’s worked with some of the top young players in the Netherlands, including some who reached the top 100 of the world ATP rankings. “The highest girl at the moment in my first team is Andrea Funk. She was top 40 in the world in doubles, she’s a very good doubles player. And one of the guys is Melle Van Gemerden [who reached number 100 in the ATP singles world ranking in 2006.] He was top 100, and I [went to] all the grand slams with him. But unluckily he got injured. He got a hernia, and then with tennis it’s almost impossible to continue.”
Teaching tennis “is very gratifying work. And especially the way I do it. I like to teach on all levels. And it never becomes boring because of that. Because if you only work with top [level students] it’s one line of work … It’s very challenging to give lessons to all kinds of groups, and I never get bored and I like to teach. I think that’s very important.”
What are your strengths as a teacher?: “I think patience. And, yeah, you also need a good eye to see what is necessary to change. Because if you look at a student, it doesn’t matter what level, they always have a couple of things you can work on. And you’ve got to arrange the right structure to make maximum progress. And that’s I think one of the most important things.”
Almost became an Olympic skater: “I wanted to join [Dutch Olympic skating team]. There was a skater [who inspired these dreams]. It was an American, Eric Heiden, and everyone in Holland is crazy about skating, so we were following him. And like some students have it with pop stars, I have it for sporting guys (laughs) … [Heiden] won five gold medals at Lake Placid [in 1980], and we were all practicing to go there. But Holland is such a strong country and we have so many good skaters. And you needed a good [time], and if you don’t have [a top time] you can’t join the Olympics.” Irfan’s time in the 500 meters was about 1 ½ seconds off the top time among Dutch skaters.
Irfan’s father suggested that perhaps he could skate for Turkey, his country of origin. “And of course I was the best skater of Turkey because there are not a lot of skaters there (laughs). In those days there was a Spanish guy named Gomez, and he joined all the big tournaments, and he was the skater for Spain. And you don’t have a lot of Spanish skaters, so it was the same story. But there was no [Turkish ice skating] federation, and to [qualify for the Olympics] a federation has to exist for at least one year. So we were too late with that, and so it was finished for me. And I never skated again (laughs).”
After his skating career ended, Irfan turned his attention to alpine skiing. “I did some tests to join the sports academy [in the Netherlands] … to become a teacher of sports … And you’ve got to specialize in two sports, and I specialized in tennis and skiing. And, yeah, I had a good instructor, and we [trained] in Austria. And we stayed there every time for a couple of weeks, otherwise you can’t learn it properly of course”
Irfan, who is now 54, learned that “to earn money with giving [skiing] lessons is not enough. It’s a fun time. But if you have a family and children it’s not enough. And you can’t start a ski school as a Dutch teacher. You always need an Austrian partner or a Swiss partner, otherwise the country doesn’t allow it. So after one year [of working as a ski instructor] with a [Dutch] friend of mine we said we’ll go back to Holland, and we started in the tennis business.”
“Now I just ski for fun. I go a lot to the United States and to Canada, [where] you can still ski with helicopters and they drop you. And that’s my number one hobby. In Europe in a lot of places they forbid off-piste skiing.”
Recent cancer scare: “It started when I was diving in Turkey and sailing a lot. And when I came back [to Holland] I had a little crust on my lip, and it was because of the sunshine. And after three or four weeks it still wasn’t gone.” Tests showed cancer on Irfan’s lip, and surgery was required to remove it. After the surgery “everybody told me it’s finished now. But for me it still didn’t feel good. And I don’t know why but I didn’t have a good feeling. And so every month I went to a [physician] friend of mine, and he made [a scan] of my neck. And every time he said ‘there’s nothing.’ And after 12 months I felt a little lump in my jaw and went to make [a scan] again, and he said ‘yeah, now I can see something.’” The tests showed that cancer had spread to Irfan’s jaw “and I had to be operated on within two weeks. And this operation was pretty heavy.”
The surgery was successful “and I recovered very quickly and I was sporting within 10 days. I was on the court again. And now I’m feeling very good … I have a good energy level now.”
Is there a downside to business growth?: As I’M Tennis “becomes bigger and bigger, the danger is that you don’t become a tennis teacher anymore but more like a manager. Because we’ve got more than 50 instructors. And if you have so many people working for you, it’s not so easy to manage everything. And you must be careful that you don’t work more next to the court than on the court. I like to work on the court.”
What does the next five to 10 years hold in store?: “That’s a very difficult question (laughs). We are looking to take over another tennis school … so it’s now with the partners we need to decide … and everybody must be in the same direction to make steps like that. Do you want to be the biggest school in Holland? And we are already one of the biggest schools in Holland. Or do you want to have what you have now and make it as strong as possible? So it’s something we’re discussing now, and not all the noses are in the same direction.”
What will it take to boost the popularity of tennis among Dutch youth?: “Tennis is sadly going down [in popularity]. It’s always … with sports in Holland … if there is a very good player with good results we can always sense it in the school. For example, when Richard Krajicek won Wimbledon all the kids wanted to play tennis. And these days of course the hockey ladies in Holland are very good, and every little girl in Holland is now a hockey player. And that’s the way it works … We need good results in the big tournaments and I think it will get better.”