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Steve Flink: Rick Macci's book is compelling and informative

3/24/2014 6:00:00 PM

As one of the preeminent American tennis coaches of the modern era, Rick Macci has established a hard earned reputation for himself as a skilled communicator, a superb motivator and a first rate clinician and technician. A USPTA Master Professional, seven time recipient of the USPTA Coach of the Year award, and founder of the Rick Macci Tennis Academy, this charismatic individual has been in the forefront of the sport for three decades. He has worked with a wide range of immensely accomplished players including five competitors who have attained the No. 1 world ranking: Venus and Serena Williams, Jennifer Capriati, Andy Roddick and Maria Sharapova. He has also shared his wisdom with two-time major singles champion Mary Pierce, and a whole host of other standout players, including 2004 French Open victor Anastasia Myskina.

Macci is a well-known figure in his field, and yet many veteran writers—and I include myself in that category—wanted to know more about the man and his methodology, about what drove him to become so successful, about how he turned himself into a central figure in American coaching. That is why his new book, Macci Magic (“Extracting Greatness From Yourself and Others”) is so enjoyable and such a good read; at long last, those who have followed him from a distance can get a much closer view of who he is and why he has been so widely accomplished and enduring. Macci’s collaborator Jim Martz does an excellent job of bringing Macci’s personality, individuality and philosophy across.

This is not simply a tennis book about a coach clarifying what he believes and why he believes it. It is more than that. Macci’s way of teaching and “extracting greatness” from his players transcends our sport; his way of thinking and of encouraging his players to move beyond themselves to a level they never knew existed can apply to any sport or, for that matter, to any endeavor in life. As he writes, “I feel I could have coached an NFL team, an NBA team. I could have coached golf. I figure things out. I don’t quit until I figure it out. I know how to motivate people.” He clearly has a gift for conveying ideas that is extraordinary, unconventional, thought provoking and inspiring.

Macci grew up in Greenville, Ohio in a town of 10,000 people. His father—a recreational golfer—passed away when Rick was 12. By the time Rick turned 13, he had caught the tennis fever in a comprehensive way. He would hit against a backboard almost incessantly. He loved every single solitary minute of it. Having been raised modestly with no real financial resources, he was profoundly shaped by his upbringing. As he writes, “ The fact that I had very little growing up—and that I had to do things the hard way—is a big part of how I ended up coaching and teaching to this day. This is a major factor in how I see everything differently from every possible angle. I can relate to all ages and levels and take the exact temperature for that player on that day.”

Remarkably, he learned almost entirely from watching others play. Macci explains, “As scary as this is going to sound to some people, I’ve never had a lesson in my life. And to this day, I give more lessons than anybody in the United States. You go from one extreme to another.”

At 20, Macci started working at an indoor club in Troy, Ohio, teaching the game he had studied with such fervor, single-mindedness and precision. He then taught in New Jersey before making the monumental move of his life to become Director of Tennis at the Grenelefe Golf and Tennis Resort near Haines City, Florida.

Once he had established himself at that facility, Macci’s world was altered irrevocably. As he writes of that crucial period in his life when he connected so powerfully with so many young players, “To me that was so fulfilling when I was making others feel good. That is a big part of how [and who] I am. When the resort got built out and more people started coming and I put together this tennis grand prix for Central Florida, that became the largest grassroots tennis program in the Southeast.”

Somehow, it was almost inevitable that Macci would take his rapidly growing prestige in Florida and turn that into a platform for larger stature, wider horizons, and international impact. He did some terrific work with an outstanding American junior named Tommy Ho, a player who was the most dominant ever in the 12-and-under division, not to mention the youngest victor at the prestigious National 18 Championships in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Ho took that highly coveted title at the age of 15. “Through Tommy’s success,” says Macci, “that’s what spring-boarded Jennifer Capriati coming to train with me as well as the Williams sisters and everybody else.”

Macci invariably demanded as much from his pupils as he did from himself. As he defines his outlook, “It starts with trying to find a way, never giving up, keep pushing that button until you find that answer. That is me. That’s a mindset. Persistence never loses! It is undefeated! A lot of people get frustrated and they quit, they make excuses. And I never make excuses. It would always be between me and me, because your toughest test in life is between you and you. It’s what you expect of you and what you’re going to settle for.”

