We talk real stories with real tennis people, and today we stepped off the court with "coach Lani" who talks about the strange reason she started playing, how she broke through as a young tennis coach, her scariest moment on the job, what her biggest paycheck was, and what life after coaching looks like.
Double bend forehand | Two handed backhand
VT:When we hear Russia we think serious tennis, is that how it actually is?
Yelena:Not for me I was from a small town, I had never seen a tennis racket or a tennis court until I came to the US when I was 10.
VT:How was the language transition?
Yelena:It was definitely hard and I’m still learning, I didn’t know any english. I was adopted and my parents had a Russian keyboard so I could type and it would translate.
VT:What was it that made you first pick up a tennis racket then?
Yelena:I think in 4th grade me and my sister heard there was a free tennis class at Balboa Tennis Club in San Diego and we should just try it out.
VT:What made you fall in love with it?
Yelena:What actually happened was the first time I played tennis I didn’t really enjoy it all that much. The second time my sister did it but I ended up doing something else that day instead, and she came home with a cool tennis t-shirt that she got for free for doing the class. I was so jealous that she got a shirt and I didn’t - so I ended up going back and stuck with it ever since. So yeah, it was from a t-shirt I guess.
VT:What’s the tennis scene like in SD?
Yelena:It’s cool because of the weather, no matter the season or time of year there are just people playing tennis all the time, hanging out. Like actual tennis bums. A lot of young kids getting involved too.
VT:What kind of impact did tennis have in your overall outlook on life?
Yelena:It’s such an individual sport so you have to be very strong yourself. So you can’t improve by someone just telling you to do it, you have to learn it yourself.
VT:There’s not many grass courts in the US but you’ve played on some right?
Yelena:Yeah a few times, it was really cool. It’s soo different than you would think. You see Wimbledon on tv and it looks easy, but it’s just so fast and weird bounces. It’s almost like a different sport.
VT:What other things are you into?
Yelena:I love Zumba, any form of dancing or anything to do with music. I’ve been trying to do yoga to get better at stretching and let’s see.. I’ve been biking, going on rides. There are alot of biking paths you can just ride up to the courts and around the lake, it’s cool.
VT:What was it like being a new coach?
Yelena:Yeah it was definitely weird. Sometimes I thought I was ahead of everyone else because I was younger and had a cooler website, like no one else really had much of a site, and I had a little more motivation than them. But at the same time it was hard because I felt like I had to “catch up” to them because they knew more.
VT:How did you navigate around that, the experience thing?
Yelena:Well I started taking videos of all the students towards the end of the lessons, just on my phone. Honestly the other coaches weren’t taking the time to do that. Then I would put together a side by side analysis of their strokes to a pro’s strokes from youtube when I would get home and email it to them. It took the pressure off me but actually gave them some good points. People are usually blown away when they see themselves the first time on video.
VT:How did you build up your student base being a newer, less experienced coach?
Yelena:I started helping the little kids and clinics for a little while then started to do more and more. Eventually I was like wait I can do something with this, but not like the other coaches. I really enjoyed teaching little kids and beginner adults so I decided to specialize in that - tennis for beginners. I wasn’t going for the high-level coaching thing.
So we made a website that was specifically for beginners and kids and turned it into a “real” business. Tried to take a few pictures every day at the courts and soon I had enough to put a site together. After a month or two of getting the site up I got my first email from a couple wanting to take lessons, I was literally freaking out and couldn’t believe it, like my heart was pounding when I got this email. Then a couple weeks later I got another email, then another and it just kept going from there and I started to get really busy.
VT:How much were you making from it?
Yelena:I think my best week was over $1600, I pinned that check up on the wall because it was the most I’d ever made, I was 22 so it was huge to make that from tennis.
VT:What was the scariest coaching moment for you?
Yelena:Oh gosh well I mostly was doing kids and beginners and I loved that, but there was this one player from out of town who was a wayy higher level than me and he wanted a hitting session. I felt bad about saying no so I just went for it. I was freaked out, practicing beforehand and everything. It was nerve racking. I thought I did horrible. But he actually hit me up for a second session the very next morning - so I guess it was alright after all.
VT:So you “retired” from coaching and have moved on to other things, you don’t hear that too often. How’s that working for you?
Yelena:Haha yeah well coaching was just something I fell into at a young age. I guess I wanted to do other stuff, try other things. Tennis was definitely work, and I missed it as just a fun activity. Now I don’t associate it with work as much. I’ve been riding my bike up to the courts and playing around, just having fun. There's a lot of expectations as a coach so it was hard to step away from it - but I just wanted to do what felt right for me.
VT:With that angle do you have any advice for coaches out there?
Yelena:I’d say definitely you have to make a good website, like really take time and make it good. Like I wasn’t even that good of a player but everything changed when I made the site. There were coaches way better and more experienced than me and they were wondering why I was getting so many lessons.
VT:How do we become good tennis players for all the normal people out there who would like to improve?
Yelena:It’s all about having fun to start out, make it fun first. For more beginners honestly I think you just need to master the forehand and backhand to start out, don’t even worry about the serve or volley or score. You just need to learn how to hit the ball back and forth and get into a rally. Even if it’s short court.
VT:Last one, on your ig you have a quote “it’s hard to blend in when you were born to stand out”, what does this mean for you?
Yelena:Well Okay. I guess for me it’s because I had a rough or different past growing up.. and maybe you want to change this or change that…like sometimes, for me, it’s actually hard to blend in, and you just want to blend in and be like everybody else. Like I just want to speak perfect english or be a certain way so I can feel the same...But then, maybe I’m not supposed to be like that, not supposed to blend in...maybe I’m supposed to be more than that.
So what's your story? We'd love to hear it. To be featured or tell a story of your own email or dm and let's talk!