South African rugby star Ruben Kruger’s daughters excel in tennis
“Who’s Matt Damon?”
Ruben Kruger wasn’t joking. He was just indifferent to celebrity and pop culture, and he genuinely had no idea. And—no disrespect to Damon—Kruger had little interest in meeting movie stars that night in Johannesburg during October of 2008.
Damon had just finished shooting his starring role alongside Morgan Freeman in Invictus, a well-rendered film directed by Clint Eastwood, based on the excellent book Playing the Enemy. The movie was technically about the 1995 Rugby World Cup, hosted and won by South Africa. But that would be like saying Remember the Titans was about high school football. Really, Invictus was an examination of leadership, force of personality and the reconciliation of a country during an intensely delicate time in its history. Apartheid had ended. In a democratic election, Nelson Mandela (played by Freeman), freed from prison after 27 years, had just been elected South Africa’s first black leader. Both the fate and identity of the country was very much up for grabs.
Mandela grasped the significance of the 1995 World Cup, the first major sporting event held in South Africa after years of international boycott. (As Mandela rightly put it, during Apartheid, South Africa had been “the skunk of the world.”) He also knew that the team could serve as a source of unity, a way of repairing the country’s frayed fabric. Though rugby was an Afrikaner redoubt, a signifier of the old prejudiced ways, Mandela embraced the sport and the team. Insisting that the traditional colors yellow and green remain, he attended matches, befriended the players, and shared with them the Victorian poem of Invictus, a meditation on persistence he read while in prison.
It was a brilliant bit of political savvy. And the athletes cooperated. Prior to the competition, South Africa’s team—nicknamed the Springboks, a nod to an African antelope—was seeded only ninth. The incumbent champions, Australia, hadn’t lost in more than a year. But…cue Hollywood music here…with the full-throated support of the country, South Africa blazed through the tournament to beat New Zealand in the final.
Ruben Kruger was a pillar of the team. The South African rugby Player of the Year during that 1995 season, he was 25 years old at the time, squarely in the prime of his career. A 6’2″, 225-lb. flanker, Kruger was, at once, the immovable object and the unstoppable force, fierce, athletic, and known for his durability. Consider that in Invictus, Kruger was portrayed by Grant Roberts, an actor but also a former Mr. Canada bodybuilder.
“Ruben is one of the most talented athletes I’ve had the privilege to play with or against,” says Francois Pienaar, the Springboks captain who was portrayed by Damon in Invictus. “[He was] the ultimate team member.”
Kruger’s toughness during competition ran completely counter to his mode of being outside of sports. Conferred the nickname the “Silent Assassin,” he spoke only when he felt he had something to say. And even then, it was with little volume or inflection. He enjoyed his own company, so much so he’d take daylong walks alone in the African bush or ride horses on a family farm. He met his wife, Lize, when they were teenagers; he never saw fit to date anyone else. And, even at the peak of his popularity, he was distrustful of fame. “I remember one day somebody was saying ‘Wow, you look like Ruben Kruger,’” recalls Lize. “He said, ‘I kind of have a common face.’ He just wanted to be a normal person.”
Which is why he had such little interest in meeting the Invictus cast and crew that night. He didn’t require a selfie with Matt Damon to feel validated. He thought it was cool that they were making a movie about the 1995 team and the role it played in South Africa’s national healing; but he neither needed nor wanted any personal glorification. “He was totally unfazed about any movie stars,” says Lize. “He admired the work that they do, but he’d rather spend time with his kids.”
Sure enough, Ruben’s young daughter, Zoe, then seven, was feeling a little sick that evening. That was all the excuse Ruben needed. He declined the dinner invitation—the only member of the team to do so. While his mates were drinking champagne with actors and studio executives, Kruger stayed home with his kid, reading her stories and making her tea.
The IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, is often likened to a factory. If you want to continue with the analogy, the manufacturing process entails turning ambition and sports talent of varying degrees into D-1 scholarships and, in best-case scenarios, pro contracts. The place looks pretty much as you’d expect it to: acres and acres of fields, courts, courses and pools. Thanks to cheap Florida real estate, it’s grown to include dorms, schools and all manner of training centers. There are affiliated condos, too, where entire families can—and do—live, as a precocious child chases the dream, at a price that can exceed $70,000 a year. The athletes come from more than 80 countries. It’s nothing to see a college football standout preparing for the NFL draft or a star like Cam Newton lifting weights or doing plyometrics alongside that South Korean golf prodigy or this high school point guard with designs of playing for Coach K.
The place started, though, as a tennis academy, a hothouse run by the irrepressible Nick Bollettieri, where players with names like Agassi and Courier and Seles were able to bloom. So it is that the sport of tennis has a sort of legacy status at the facility. Out of proportion with tennis’ modest place in today’s sportscape, at IMG, there’s a small state’s worth of courts—all surfaces and colors, outdoors and indoors. Images of tennis players are splayed throughout the academy. The thwock of ball meeting racket may as well be the soundtrack for the entire complex.
The latest tennis players to roll off the line at IMG are playing on adjacent courts, this sticky-hot Tuesday, getting better through force of repetition. Zoe Kruger, 13, is smiting backhands, punctuating each shot with a small grunt, not unlike her occasional IMG hitting partner, Maria Sharapova. Her younger sister, Isabella, 10, is blasting forehands in silence.
Ladling hype and pegging pre-teens as future champs is one of tennis’ vices. Plenty of can’t-miss prospects have whiffed. Still, the abundant talent and vast potential of the Kruger sisters are undeniable. Zoe recently practiced with Garbine Muguruza, a six-foot Spaniard currently ranked No.4 on the WTA Tour. By all accounts, she hung in every rally and had no problems absorbing the pace of Muguruza’s shots. Isabella, the 10-year-old, recently held her own hitting with Genie Bouchard, another WTA star.
Already, they have an agent, Marijn Bal, who also represents Petra Kvitova, a Wimbledon champ twice over and a longtime top-ten player on the WTA Tour. They have various racket and shoe sponsors. They are coached by Thomas Hogstedt, a former ATP pro and tennis lifer, who’s turned down offers from full-time WTA players in order to coach the girls. He claims to be playing the long game with the Krugers. “I would be surprised,” says Hogstedt, “if both of them didn’t win a Grand Slam.”
Their sisters’ origin story goes like this: In 2012, Hogstedt, a soft-spoken Swede, was coaching Sharapova to one of the better years of her career. In tennis’ scant off-season, he was invited to give a clinic in South Africa for elite junior players. On the first day, the youngest kid in the group approached him and handed him a letter. It read: “I’m the Mini Maria Sharapova, and I want you to be my coach.”
Hogstedt thought it was cute. Then he learned about the girl’s credentials; this nine-year-old was ranked No.1 in the country in 12-and-unders. And then he watched her play, torching her forehand, mixing up spins, motoring around the court. And then he heard about her genetics, that she was the daughter of one of the titans of rugby. And then he heard that she had a younger sister who was also abundantly talented, a narrative that, naturally, triggered visions of Venus and Serena Williams.
In addition to Sharapova, Hogstedt has coached champs and former top-ranked players like Caroline Wozniacki and Li Na. He stayed in touch, followed the sisters’ results and communicated with them over email and Skype. As an up-and-coming player in Sweden in the 70s, Hogstedt practiced with Bjorn Borg and he claims the “role model environment” was critical to his success. Drawing on that experience, he took Zoe to Grand Slam events where she could practice with Sharapova and meet stars like Roger Federer (“He’s a nice guy”) and Venus Williams. (“She told me education should come first”).
Despite playing in a country with high elevation, few clay courts and a weak national federation, the sisters improved. “The talent was there,” says Hogstedt, “But to really succeed, they needed a different training environment.”
