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Steve Flink:When Annacone speaks, we listen

3/11/2014 1:00:00 PM

Hard as it is to believe, Paul Annacone will be 51 years old in less than two weeks. He has seemingly been around the game forever, and yet he carries himself like a younger man and conducts his business with vitality more in tune with a 40-year-old. Annacone, of course, was a first rate player, peaking at No. 12 in the world back in 1986. He had a distinguished career including an appearance in the U.S. Open doubles final of 1990. In 1995, he started coaching Pete Sampras, remaining in that role until 2002 with a brief interruption, helping his iconic charge to win nine of the fourteen majors he amassed. He would later work with Tim Henman, and then coached Roger Federer from the summer of 2010 until the fall of 2013.

This year, the estimable Annacone is coaching Sloane Stephens, and inevitably he will give her the full benefit of his agile mind and comprehensive knowledge of the game’s intricacies. Annacone has established himself unequivocally as one of the premier coaches in tennis. But these days he has ventured into another part of the arena, exposing his considerable powers of articulation as a commentator for Tennis Channel. He had made a few periodic appearances in television booths across the years, but last fall during the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals he went into a Tennis Channel studio in California and acquitted himself remarkably well as part of their commentary team.

That experience encouraged Annacone and the folks at Tennis Channel that he could contribute to the network on a wider scale. He has made a bunch of appearances behind the microphone in 2014, and plans to make many more before the year is out. Two weeks ago, I spoke with Annacone by phone, and he sounded entirely upbeat and, simultaneously, remarkably humble about taking on the challenge of broadcasting. Annacone was able to work out work out his schedule with Stephens to allow time for his telecasts, and he is enjoying the balance of the two activities.

“ I have always been interested in figuring out how I could so some commentary and analyst stuff, “ says Annacone,  “and lucky for me I have been able to get into it a little bit with Tennis Channel. It has been good fun. I told them last fall I was going to be around and they said they were doing some studio telecasts for the Finals from London and asked me if I wanted to come in for a few days. I said that would be great. Brett Haber—who is a friend of mine—was doing it and Jimmy Arias, another good friend, was there as well. I got to do a few matches and then they asked me what my year was like for 2014. I put together my schedule with Sloane, and it has all worked out well. Tennis Channel has been pretty flexible and Sloane has been fine with it. It doesn’t seem to really infringe on anybody’s needs. I am enjoying it.”

The question begged to be asked: what has been the biggest surprise for Annacone about broadcasting thus far? He replies, “I am a little bit of a student of whatever I do. When you go down to the control room and see what the producers and directors and everybody is doing to make the telecast work, and then you listen to all of the traffic in your ear and see what the play-by-play guy is trying to do to set you up, you realize there are a lot of moving parts. For me as a fan, I now watch basketball, football and everything else and I have a different perspective on what the announcers are doing. Back in the day I did some work for Eurosport and BBC and for ESPN a few times, so I knew a little about television. But now I am trying to understand it on a different level so I can do it better. It takes time to figure out what your own voice is in terms of how you should deliver things and what your strengths are.”

I wondered if Annacone was influenced significantly by commentators he heard during his years coaching Sampras, Henman and Federer. Did any of them make a lasting impression? He responds, “There were always commentators I liked and felt were real knowledgeable. For instance, Patrick McEnroe has been doing this a long time and he is very good. Darren Cahill is another very good commentator. Mary Carillo is so good at what she does. I grew up listening to Cliff Drysdale and Fred Stolle and loved their banter and interaction. For me it is about hearing a comfortable listen but also wanting to hear someone who is knowledgeable. I wondered what my style would be because I am pretty laid back and subdued but I have been fortunate because I have been around for a long time so I do have, for lack of a better term, institutional knowledge. Now it is a matter of finding the best way to get my views across so that the viewer finds it interesting and maybe a little bit different.”

