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Steve Flink: One on One with Larry Stefanki

12/20/2009 12:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

A year ago, at almost precisely this time, under different circumstances, I talked at length with Larry Stefanki, the man who just might be the greatest coach in the world of professional tennis. He was just embarking on his first year of working with Andy Roddick, and sounded exuberant about the venture and what he hoped he could do to help Roddick turn a corner and move closer to the top of his potential. He spoke forthrightly about Roddick and his game, reflected on his philosophy as a coach, and addressed 2009 and Roddick’s overriding pursuits. After working so diligently and contributing so mightily to such a wide range of leading players since the early 1990’s--- John McEnroe, Marcelo Rios, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Tim Henman and Fernando Gonzalez—Stefanki took on the Roddick project with a wealth of experience and an unshakable sense of what it takes for a player like Roddick to succeed at the highest levels of a tough and exacting game.

Now, with the 2009 campaign over and 2010 just up ahead, Stefanki shared his thoughts with me again. How did he feel about Roddick’s performance across the board in 2009? Stefanki replied, “He was solid all year, and very consistent. He improved a lot this past year with his mobility. I just got back from spending two weeks with Andy in Florida and Texas, and he is incredibly eager about next year. He really wants his return to get better, to become more offensive on second serve returns and break points. He was at 35% on break points converted in 2008, which is horrible. In 2009, he was at 37%, which was an improvement percentage wise. But it is still below standard when you consider that he is in the top 2 or 3 in every serving category. He has got to get that break points converted percentage to go up another ten percentage points, and I know he can do that. “  

Stefanki is on a roll as he dissects Roddick’s game. He is brimming with optimism after his sessions with Roddick during the first half of December. Continuing his analysis, he says, “Andy is working hard, trying to come forward and shrink the court and get closer to the baseline and not get stuck deep in the hole. We focused on things like that the last two weeks. He has to hit those second serve returns and not just go with the little chop block shot. A guy at his level can’t be using the slice return off second serves. With his two-handed backhand return, he sometimes gets caught changing his grip when he is going for second serve returns. Sometimes Andy wants it so much and gets so tense that he really needs to relax and not try to fight it so to speak. He just has to let his natural abilities take over and go for it.”  

As he examines Roddick’s numbers for 2009, Stefanki pays homage to the immense consistency of Roddick as a server. “He had exactly the same percentage in 2008, holding serve 91% of the time. He is No. 1 in that category. He was second in aces. The guy is unbeatable in serving stats. We don’t even need to discuss that it is so good. But Andy is looking at the other things--- the movement, coming forward, cutting balls off on the fly, putting more pressure on his opponent. When you are the best server, it allows you to take more risks. Andy on break points often waits for a mistake. At his level you have got to hit the ball to win majors.”  

Roddick could not have come much closer to garnering a second career major than he did at Wimbledon in July. In the semifinals he struck down Andy Murray in four sets. “Nobody was giving Andy [Roddick] a shot going into that match,” recalls Stefanki. “That is what made it such a great win. I was kind of shocked that every person I talked to was saying no chance for Roddick. Andy was the aggressor, and Murray was playing 15 to 20 feet behind the baseline. I don’t know about his strategy that day. It was very strange. Andy [Roddick] was down a set point in the third set and hit a volley that dribbled over. Otherwise, he is down two sets to one. He got some good breaks but he deserved that win. Tactically he played a very smart match.”  

Buoyed by that triumph over Murray, Roddick lost his serve only once in five high caliber sets during the final, and that was at 14-15 in the fifth set after holding 37 consecutive times against none other than Roger Federer. He competed steadfastly, comported himself with honor, threw his heart and soul into carving out a triumph on the fabled Centre Court. He outplayed his adversary in many ways, but Federer was unswerving in winning a record breaking 15th major championship.  

Recollecting that occasion, Stefanki points out, “Andy played the match with Roger very sure of himself. When Andy plays tennis like that and he knows he is serving very, very well, he starts trusting his ability and it gives him an inner calm. He is able to show how he can actually play. Sometimes the tension creeps into him, and he wants it so bad in big situations that he kind of gets ahead of the truck so to speak, and doesn’t play point by point. But in that Wimbledon final he was very settled inside.”  