In the case of Macci, he settles for nothing less than the best—from himself and his students. As his reputation grew, as the tennis community watched him flourish, as the man explored the boundaries of his vast potential, countless young tennis players with large aspirations sought Macci’s coaching expertise. As he writes, “From 1985 to 2003, I pretty much just worked with nationally-ranked juniors and touring professionals. Also, I would enter into contractual relationships with kids who I thought could be great, like a Jennifer or Venus or Serena. Not just good but great. Mostly Americans, some foreign players, but I was very open to diving in head first since most couldn’t afford it. I just put in the sweat equity and just worked on future earnings once they turned pro. In 2003, I decided to stop doing this (which was bad for American tennis) and decided to help anybody, anytime, any age.”

The fact remains that Macci made the most of that period between the mid-1980’s and 2003, and his influence during that stretch was astounding. There are a wide range of reasons why he was so successful, but his explanation makes total sense. Macci writes, “A good coach can change grips, strokes, movement. A great coach can change lives.”

In many crucial ways, he was both good and great. Macci fully understood the game’s intricacies, and knew when to reshape a player’s game and when to leave things intact. In the case of Capriati, he recognized the fine work that had already been done by both her father Stefano and more so by the renowned Jimmy Evert. But Macci found a balance. He wanted Capriati to establish her own identity and not become a clone of the great Chrissie Evert, with whom Jennifer was inevitably compared as the would-be, next great American champion. As Macci writes, “I just knew that Jennifer needed to get a much better serve. Especially back in the 1980’s, the serve in women’s tennis was just a means of getting the ball in play. It wasn’t a weapon. That was a Chrissie-type of approach, because Chrissie had a great mind and played amazing off the ground. But Chrissie was a genius mentally with great focus and ice in her veins. I made it clear to Stefano that you want this girl to be Jennifer Capriati, not Chris Evert. She can pick up on how Chris focusses and handles things, but after that she has to be her own person because the game is much different.”

Capriati moved to the Grenelefe Resort. Macci found a house for her family to live in. Most important of all, he provided the ideal training ground for Capriati to enrich her skills. Macci writes, “She had the best hitting partners you could ask for and the best coaching insight to develop her game. We had to tweak the forehand, get a serve that could be athletic, somewhat respectable instead of just getting it in. We also had to develop her hands, her feel, her touch because she was such a good solid ball striker.”

Eventually Capriati moved on to Saddlebrook in 1989, but indisputably the hard work she put in under Macci’s guidance was pivotal in her shining career. Capriati would become No. 1 in the world, win three major singles titles, and be inducted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum in 2012—in no small part due to the wisdom and insights of one Rick Macci. “After she left,” he reflects in Macci Magic, “a year later she skyrocketed into the top ten in the world at age 14. I know what was put together from ages 10 to 13 was a big key! Inside and out!”

Addressing his coaching relationship with the formidable Roddick, Macci points out that one of the most positive aspects of their relationship was the financial structure. The Roddick family could afford to pay him what he deserved, while that was not always true in other cases. “It was a little different from the Capriati situation or the Williams situation,” writes Macci. “The Roddick’s could afford it. From a business point of view, those relationships are much more healthy because if someone wants to leave or whatever, Ok, there’s no problem with that. It’s business pretty much straight up and down.”

Above all else about Roddick, Macci loved his ferocity. They were on the same page that way. “What I always liked about Andy was that he was always competing. It was always about the fight. He loved pressure, he loved the battle and he wasn’t caught up in the other stuff…. His thirst for competition, his drive to just want to crush people and knock people out was very evident at a very young age. I loved how this kid competed!”

Perhaps no segment of the book is more enticing than the Macci reflections on his invaluable work with the Williams sisters. That alliance began in 1991. Richard Williams telephoned Macci and asked him to come out to Compton, California where they lived and take a look at his two daughters, Venus and Serena. Macci flew from Florida and watched the girls play, and his first impression was that they were not that good. He saw them practice and thought it could be a “train wreck.” He writes, “I thought that Venus and Serena looked like decent athletes but technically they were all over the map just because they were improvising. You could tell they just did not have quality instruction.”