Annacone clearly has a distinctive voice on the air and has swiftly created his own identity as an announcer. His approach is more cerebral than most of his colleagues. He looks at matches from a broader perspective, examining the larger picture, staying largely clear of inconsequential details. It is surely a reflection of his coaching philosophy, and it works to the hilt. In any event, he had just called a semifinal match in Rio de Janeiro between Rafael Nadal and Pablo Andujar, with Nadal saving two match points before prevailing in a third set tie-break. On that occasion, Annacone allowed the fan in him to emerge, emoting freely after exhilarating points, sharing with viewers his appreciation of the game. It was refreshing to hear his genuine excitement.

“It is exciting to call a match like that,” explains Annacone. “It is different when you are sitting in the coaches box and you are trying to gather all of the information and objectively analyze things without letting the emotion of the situation affect things. That is really clear. I am not a big fan of the overly exuberant [coaches] boxes. My job as a coach is to be kind of an antenna and I don’t think you can objectively evaluate what is going on if you are riding an emotional roller coaster. But as a fan and an announcer, I can go, ‘That’s unbelievable’ and sit back and say, ‘Here is why that was unbelievable. You are playing the greatest clay court player of all time.’ I can then expand on that. With the other role as an announcer, it is a different skill set. That Nadal-Andujar match had some pretty compelling stuff. The tennis wasn’t that great until the middle of the third set but what made it so interesting and exciting was that the more pressure that came, the better the tennis got. That doesn’t happen very often.”

One of the primary differences between announcing and coaching is the shift in focus. As a coach, Annacone is concerned first and foremost with his player. As a commentator, he has to look out for both competitors. He has acclimated himself well to the industry and is able to see the match through the lens of both participants very well. He has been fundamentally fair in his analysis. Says Annacone,“I am a fan. Look, working with Roger for four years, he is a dear friend and I am a huge fan and obviously I want him to do well. But my job is to objectively evaluate and let people know what is going on. I am a fan of greatness, whether it is Roger or Rafa or Djokovic or Murray or Ferrer or Venus or Serena or Sharapova. There are lots of different recipes that make up greatness. For me it is really interesting to be able to sit and watch and actually take mental notes about what these components are and why they are successful in different personalities. I am a fan of people that try to achieve greatness. Like a lot of the fans, I just sit there in admiration for the great players a lot of times as well.”

Annacone has been working primarily out of the studio as part of a broadcasting trio, usually with Haber, sometimes with Rennae Stubbs or Tracy Austin. The three person commentary booth is always somewhat crowded. The two analysts have to find ways to avoid repetition and tripping over each other, which is never easy. But Annacone has handled being part of a trio with grace. Does he find it difficult to find the appropriate times to jump in and get his point across?

Annacone answers, “That is the dilemma. The two man booth with a play by play person gives you a little more latitude to kind of survey the landscape. If I am sitting there with Tracy Austin or Rennae Stubbs and there are three of us doing the commentary, that is a little trickier. But I also think it comes with learning. Let’s be honest: I am still learning and trying to figure it out. I realize I am not Al Michaels or Chris Collingsworth. I know there is a lot of stuff I need to learn so I am just trying to take note and fit in with a very good team. I have great directors and producers that are giving me notes and telling me how to get better and that is all I care about. I am sure I have put my foot in my mouth a few times and I will probably do that a few more times, but you have to just get comfortable in that scenario when there are that many people calling the match. You need to find a clear, concise way to get your point across.”

Annacone points out that the play-by-play announcer controls the destiny of the telecast to a large extent. He says, “They have got to set it all up and when they have two other people to set up it is tricky, but Brett Haber has been amazing for me in terms of doing that. I have also had Leif Shiras and Justin Gimelstob to work with in that role and all three of them have been really helpful to me and very thoughtful. What I do is pretty simple: just tell the person at home what I am seeing and what is going on. That comes naturally. I kind of embrace it. One of the things I try to harp on the most is trying to give people a different understanding of what is going on, other than a missed forehand or a missed backhand—something strategically that they might not be aware of. You have the mental side, the strategic side and the personality side and luckily I still know a lot of the players so I understand some of the things that make them comfortable or uncomfortable, and why. So I think that is a little different from some of the other announcers.”

