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Steve Flink: Chronicles of Roddick

12/8/2008 4:14:00 PM

by Steve Flink
To recognize the superb credentials of one Larry Stefanki as a coach, examine the record. After wrapping up his time as a player, he worked with John McEnroe in the early nineties. Thereafter, he joined forces with a cluster of distinguished players across the years. He was invaluable to the enigmatic Marcelo Rios, playing a major role as the left-handed Chilean reached No. 1 in the world in 1998. He was instrumental in Yevgeny Kafelnikov playing some of the best tennis of his career not long after; the Russian matched Rios' achievement of spending six weeks --- in 1999--- as the top ranked player in the world of tennis. He had a long and productive association with Tim Henman, with the Englishman scaling the heights of his game and reaching No. 4 in the world in 2002. Most recently-in 2007 and 2008--- he was largely responsible for Fernando Gonzalez's ascent into the world's top five during an exciting journey which included final round appearances for the explosive Chilean at the 2007 Australian Open and the 2008 Olympic Games.

Now the time has come for Stefanki to share his multi-layered knowledge of the game with yet another front line player. At the end of November, Stefanki began coaching former world No. 1 Andy Roddick, flying to Texas to join his new American charge and help him prepare for a crucial year ahead in 2009. I spoke with Stefanki over the phone a few days ago. He had just returned to California, fresh from that week with Roddick. I asked him what were the chief reasons he decided to take on his new job, and he replied, "There were a few factors. I haven't worked with an American since Johnny Mac, and that was a long time ago. I am getting older. I will be 52 on my next birthday. I don't want to be travelling much longer. When this is over I would like to get involved with junior development in this country. So it just felt like the right time. I felt like working with Fernando had gone its course. He had gotten to No. 5 in the world. Andy is going to be the last guy I will ever travel with. I am excited about this because I feel I can really help him. Andy being an American was a big part of the decision for me."

When I asked him to outline his goals and those of Roddick, Stefanki characteristically did not waver in the least. "Let's face it, "he asserted, "with a guy of Andy's caliber, winning another Slam or two is the gig. He is a past No. 1, a Grand Slam winner and he has had a dry spell for five years. I know he has the capability of winning another Slam or two. He is the best server in the game bar none, and he is looking to improve his return of serve, and coming forward and ending points a little sooner. Andy is a big body athlete, more of a Boris Becker type of athlete. He is not a David Ferrer or a Davydenko so he needs to make an adjustment and take risks at the right times. This past year he was below 30% on capitalizing on break points and he needs to bring that percentage way up. With some adjustments, there is no reason why he can't win a couple more Slams."

In Roddick, Stefanki sees a man of multiple strengths, a competitor of the highest order, and a player of the top rank. But he would not be one of the game's greatest coaches if he did not believe he could make Roddick superior in other ways. "To be No. 1 on the serving list but only maybe No. 30 on the break points converted list means something has to improve, and Andy understands that. I am a big believer in fixing things that don't quite hold up under pressure in the heat of battle. Pete Sampras was one of those guys who would say, "I don't care if my backhand isn't working, I am going to serve my way out of this.' I am not one of those guys. I say if you have got a glaring weakness and you keep hitting returns into the net off second serves, that means you are not sound enough to handle the pressure in the heat of battle. He hit one return against [Janko] Tipsarevic at Wimbledon on a big break point in the bottom of the net. We talked about that and he said he was choking badly. And I said, "No, no, no, no. That's where you have to know that you have the best return and it's rock solid and you are going to be aggressive. That knowingness and that thing in your head that clicks in is what you need to draw on. And knowing it and bluffing it are two different things.' Andy definitely knows how to win but he can get better at some things when he gets under the fire. I'm encouraged about that, and so is he."

What has Stefanki learned from his wide range of experiences through the years with such an accomplished cast of players? He answers, "I think it appealed to Andy that I have worked with so many different personalities, so many different nationalities, some one-handed [backhands] and some two-handers, such a diverse group of guys. You learn something from everybody when you coach at the highest levels as I have. Andy is a great competitor. What stands out to me is his heart, his desire, his determination and his competitiveness. And he knows at his level you can't bluff it. I am very impressed with Andy."

I wanted him to elaborate on precisely how Roddick commanded his respect from the time they first stepped on the court to practice in Texas. Stefanki answered, "This guy is an incredibly hard worker. He is a mule. You tell him to do something and he does it. If you asked him to run through a wall and he knew that would make him a better player, he would do it. He is like Kafelnikov in the sense of not being a great athlete. But if you say,' Do two on one drills for three hours', he goes out and does it until he drops. That is the kind of athlete I want to work with. Andy is 26 now and knows this is the time for him. He has something to prove. I came back from those six days of working with him in Austin, Texas realizing this guy has an incredible work ethic. I have never seen a guy who is willing to work harder than Andy. If he keeps getting sounder which I believe he will, good things are going to happen for him."

Stefanki is a man of deep inner convictions who will undoubtedly convey his thoughts to Roddick with absolute candor. He won't hesitate to bring his message across forcefully, but Roddick will be the beneficiary of a treasure chest of wisdom and penetrating insights from his new coach. He knows with fundamental clarity how he wants Roddick to go about his business on the court. Stefanki points out, "Andy can take more chances on the return off second serves, coming in and putting a lot of pressure on guys. That is how I see him playing. As I told Andy, the longer a point lasts against a Davydenko or a Ferrer, the odds are more against him. If the ball crosses the net 25 times and Andy gets farther and farther back behind the court, here is this big body guy playing against a rabbit. He doesn't want to be running side to side, over and over again. And they are loving it if Andy does that. Andy holds serve 91% of the time which is the best percentage in the game. So I mean, come on, he should be taking a lot more chances and putting more pressure on these guys [in his return games].'"

