by Steve Flink
Way back in the winter of 1995, Paul Annacone was serendipitously lifted into the field of big time coaching. The highly regarded Tim Gullikson—who had been coaching Pete Sampras since 1992—was seriously ill. He went to the hospital in the middle of the Australian Open, and was sent him home by doctors to the United States for treatment of brain tumors. Gullikson would never resume his duties, and after a gallant fight against cancer, he passed away in May of 1996. But the immensely capable Annacone—who was admired by both Sampras and Gullikson—moved seamlessly into his new role as coach for one of the all time great players in the game of tennis.
Annacone stepped in during that Australian Open nearly 16 years ago, and did an outstanding job coaching a champion who appreciated his understated manner and the wisdom of his words. Annacone had been a distinguished competitor, and a totally confirmed chip-and charger. His game was to get to the net at all costs, and he did it remarkably well. In 1984, he was named “Player of the Year” by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association after winning 51 of 54 matches across the season for the University of Tennessee. Annacone turned pro that year, made it to the quarterfinals of the 1984 Wimbledon, and captured the Australian Open doubles title in 1985 alongside Christo van Rensburg. In March of 1986, he attained a career best singles ranking of No. 12 in the world, and the following year he achieved his highest ever ranking of No. 3 in doubles.
All in all, he had a very respectable career, reaching the U.S. Open doubles final in 1990 with countryman David Wheaton, representing the U.S. in Davis Cup, and then retiring the year he turned 30 in 1993. But as good as he was as a player, he has found another level altogether as a coach. His stature in that community is unassailable; he has established himself as one of the most cerebral coaches of them all. Annacone worked with Sampras from that moment he took over at Melbourne in 1995 until the end of 2001, then left for the first half of 2002, but returned to guide Sampras to a 14th and final Grand Slam singles championship in September of that memorable season. He was in Sampras’s corner for nine of the American’s 14 major championship wins. From 2003-2007, he joined forces with Tim Henman.
Meanwhile, Annacone became Managing Director for the USTA High Performance Program from 2001-2003, and he later served as Men’s Head Coach for the British LTA, and coach of the British Davis Cup team from 2008-2010. And so, when Roger Federer was looking around for a new coach in the summer of 2010, when only an elite few were on the Swiss Maestro’s radar screen, he turned to none other than Annacone. Annacone consented to a trial period working with Federer and his longtime Swiss Davis Cup captain and coach Severin Luethi back in August, but before the U.S. Open both Federer and Annacone recognized that the new alliance was clearly going to work. Annacone joined the Federer Team in Toronto, where Federer lost in the final to Andy Murray. The next week, Federer won Cincinnati for his first tournament triumph since the Australian Open in January, but Novak Djokovic saved two match points with outright winners to topple Federer in a five set U.S. Open semifinal.
Yet Federer managed to put that jarring piece of business quickly behind him, winning three of his last five tournaments over the autumn, including the prestigious season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London over his premier rival Rafael Nadal. Many in the sport’s cognoscenti believed Federer’s vastly improved form late in the season was at least in part attributable to the influence of Annacone quietly urging Federer to come forward more frequently and impose himself with greater force, persistence and conviction. Annacone would be the last person in the world to take any credit for Federer’s recent resurgence, but the evidence is abundant that his voice is being heard and his point of view well received by Federer.
Two days before Christmas, Annacone was still fighting the flu when I spoke with him on the phone. He had returned to the U.S. not long before our conversation, after spending nearly two weeks with Federer in Dubai, and the 47-year-old sounded upbeat and optimistic as he reflected on 2010 and looked forward to 2011. Annacone covered a considerable amount of ground in this interview, conveying his thoughts with typical grace and intelligence; his powers of articulation are unmatched in the coaching profession. At the outset, I wanted to know how he felt about his trial period with Federer. Long lauded as one of the best in his field, Annacone was not insulted by that development in the least.
“It was fine,” says Annacone. “Roger and I had a number of conversations before we even got to that [trial] stage. We had known each other a long time but just as friendly acquaintances, not in a working relationship. When we talked about it, it wasn’t an issue at all. I was still working for the LTA and I wasn’t a hundred percent sure what I wanted to do. It was important for both of us to be really comfortable. It has gone very well and here we are. It has worked out great because our communication has been so good and there was no wondering or wandering going on. It was really a matter of fitting into the team concept. He has a great team around him and Severin has helped Roger for so many years as a Davis Cup captain, as a coach and as a friend. Once we spent some time together in Switzerland it was smooth. It has been good.”