I told Annacone that I felt his approach is indeed more cerebral than a lot of other broadcasters, a way of looking at the larger picture, of examining the macro versus the micro. Is that what might make him stand apart from others, a way of markedly making himself different?

“Absolutely,” he says. “It is about macro versus micro and the different expectations and different consequences of what those things are. I like to look at things like that because if you don’t I think you are making a limited evaluation on limited information. For me it is understanding the macro so I can perhaps shed some light that the result of what we are seeing and what is happening on the court could be due to a number of things that wouldn’t come to your mind right away. For example, I was very interested to see how Rafa was going to play at the beginning of this year because he had such a great 2013 and such a busy December. So people might say, ‘He did well or bad in Australia’ but I like to look at the big picture and say that is due to what his schedule is. That is how I evaluate everything. That is how I coach. I just finished practicing with Sloane and I tell her is it about getting past the one shot you missed right now and playing the right way so that shot gets better. You might miss one but we are going to do 40,000 different things so that the more you do it this year the better it is going to get. I have the same philosophy with my commentary, and it is kind of how I have lived my life.”

At Tennis Channel, weekends this year have been filled with “Center Court” telecasts, with Annacone and his colleagues sitting in the studio and moving back and forth from one tournament to another from all around the world. Three or four tournaments can be shown simultaneously, or close to it. It is a challenge of the highest order for even those in the know like Annacone. How difficult is it to be prepared for those telecasts from so many different events with such a wide range of players?

“That’s a great question,” replies Annacone. “We are still getting our sea legs on Center Court because there are obviously things that we have got to figure out. One of my pet peeves with everything as a sports fan is remembering watching matches maybe at the U.S. Open and somebody would be at 5-5 in the fifth set and they would just switch to Serena warming up for her match. I didn’t care that the two players in the men’s match were ranked No. 18 and No. 24: it was 5-5 in the fifth set! Serena is just warming up for her match so missing the first three games of her match is fine. There are certain operational things we have to manage with so many things going on at once. You get to see a lot of different surfaces and strategies, and you watch the men and the women. For a tennis fan it is a smorgasbord.”

No matter how compelling the tennis might be, regardless of the realities of the action, Annacone has to engage in plenty of self-reflection and analysis of his work. Does he take notes or watch tapes to assess the quality of his work?

“It is both,” he replies. “I try not to watch [tapes of himself] too much because I can’t stand [looking at] myself on television, which I have heard is pretty common. I do watch a little bit and I do take notes myself, but I also talk to the directors and producers. The category I am in is considered ‘talent’, which I find comical. We are the ‘talent’ supposedly as the analysts, and I guess historically there have been some significant egos to manage in that situation. But my talent isn’t television. So I need the producers and directors to keep telling me how to get better and I am not worried about my ego. Obviously you don’t want someone saying that you suck but they can tell you that you were too long winded or ask you to show a little more or a little less emotion. And now every time I watch a sporting event I am listening closely to the announcers. I am not going to be Jeff Van Gundy or Chris Collingsworth or Charles Barclay. I am going to be me, but how do I make it impactful for the people who are watching?”

The conversation shifts to a new segment on Center Court called “Coach on the Couch”. As Annacone says, “I love to take things that a club player can learn about from a match. It is really raw right now with “Coach on the Couch” because it is so new. The segment is difficult for me to do and I have to get better at it. I feel I am improving already, not that I am great. But I do feel more comfortable with it. We just did one segment but just like everything else you keep working on it. There is a lot of good information to convey. There are some pretty good possibilities with how we can deliver different messages.”