Roddick fought off four crucial break points at 5-5 in the opening set, held on, broke Federer in the following game, and moved confidently out in front by taking the first set. In the second set, they went to a tie-break, with Roddick taking a commanding 6-2 lead. He was in the enviable position of having quadruple set point, and a chance to secure a two sets to love lead over his revered adversary. He was serving at 6-2. Reliving that point, Stefanki says, “I thought Andy hit a great forehand pass up the line. Roger literally looked like he was semi-tanking. He was in no man’s land. He looked like [in his mind] the set was over. But he hit a half volley flick short angled inside the service box for a winner, and I thought, ‘Uh-oh, that is not a good sign because that frees Roger up.’ Here he had kind of sauntered over there for that half volley as if it was a routine shot, and it wasn’t routine at all. He could easily have dumped that shot in the net. That shot looked to me like a tank job, but he hit it clean as a whistle a la Johnny Mac and it went for a winner.”  

Federer swiftly took both of his serve points, and now Roddick was serving at 6-5, still up set point but with a different outlook. “All of a sudden,” reflects Stefanki, “the dynamics of the tiebreaker had changed.” Roddick missed his first serve, and Federer chipped his backhand return short and low. Roddick made a nearly impeccable forehand approach, and Federer had to play an arduous forehand pass down the line on the run off a low ball. Roddick was not sure whether or not he should attempt to hit a high backhand volley, or just let the passing shot possibly travel long. Roddick belatedly decided to play the volley, and bungled it flagrantly.  

Stefanki asserts, “Roger’s passing shot came off his racket very squirrely. Andy told me he wasn’t planning on hitting that ball. Everyone said to me Andy’s volley broke down there, and I said, ‘No, his volley did not break down.’ What happened was he was indecisive about hitting it and then at the last second he snatched at it. You have to want to play even an out ball in that situation and that is the mentality you need. Andy had hit such a great forehand approach that he didn’t even think Roger was going to get it. I said, ‘Listen, you have got to want to hit [what might look like] an out ball in that situation. You have got to want to play that ball.’ He knew that. His mindset wandered. He didn’t recognize that Roger hit a squirrely kind of double hit shank. It was not an intentional lob, but a passing shot shank miss-hit that kind of falls in. There is nothing you can do except know beforehand that there is a good chance a squirrely hit shot will go in.”  

Federer won that set on a run of six straight points in the tie-break. Roddick could have been forgiven had he drowned himself in self pity for not exploiting a glaring opening. “He was very upset about losing that second set,” says Stefanki, “but once he got to 4-4 in the third set I knew Andy was back in the match and even if he lost the third set he would be fine. He did lose that third set in another tiebreaker, but his nervous system had absorbed what had happened. He knew there was no tomorrow so to speak. He even said to me afterwards that he felt there was no way he was going to lose the next two sets after the second one got away. And he came back to win the fourth set 6-3. He was playing so well.”  

The fundamental problem for Roddick was that he was serving from behind all through the fifth set. “That was a big disadvantage,” says Stefanki. “You are always behind the eight ball so to speak. He ended up losing that set 16-14, but the way he handled the whole situation was very commendable in my mind. When he got to 15-40 at 8-8 in the fifth, I felt the energy was flowing in his direction and he was going to win. I thought that was the one time where Roger actually might crack a la the Del Potro final at the U.S. Open. Andy said to me that Roger does it with some of the other guys but not necessarily with him, and I told him, ‘It is not about him playing you; it is about his mental state.’ After watching Roger in that fifth set of the Open in that match with Del Potro, it wasn’t even the same guy who played Andy at Wimbledon.  He just competed like crazy at Wimbledon, and at the Open it was like he was giving it to the other guy in the fifth. I told Andy that in sports there are opportunities, and his day will come.”  

Stefanki is adamant that the devastatingly bruising defeat Roddick suffered at Wimbledon will not result in any permanent wounds in the psyche of Roddick. Asked if it was a shattering moment for the American as he bowed to Federer for the fourth consecutive time in a Grand Slam final over a six year span, Stefanki replies, “No, for Andy it wasn’t. There is nothing to be disgraced about. That is what sports and competition is about. In the locker room after the match, Roger said, ‘I really think in this situation it would have been nice to have two winners.’ And I said, ‘Yes, dude, but that is not sports.’ There is going to be a winner and a loser, but that was the purest form of competition I have seen in a long time. That is the beauty of sport and the way Andy handled it was so classy. I was very proud to be associated with him as his coach and his friend. Even though he was so disappointed, it was almost like it went beyond who won and lost. It was about the actual competition.”  