With Hogstedt acting as intermediary, in 2014, the Kruger sisters and their mother left South Africa and relocated to the IMG Academy. In little time, the Kruger sisters caught the attention of Bollettieri, who, at 84—and, as he’s quick to announce, on wife number eight—remains one of tennis’ great, inimitable characters. While Bollettieri is famous for hyping his players, he positively gushes about the Krugers. “They love hitting the ball,” he says. “It’s like the ball is their enemy and I’m gonna beat you up.”
What’s impressed him more, though, is their response to family tragedy. “Some kids in their situation say, ‘Why me, why did this happen?’ They lose their focus, and then the parent, whoever was the positive influence behind them, is not there, they don’t go on. In the case of Isabella and her sister Zoe, it’s helped them. It’s helped them. They wanna show their dad, Hey dad, I can do it!”
Ruben Kruger lived by the sportsman code. You compete honestly. You put the team above the individual. You keep your complaints to yourself. You choose not to acknowledge injury. In that 1995 Rugby World Cup, Kruger scored what should have been a clinching tie against France, but it was disallowed by an official, in what was later revealed to have been an error. The “Silent Assassin” stayed calm and helped win the match instead with a last-second tackle of France’s Abdelatif Benazzi. When he broke his leg the following season during the Tri-Nations competition, it was a mere inconvenience. Soon he was back, starting for South Africa’s next World Cup team.
So when Kruger experienced headaches during the 2000 season, he barely mentioned them. Until, that is, he blacked out during a match. He was taken to the hospital and was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. It was successfully removed, but Kruger retired and spent most of his 30s living a life in repose. He golfed, whittling his handicap to +2. He opened a camera franchise. He stayed in shape. “He would hate me for saying this,” says Francois Pienaar, “but at our ten-year reunion, he was voted the best-looking bloke amongst us all.”
Mostly though, he self-identified as a dad. Zoe, born in 2002 and Bella in 2005. Ruben was relieved, in a way, that he wouldn’t have sons destined to go through life in rugby-mad South Africa known foremost as “Ruben Kruger’s boys” and burdened by expectation. When the girls, Zoe especially, showed an interest in tennis, it was fine by him. He knew little about the sport, but was happy to play ballboy or draws line in the garage the height of the net so they could practice. “The last thing on our minds was to raise two kids who were going to be tennis stars,” says Lize. “Our main aim was to raise our kids to be healthy, and live happy fulfilling lives.”
At one point, Ruben offered his daughters his philosophy on sport. “Tennis is great, and you’re going play for a certain number of years,” he said. “Whatever you achieve, whether you have thousands and thousands of trophies, whether you win Grand Glams, it’s the character that you show that matters.”
So it was that when Zoe was eight, she played a national tournament in an impoverished township in the South African countryside. She was jarred when her opponent came onto the court without shoes. Without adult intervention, Zoe went to the car, grabbed an extra pair of Nikes and handed them across the net. “Now, we can have a fair match,” she announced. Zoe won handily, shook hands with the opponent and declined to let the other girl give back the shoes.
Meanwhile, after years in dormancy, Ruben’s cancer would return. And this time, it wasn’t messing around. One tumor removed from his brain was the size of a fist. Others remained. In the summer of 2009, the Krugers took a family road trip to watch a rugby test. Driving back home, Ruben lost consciousness while his foot was on the gas pedal, another blackout. Lize had to reach over and guide the car. The Krugers collided with other vehicles and the car landed in a ditch. Lize, Zoe and Isabella walked away, but, says Lize, “I think the girls were really traumatized by this.” Ruben suffered minor injuries and was taken to the hospital. There, he learned that he was terminally ill.
He spent the next few months in a blur of operating rooms and chemo sessions. At one point he went to so far as to visit a Nigerian faith healer. With his health deteriorating, he received letters, emails and calls from former teammates and opponents. But also there was a steady stream of encouraging messages from Nelson Mandela.