Meanwhile, Annacone is determined to enhance the prospects for Stephens all through this 2014 season and beyond. How tough is the adjustment to coaching a woman player after all of these years working with the men? Annacone says, “Every role is different. Obviously different genders make it different, too, but I have a 21-year-old daughter and Sloane is about to turn 21 [on March 20, the same day Annacone turns 51]. Sloane kind of hit the scene last year with a pretty big year. I always felt the sophomore year is the most difficult because of the expectations and there are all these other things that come into play. So she has got a big ask ahead of her, but Sloane has a big jumpstart because her talent level is so high. The biggest thing is going to be mentally and emotionally getting comfortable dealing with everything on a day in, day out basis. To be quite frank, one of my biggest sales points—not in terms of hire me, hire me, hire me—but in terms of making sense for me to coach Sloane is that Sloane spends a lot of time in L.A. and I live there so we could practice for ten days before she goes to Indian Wells. That doesn’t happen with every coaching role. A lot of coaching roles are just 20 or 25 weeks on the road or 20 weeks altogether but for me I don’t want to travel 25 weeks. I would say it is probably going to be 16 to 20 weeks on the road for me.”

Now we change the topic to Federer, with whom Annacone did an outstanding job during his tenure at a complicated period in the icon’s career as he moved through his late twenties and into his early thirties. When Annacone started working with Federer in 2010, the feeling among close followers of the game was that the American would be sending a message to Federer to attack more regularly, shorten points, and seize the initiative as often as possible. Now Stefan Edberg has taken over as co-coach for Federer with Severin Luthi remaining on the team. As soon as Edberg came aboard in Australia to help Federer, experts were ironically saying the same things about the Swede. Annacone, of course, was an unabashed attacker, and so was Edberg. Does Annacone believe Edberg’s philosophy will be virtually identical to his own?

“The biggest difference,” he says, “is what Stefan was as a player, which I can’t ever be. He was a great one. That is why it is so interesting with all of these great players coaching now because they have this historical library of information that is invaluable. I just know as a coach how great that is, but if you don’t know how to disseminate information it doesn’t mean anything. And that is one of the biggest challenges for all of the great players because they have this aura of who they are but it becomes very different when it is about someone else and not you. That is not the easiest thing to navigate, particularly for long periods of time. Stefan is a very quiet and soft spoken guy. I know what is going on. I spoke with Stefan briefly in Australia and Severin and I are still very good friends and we talked in Australia. Roger and I had lunch in Australia. Stefan can absolutely help Roger and he has already.”

Is Edberg’s thinking an awful lot like Annacone’s? Annacone replies, “It doesn’t seem a heck of a lot different and that is why when people were saying in Australia, ‘Oh, Roger is coming in’, I just kind of laughed and thought to myself, ‘I wish I had thought of that.’ Coming in a lot was what Stefan did and Stefan did it as one of the all-time greats. I just did it as a coach. That is neither here nor there, but it carries a lot more clout from a great who has done that. I don’t think Roger is going to be hearing a lot of different messages than we discussed when I was there. But a new voice is always good and I have encouraged that in all of my relationships because if you can’t get to that comfort level with a person you can create a new catalyst and a new energy. The new perspective for Roger can be really valuable.”

The interview is about to conclude. Annacone has been his usual self—highly intelligent and expansive, confident yet never arrogant, entirely humble and candid about his excellent commentary. He will be working for Tennis Channel at the three remaining majors this year and at selected other times. Where does he see himself going with the commentary in the future? Annacone answers, “I am encouraged. I just hope the television people that make the decisions also see it like that because otherwise it will be a short lived career. I would like to do it more and more and get better and better at it. I hope I can get more integrated into the tennis broadcasting aspect of it because I really enjoy it and love the interaction with the other people and the inner workings and learning how the whole production process works and what everybody’s roles are.”

He pauses, and then adds, “I am young and new at this and a student of it and I like that. I also love coaching and am really enjoying my time with Sloane. As I said, I would like to be home a little more but I also know that my pulse definitely starts racing around the bigger events in tennis. So I am trying to find that balance in my life.  The tennis broadcasting role offers me a nice opportunity if I can continue to progress and do a good job. I hope the right people will say, “Hey, you would be good to have on our team.’”

That is bound to happen.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.