When Roddick returned to the U.S. after Wimbledon, he was bolstered immeasurably by sympathetic fans that commiserated whole-heartedly and fully understood his plight. “He went to New York,” says Stefanki, “and everyone said to Andy that it was the greatest tennis match they had ever seen and told him he should be proud. It really helped him mentally to not really think of actually losing and to get on with it. It will help him a lot on the long run. If you don’t handle a loss like that right, it can be a devastating negative, but that was not how it was with Andy. That is what you look for as a coach. Is it going to have some residue hangover, an after effect? With Andy I don’t see that happening at all. He is at motivated as I have ever seen a player at 27. He knows that it is just a matter of time and if he puts himself in that situation enough times, good things are going to happen.”

Over the summer, Roddick seemed to have left Wimbledon well behind him, playing some inspired tennis on the hard courts leading up to the U.S. Open. In Washington, he reached the final and lost 8-6 in a final set tie-break to the fast-charging Del Potro. The following week, he made it to match point against the big Argentine before dropping that hard fought encounter in the semifinals of Montreal. “Andy could easily have won the final in Washington,” says Stefanki. “In Canada, on match point he hit a forehand that missed by an inch off the court. He hit it hard, nuked it. That is the way he has got to play even though he just missed in that case. He has to be that type of aggressive. Those two matches just went against him but he played well.”  

After having gained so many newfound boosters out among the American public after his Wimbledon heroics, Roddick seemed poised to make a significant run and perhaps even regain the title he captured in 2003 at the U.S. Open. But he was beaten for the first time by his towering countryman John Isner in the third round, bowing in a fifth set tie-break. He came from two sets down to reach the fifth set, and looked twice as fit as the debilitated Isner. That was not enough to carry Roddick over the finish line.  

How frustrating was it for Roddick to finish his 2009 Grand Slam campaign with a loss he seemingly could have avoided? “Very frustrating,” answers Stefanki. “I know next time he wouldn’t play the same way. It is a long year and that was just one match. It was not indicative of the way Andy has improved. He was waiting for John to do the John Isner and kind of beat himself. Everyone is getting better and training harder with shrinks and nutritionists or a combination of all of the above, and they are planning to get an edge and figure out a way to get it done. Andy knows that in the past John down the stretch would make a bunch of mistakes under pressure situations. It didn’t happen in this match at the Open. Isner played extremely solid and hit some great shots. The guy is seven feet tall serving bombs and was not nervous at all. You have to tip your hat to him and Andy did that.” 

Having said that, Stefanki vows that, despite a phenomenal showing by Isner, “Andy has got to do more in a match like that and he won’t let it happen again. Andy is very smart and has good recall. He understands that he has got to play more aggressive tennis in some of these situations. Even though Andy was much fitter than John, Isner was going for it, hitting second serve aces, taking chances. Andy knows you can’t wait for something good to happen. You can’t expect a mistake from an opponent. Andy has that tendency to think he can run opponents into the ground and he would rather not take a chance. In practice, I will say to him, ‘Dude, that third ball in that last rally was inside the service line and you hit it and backed up.’ And he goes, ‘I got a little nervous.’ And I say, ‘I don’t care if you lose the point but you are never going to grow as a tennis player or an athlete unless you take some risk/reward when you are the game’s best server.”  

What makes the next couple of years so intriguing is the depth among the top ten. Roddick has spent eight years in a row among the top ten. From 2003-2005, he was always right up there in the rankings, finishing 2003 at No. 1, the following year at No. 2, and concluding 2005 at No. 3. Since that time, he has ended up each of the last four years in essentially the same place, between No. 6 and No. 8. But surely the leading players are a more versatile and gifted group than the game has seen in a long while, from Federer and Nadal at No. 1 and No. 2, to Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray at No. 3 and No.4, to Del Potro and Nikolay Davydenko at No. 5 and No. 6, from Roddick at No. 7 to Robin Soderling at No. 8, and on to Fernando Verdasco at No. 9 and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at No. 10. Not to be dismissed is Marin Cilic at No. 14.  