The view here is that it must be complicated for Annacone and Luethi to combine their respective outlooks and not present Federer with conflicting points of view. Annacone clarifies that he and Luethi have had no instances of disparate opinions, and have been essentially in accord since the beginning of their association. “The biggest thing,” he says, “is that philosophically you are making sure you send the same messages. That is why it was important for Severin and I to talk. If we had issues and different philosophies it would be problematic—not that either one of us would be right or wrong, but in an individual sport you don’t want different messages to be sent to a player. But Severin and I never had that problem and we get along great, so whenever either of us has stuff we need to be clear about that could potentially create a grey cloud, we make sure there are no conflicting thoughts, and there haven’t been any. Anything philosophically that comes up that needs to be chatted about, Severin and I discuss it before it gets to Roger. I am really pleased about how well that has gone.”
Clearly, however, Annacone is entirely at ease in his role. Moreover, he brings a very distinct and learned approach to what he is doing, and a depth of knowledge that gives him unimpeachable credibility and authenticity. But Annacone realizes it is more than the validity of what he says but how he conveys it that matters in the end. As he puts it, “In order to be a successful coach you have to fully understand the person you are working with. The message delivery and the content is similar but the delivery is different than it was with Pete, because as personalities and people they are different and I would be remiss in my responsibility if I thought, ‘Well, if I did it with Pete I should do it that way now, or I did it with Tim Henman and I should do it that way.’ You have to figure out the best way to say it the way the player needs to hear it. With Roger it has been great.”
Sampras and Federer are alike in some respects—both are enormously self sufficient, for example—but in other ways they may approach things contrastingly. As Annacone asserts, “I think Roger actually enjoys hearing a bit more information and enjoys discussions that are a little bit longer. Pete was a little more concise and to the point about what needs to be done and why. Tim Henman—even more than Roger—really enjoyed talking significantly about strategy, opponents, court surfaces, environments, and all the different components that make the full arsenal. It is all about what works for the individual, and that is the job of the coach to figure it out. With Roger and Pete, there are similarities in the way they go about things and in their demeanors, and obviously their skill levels are analogous, too. It has helped me a lot to have been through this with Pete and with Tim as I go through things with Roger now. It helps me to kind of fall back on those reserves and that experience.”
It also is beneficial to Annacone that he has a decidedly uncluttered mind and a clear notion of how to go about encouraging his players about what is required to bring the maximum out of them. I asked Annacone about how much he may have done to get Federer to play a more offensive brand of tennis. A prime example was the way Federer exploited the conditions in London on a low bouncing indoor court that seemed to suit him to the hilt. He seemed in many ways like a revitalized player at the end of the year, chipping and charging more off second serve returns against Rafael Nadal, going after his first serve returns with more gusto, sporadically serving-and-volleying.
Annacone was self effacing in his answer, saying, “The big effect that I have as one of the guys that coaches Roger is that his playpen or toolkit is so deep. He has got lots of different clubs in his golf bag, so part of my job is figuring out how he can best use those. Today’s game is different than it was ten years ago in terms of style of play and the slower courts and the heavier balls and the different strings in the rackets. There are a lot of things that make it very different in terms of how to play offensive tennis. So philosophically for me as a coach it is different from when Pete was playing or even when Tim was playing. Roger’s biggest asset is that he can do so many things at the highest level and he still has that over everybody in the world. No one today can play the variety of styles at the level Roger does. That is just fact. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way towards Rafa or Djokovic or Murray or anybody; that is just the way it is. For me it is figuring out how to do what is best for Roger and to make sure in his mind that he sees that [aggression] as an opportunity and a position of strength versus a necessity.”
Having witnessed Federer’s progress from the summer until now, Annacone is exhilarated. He explains, “From whenever we started in August until now, I have been thrilled with what I have seen. He hasn’t won every match and he has had a few tough losses, but in the big picture to watch the style of play and more importantly the planning and commitment to what he is trying to do, that is what drives it for Roger. He is committed to that and he understands that he is so good when he plays like that that we just have to keep working at it. That offensive mentality is so impressive and when he plays like that he can put together some pretty spectacular stuff.”