Lize and Ruben agonized over how to explain it all to two young girls. Says Lize: “We had six months to prepare them—to really prepare them—this what is going to happen, how it’s going to happen. Death at that age is, of course, very abstract.” Each time, the girls would listen and then they would run away. Often, they would grab their rackets.
Lize recalls dropping Zoe at her grandmother’s while taking Ruben to chemo sessions. Zoe would hit balls against the garage. When Lize returned five hours later, Zoe would still be there. “This was kind of how her thing with tennis [intensified]. Hitting that ball was totally a way to work things out.”
Ruben Kruger passed away on January 27, 2010. It was two months before his 40th birthday. “Ruben Kruger was the epitome of a Springbok flanker; tough, indomitable and with an outstanding work ethic,” said the president of the South African rugby union at the time. “When Ruben was on the field, you always knew the Springboks would not be beaten without a tremendous battle.”
They couldn’t be more different, Zoe and Isabella. “I can’t believe they were raised in the same house,” says Lize. Zoe announces herself in bold and caps lock, optimism wafting out of her. She’s big for her age, with blond hair that sways behind her like a kite when she swings her racket. Ask her about her tennis goals and she rattles off the Majors she intends to win. Tell her that Venus and Serena Williams once played on the court she and her sister are currently using and she nods, “It feels like an honor because we know that one day we will be where they [are]. It’s gonna be great, our journey to get to the top.”
Isabella, like her father, conceals her interior and freely admits to shyness. “I don’t really like to talk a lot; I don’t like to brag.” She’s much more comfortable talking about her fondness for math or the nearby roaring lions that would wake her up in South Africa than she is about her tennis ambitions. But her inhibitions disappear when she plays tennis. “Bella plays like Serena,” says Hogstedt. “The little sister, very hard-hitting to keep up with the big sister.”
It takes something less than a trained child psychologist to suspect that tennis was—and is—part of the sisters’ grief therapy. “It’s a place where they could let go of their aggression, especially Isabella who is quiet and can deal with what she’s feeling without talking about it,” says Lize. “They can get this confidence, too. In tennis, you’re the one in charge. You become self-sufficient.”
Tennis has also been a way for them to get to know their dad better. The sisters used to ask their mother to tell them stories about their dad; now, they’re more likely to ask questions about his character as an athlete. Says Lize: “Now, it’s How hard did he train? And What did he like to do in the gym? and What did he do when woke up in the morning?” She tells them how he would wake up at 4:30 in the morning and be in the gym by five. How as team captain he believed that the way you train is the way you’re going to play. “He had this amazing determination, amazing fighting spirit,” says Lize. “And I think they inherited it.”
Lize often thinks back to that summer of 1995, that unlikely unity over a rugby team, and the interactions with Mandela. “Walking into a room, you could feel his presence,” she says. “I get goose bumps when I think about it. He was an amazing person.” And, of course, she often thinks of her husband, too. “It’s funny, the last thing he would want is for his kids to be any professional sports person, because I think he knew how thin the margin is to really make it,” she says, her voice catching. “But I think he’d be so proud.”
Right now, she’s wrestling over when to show the girls the movie Invictus and explain the role their father played. On the one hand, those last few months, when Ruben was deteriorating, were so excruciating, she’s sometimes reluctant to stir memories from South Africa. On the other hand, she wants them to have the full measure of who their father was. “I think we’re getting very close, because they’re asking me more and more. When they’re a little bit older, I can really explain what happened over that time, what happened in the country, and why this was important.”
Besides, any day now, the Kruger sisters are likely to walk into the locker room of the fieldhouse at the IMG Academy. After all, it’s not far from where they practice smacking tennis balls each day. There, splayed prominently on the walls, are the last lines of an inspirational Victorian poem. The girls are only faintly aware of how their lives intersect with these lines of verse. But it will all make sense soon enough. The poem, of course, is Invictus. The last line is directly at the eye level of a preteen girl.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.