What convinced Macci that the sisters could have immense long term potential was when he witnessed them shifting to playing competitively rather than simply hitting balls in practice. The technical flaws did not disappear but “right then and there their stock rose immediately. My whole perception—and this is a good lesson for any parent or coach—is you don’t judge a book by its cover… When they started competing I saw the footwork get a little faster, I saw consistency rise a little higher.”

Macci worked out an arrangement with Richard Williams to coach his daughters. The Williams family moved to Florida. Macci was exhilarated by the opportunity to be making a contribution to two players who would sweepingly change the sport historically. “They were going to bring something to the game of tennis that the world had never seen. I knew there was something unique there. We could transcend the game. I was all in.”

Richard Williams negotiated in his deal with Macci a motor home for his family in Florida. Everything fell into place. Richard Williams kept bargaining and maneuvering, the deal with Macci kept changing and getting worse from Macci’s standpoint, but Macci believed in the sisters and their capacity for greatness. He made considerable sacrifices financially and, because Richard Williams did not have a job, Macci put him on the payroll. Macci understandably felt it would all pay dividends in the long run. He did everything he conceivably could to advance the bar for Venus and Serena. He worked especially hard to enhance Venus’s grass court game with sessions at Grenelefe, knowing the value of that work would be demonstrated on other surfaces as well.

By 1992, they had all moved from Grenelefe to Delray Beach, Florida as Macci established a new location. As Macci explains, Richard Williams “was pretty cagey about everything. He’d have a bad day or couple of days, he’d get in the car with the girls and go somewhere else to practice.” Yet the relationship with Macci endured, because of his professionalism and their recognition of his talent and creativity. Moreover, Macci believed his friendship with Richard Williams was authentic, and he felt like a “second father” to the two girls. In 1994, Venus made her pro debut at 14 in Oakland after Macci urged Richard Williams to allow her to do so. She nearly toppled world No. 1 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario before bowing in three sets.

Not long after that, about seven or eight months down the road as Macci portrays it, Richard Williams reneged on a longstanding deal. Macci writes, “Basically what happened was, he wanted me to give up all my rights to the contract from the past, which was in the millions, to have the opportunity to coach the girls for the next five years, and he’d pay me a million dollars, like $250,000 a year.”

Richard Williams told Macci he could become “famous” and get endorsements through his association with them. “Right then, “recalls Macci, “I knew it was over because when you go a lot on unreal trust and friendship and you’re best friends and you’re like a father figure, for him to ask me to give up the rights of what I’d put out and for what I did just to coach Venus for another five years, it was a left hook from Ali, to say the least. It was tempting to do it. Yet the ethical part of it hit like a brick. I told him I couldn’t.”

For two more years, it was all in limbo between Macci and Richard Williams. This was fundamentally about the coaching relationship with Venus because Serena wasn’t yet ready for the pro game. But, as Macci recalls, they could not reach an accord, largely because Richard Williams “wanted all the credit and he wanted all the money.”

Macci prepared a $14 million, 164 page lawsuit, but never filed it. “I wanted to be known as the guy who coached the Williams sisters, not the guy who sued, so I ended up settling for a lot less. How stupid was I! My wiring was short-circuited with that decision!”

He settled because he had been told by Richard Williams in 1997 that if he did settle out of court he would be able to coach the girls again. But Macci did not get that put in writing. Macci explains in the book that Richard Williams acted as if he [Macci] had never been in the picture. “It sounded better that he did it all. He did a lot. So did Oracene. But so did Rick Macci. I’m sure a lot of people in tennis know what I did, but they don’t really know what I did. Forget the monetary part, the effort, 24/7, six days a week, just working those hours, trying to not only sew this thing together technically but deal with Richard because he’d be telling them a lot of things that were pretty much in left field. People said just dealing with him I should have gotten Coach of the Year. Four years, that’s a pretty good achievement!”

The book is a considerable achievement. It is entertaining, enlightening and informative. It takes us deeply inside the agile mind of Rick Macci. It is written at a fast clip, with no dull passages. In the final analysis, perhaps Andy Roddick’s assertions in the book’s foreword sum up the views of most Macci students. As Roddick writes, “I always wonder if Rick had been more of a big self-promoter like other coaches in America, how big his legacy would be in the grand scheme of coaches in this country and around the world. I confidently assume he would be at the top. Self-promotion was never his game. Rick is not only a world class coach but a teacher of the game of tennis.”
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.