Stefanki is deeply impressed with the talent in the upper reaches of the game, but sees Roddick right in the mix. “It is phenomenal,” says Stefanki. “This is the greatest group since the early or middle 1980’s, as good as it has been for 25 years. The gap has really closed between Roger and Rafa and the rest of the guys. There is not going to be one or two guys winning every major anymore. It is going to be a dog fight, a coin flip. That is why if you are ready and fresh mentally like Andy is going to be in 2010 after having a couple of months off, the sky is the limit. He knows a lot of the other players are burnt out now. Mentally a lot of them are fried. Andy is going to be ready for the Australian Open and if the door is open and there is a little bit of a crack in their form and they are not prepared in the heat, Andy will take advantage of it. The way I view it is he is in the final quarter of a football game and he has played three quarters. He has one left for his career and it is going to be the best quarter of all for him the next four years.”  

The central goal for Roddick remains essentially the same: he wants to win a major in 2010. As Stefanki said a year ago--- and reinforces now--- “Winning a major is the whole gig. It is what a guy like Andy plays for. That is what we will try to really focus on is for him to be mentally and physically prepared for the Grand Slam tournaments so when an opportunity arises he is there to snatch it. Andy is as fit as anyone out there, especially for seven rounds, best of five sets at a major. He is really eager and has had time off and these other guys are spent. Roger will float down there and do well but Del Potro is spent and Murray is kind of going,’Gee, I can’t believe we are starting another year already.’ Davydenko and Djokovic played so much tennis at the end of this year. Andy is ready and I like that.”  

After the Open, Roddick played only two more matches. He cut his season short after a knee injury in the middle of October. Was that a blessing in disguise to get the extra time off and be able to regroup emotionally for 2010? “Yes,” responds Stefanki.”To keep playing just to play is not the answer for Andy at 27. Mentally you can’t sustain that intensity so this break is a blessing in disguise for both of us. It makes me very eager for next year, and Andy is really ready to play.”  

Is 2010 a critical year for Roddick in the fourth quarter of a distinguished career? Is it now or never? Stefanki does not believe that is the case. “I am not going to say this year is bigger than next year, or the year after. I like to see an eagerness to get out there and compete. I have been doing this for 30 years and when top players are like that, good things are going to happen. I don’t look at this coming year and say it is the most important year for Andy. He has been in the arena a long time and has won unbelievable Davis Cup matches and has been No. 1 in the world. He has accomplished an awful lot. I see Andy playing with a lot of intensity this year. 2010 is going to be a special year for him.”  

Now that Stefanki has been with Roddick in the workplace for over a year, how does he size up the relationship and their degree of success? “I always say,” he answers, “that the proof is in the pudding. He had a very good year and was a point or two away from winning a major. I am very happy to be associated with Andy. He knows exactly what I am thinking and I pretty much know what he is thinking. We don’t have any communication problems. He is very strong minded and I am very strong minded and we do disagree on certain things. He knows if I see something I am going to say something. He may not necessarily agree with me but I am the kind of coach who will throw it out there and let him do what he wants with it. I like the way we communicate.”  

As the interview was ending, I asked Stefanki for his final thoughts on the year ahead. What are his goals? How about those of Roddick? “My goals don’t really matter,” he says. “I am not hitting the tennis balls. But Andy’s goal like last year is to win a major. He was so close this year you could taste it. It did not work out but we will put all of our energy into the next four majors in 2010 and that is why he is training as hard as ever, maybe even harder than last year. It is almost easier for me to coach him now because we don’t have to go from square one in terms of fundamentals and footwork. He knows what he has to do. It is primarily about his mentality, being aggressive, and not waiting for something to fall in his lap. He is going to beat the guys ranked 20 and lower, but against those inside the top 20 he can’t be sitting back waiting and trying to grind guys down because they are too good. He has to take it to them, and I know he can do that.”  

This much is certain: Andy Roddick has the right man in his corner, a coach with authentic credentials, a shrewd analyst who knows tennis as well as anyone in the business. Under his expert guidance, Rios and Kafelnikov both made it to No. 1 in the world. Henman achieved a career high ranking of No. 4. Gonzalez got to the Australian Open final and reached No. 5 in the world. And Roddick has never played the game better than he did at his peak in 2009, when it took every bit of Federer’s willpower and polish to prevent the American from ruling at the world’s premier tournament. As my old friend and tennis devotee John Martini wrote to me recently, “Is Stefanki like former major league catchers who become great managers, or what? Everyone he touches improves.”

Indeed they do. Look out for Roddick in 2010.

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