And yet, Stefanki says, "I was impressed with Andy's groundies when we worked in Austin. Very, very impressed. He has got an underrated [backhand] chip. We talked about that. Andy said, "I get no respect for my chip.' He does from me. He can do that as well as anyone in the game. We also worked a lot on his two-hander on bending with his legs more instead of just trying to hit it with his fingers and his arms. There are certain things like that he needs to do."

Along with many other long time Roddick observers, I have felt for quite a while that he has not exploited his forehand nearly as fully as he could have over the last three years. He covers it too much, playing it with too much of a safety net with considerable topspin instead of flattening it out and driving through it with controlled aggression as he did when he was No. 1 in the world in 2003. How does Stefanki feel about that? "He's going to do that more. He has got one of the biggest forehands in the game and I told him that as a big guy he has to take advantage of that. You can't play like David Ferrer and take second serve returns and just roll them crosscourt at half speed. He has to recognize his opportunities and realize how great that forehand can be. I told him I remember when Tim Henman practiced with Andy at Queen's Club one year and Andy would take every forehand and just rip away. Now he tends to just roll it crosscourt. That is not my style of play and not how Andy should be playing. And he knows that. Like every great player, Andy is a perfectionist with the highest standards. He knows he doesn't want to fall into the trap of just getting balls back."

During a disjointed 2008 season, Roddick had a terrific run in the early stages, toppling Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in the course of winning Dubai, ending an 11 match losing streak against Roger Federer in Miami. But after reaching the semifinals of Rome, he was disrupted too often by injuries. In any case, he lost too often to players he should beat, bowing against Philipp Kohlschreiber in the third round of the Australian Open, falling against Tipsarevic in the second round at Wimbledon. Is Stefanki confident that Roddick can avoid losses like that in the future and give himself more opportunities to beat the big name players at the top?

"The Tipsarevic match was horrible but he didn't have a lot of matches leading up to that since he was out from the end of Rome until Queen's Club. He didn't have a lot of matches under his belt at that time. But those things can happen. Gonzalez lost to Tipsarevic at Wimbledon the year before from 5-2 and two breaks up in the fifth set. It's like Djokovic losing to Safin in the second round of Wimbledon this year. Those are the matches you have to find a way to win. Andy needed to capitalize on the opportunity he had and beat Tipsarevic and keep going. But Andy still finished the year at No. 8 in the world despite missing the French and getting nothing out of the Slams with his best result being the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. So that is a real positive going into 2009. He's thinking,'What if I catch fire?'"

The major championships are where the great players define themselves. Roddick hasn't won one since his lone triumph at a Grand Slam event back at the U.S. Open of 2003. How will Stefanki try to help lead his man back to that golden territory? He answers thoughtfully, "You have to find a nice relaxation point inside yourself and allow it to happen [at the majors] rather than trying to make it happen. You don't even think about winning the match, but just think about winning the next point. That is how I look at it with Andy. I would like to see him play as if it is kind of like water off of a duck's ass, so he doesn't absorb any negativity of what might have it happen and have that get in his way during a big match. As Andy becomes more and more solid he will become more resilient with positive feelings going to these Slams and without creating so much pressure."

But to succeed at the big events, Roddick will have to beat the likes of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, and break a losing trend against the best on the landmark stages. Can he do that? "I've got news for you," says Stefanki. "I know all of these guys and they know Andy is the best server in the game and he is not going to give them many opportunities to break him, so they really have to be on their toes when they play him. I have been in the locker room and I know how these players feel, and they really don't want to play him. And if he becomes a little sounder and starts moving a little better, they might not want to have anything to do with him. Andy's mentality now is 'I am not going to be denied.' I love that. How can you not want to work with a guy like that?"

Every coach needs to establish a working relationship that is as stress free as possible. Having been around so many complicated personalities in his previous endeavors, Stefanki seems well aware how to proceed this time around. He says, "Andy invited me to stay at his house that first week we spent in Austin. His fiance [Brooklyn Decker] was there and she is an absolute wonder and asset. She is the greatest thing that that has ever happened to him. She has an unbelievable calming effect on him. I think my personality should work well with his. That week in Austin was a great thing for me to see how his lifestyle is set up. I will be there for him, but I am not his Daddy. I am not a 40 week a year guy either. My deal is to work 25 weeks a year with him for two years. I told him I will be there for him if he needs me more than the 25 weeks. I told him if he wants me to spend extra time practicing in Austin, or he wants to come to San Diego, that is fine, and I wouldn't charge him anything extra for that. I was a player so I understand those things. I know what it takes."

Stefanki pauses briefly, then continues, "But I also told Andy,' I am not going to carry your bag.' He is going to get married so he is in charge of his own life. So in that sense he has outgrown that time when he needed someone around him all the time. He is way beyond that now. He doesn't want a guy coaching him who is a control freak. He is in control of his own life. This job is not about me--- it is about me helping him achieve the goals he has decided to take on. Andy is a winner, and I am really looking forward to these next two years. He has so much going for him."

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