Frank Cuesta has made an intriguing journey from tennis to snakes
As soon as Frank Cuesta hears Calcutta, he says: “I know Calcutta. In the 20 years I have been in Thailand, I have travelled to Calcutta many times.” The man on the other end of the phone line is known for his passion for snakes, especially the Black Mamba, described by the herpetologist as the ‘ninja of snakes’ whose bite is known in its homeland Africa as the “kiss of death”. What is not so known is that he has hit the tennis ball with the likes of Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Maria Sharapova. Frank Cuesta’s adventures in the grassland of southern Africa are being beamed on Discovery Channel in the show Wild Frank on Wednesdays at 9pm.
What is the show about?
We talk about the legend of black mamba, which part of it is true and which is not, how they move, why people are so scared of the snake. My intention was to get out there and film the black mamba. We went to three different areas of South Africa. Mambas live in arid areas, in the savannah and in the jungles. We found lions, elephants but the star of the series is mamba. We saw the grey mamba, the black mamba and the green mamba.
Of the three, which is deadliest?
All of them. It depends on how much venom they release in you when they bite. People think they are deadliest because they are found in remote areas. So if the mamba bites you, you are far from the hospital and by the time you get help you die. That’s why there are so many deaths from mamba bites. Otherwise, the king cobra of India is more deadly.
In what way?
King cobra uses a lot of venom unlike the mamba which uses a little bit. Black mamba is similar in venom to krait, another venomous snake found in India. The difference is that the black mamba is very fast.
You started out as a tennis player in the Nick Bollettieri academy...
I used to train there and then became a coach.
Did you meet Andre Agassi who joined the academy as a child?
Yes. We are the same age. I was playing there from 1984 to 1989 and then I became a coach and worked with professional players. Agassi and I were friends. Around 1990, he had entered the Top 5. I know him for 25 years. I also played with Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, Monica Seles, Anna Kournikova, Maria Sharapova, Tommy Haas.... It was a smaller place then. So we grew up together. Nick decided who would play and who would coach. He took eight of us to be master coaches at a young age. I was almost 17 then. In 15 minutes, he could tell who could do what. The main coach was Nick and he used to assign coaches for tournaments. I have travelled with Monica. Nick made 20 players in 10 years. Around 1987, he sold the academy to IMG and then it became very big.
Tennis to snakes, how did the transition happen?
I came to Thailand to open a tennis academy and also started a rescue shelter for trafficked animals after I saw so many animals being sold in the markets. For 18 years, we have been rescuing them and returning them to the wild. My focus was on small animals — owls, otters, snakes, porcupines — that people tried to take out of the country and send to Dubai or Europe. Initially I did get attached to a few of the animals we rescued but now it does not matter. Animals belong to the wild, not in someone’s house.
You have also worked with a group called Black Mamba.
Yes, they are a group of village women in South Africa who are working as guards to protect rhinos. They hold day jobs but they work on the side for animal welfare. It’s very interesting. Believe me, if they are upset they are scary! They are in the series. We spent five days with them roaming in the forest, getting an idea of what they do.
What do you come to Calcutta for?
Earlier I used to go to India to play tournaments. Now I go for the animals. In Calcutta, I go to the mangroves to see the snakes and tigers.
Have you ever had a scare while handling snakes?
I have been bitten many times. The worst bite of my life was from a Russell’s Viper in Burma. If you play with fire you will get burnt sometimes.
You must be carrying all types of antivenom with you.
I don’t use antivenom. It harms the immunity system.
How did you survive then?
Luck, I guess (laughs). On a serious note, I got treatment at the hospital.