I have believed for a long while that Federer has not made the most of his propensity to exploit his feel and flexibility on the volley; that aspect of his game has been underutilized in my view. I asked Annacone for his assessment of Federer’s technique on the volley, and he replied, “It is good. We spent some time working on it in Dubai those last 12 days I was there. But the game has gotten different and you have to volley differently and approach differently than you did five years ago. We don’t see many people that are able to move in and volley and cover the right volley and hit the volley to the right spot in many sequential volley segments anymore. When guys come in, it is usually a big approach shot and one volley. The game has changed, and now against the better players and the better defenders, you have to be able to do it even better and be ready for a second volley or a third volley or an overhead. But Roger has got the skills to do that and it is part of that recipe that makes up his whole body of work. Earlier in 2010 when he was having maybe a few bumps on the road, maybe he wasn’t playing as aggressively. I think he was relying on his defending skills and so on, but who knows? Luckily for me, the guy is so good that he can do everything.”
Federer’s strong post-U.S. Open finish in 2010 was his best ending to a year in a long while, since at least 2007, and perhaps longer. Did Annacone think he put more energy and effort into that stretch with the notion of setting a tone for 2011? He answers, “Roger is such a great historian and he knows that it set a great tone for next year. But I wasn’t feeling any pressure and I don’t think he was either. We were just excited because since August he had a tough loss to Djokovic at the U.S. Open and a tough loss to Monfils in Paris but he had been doing everything so well it wasn’t like he was feeling,” I’ve got to finish strong now.’ It was really just excitement and enjoyment. And I think he was genuinely really looking forward to competing and that showed itself. When you see a guy who is 29 that goes to play in Stockholm—with all due respect to Stockholm, after everything that Roger has done, for him to go to Stockholm and have the grit and determination to grind out a tough match with Wawrinka and then win the tournament and have it mean a heck of a lot at this stage of his career—that says something about Roger’s desire to continue to get better. The point I am making is he is so good at understanding perspective and the big picture that I think he was really happy about the way the year ended, which was really a kind of chain effect of enjoying how things were going.”
The affirmation of it all was the way Federer swept through London to close the year in high style. “When you look at what happened in London,” says Annacone, “ he competed against and defeated the best players in the world, played five matches against Ferrer, Murray, Soderling, Djokovic and Nadal, and he loses only one set and basically all of the other sets were pretty handily taken care of. That was pretty proficient so that is a period at the end of a sentence but not a bang on my chest bravado kind of thing. There is no bravado with Roger and no arrogance. The way he played in London was just a factual gathering of information, and a great way to end the year.”
When he was working recently with Federer in Dubai (remarkably, they were back hard at work on the courts only eight days after London), the two men had a chance to speak in a leisurely fashion about the year gone by and the campaign ahead. “It was great,” says Annacone of that productive 12 day stretch. “We did a review of 2010 and opened up frank conversations about his last few months of the season and how terrific it has been with Roger getting back on track with so many good results. Like Roger, I am more of a big picture guy and obviously the results matter, but at the end of the day I am a huge proponent of looking over the grand scheme of things. With Roger, after I had time to be around him and get to know him, I wasn’t concerned about whether he would get the results again; it was about when it was going to happen. It was very similar to how I felt about Pete before he won his last U.S. Open in 2002. I wasn’t concerned about Pete ever winning a Slam again--- I was concerned about the process to set it up. When you are that good, it doesn’t go away. With Roger and I now, we are past all of the familiarity stuff and now it is about the brass tacks. In Dubai we had a chance to work on technical and tactical stuff and a chance to reflect on everything, which was terrific for both of us.”
At 29, after collecting a record 16 majors, after so long in and around the upper reaches of the sport, Federer remains driven to keep collecting more big prizes. Does Annacone believe that Federer’s ongoing and unwavering determination might be surfacing at least in part from Nadal’s growing stature over the last three years, when the Spaniard won six of his nine majors. Most notably, Nadal completed a career Grand Slam in 2010 one year after Federer realized the same feat, and perhaps in a very positive way he has rekindled some of Federer’s old spark.
Is that the case? “There are a couple of different ways to look at it,” responds Annacone. “But plain and simple, I have seen a lot of athletes at the end of their careers have difficulty differentiating between ‘was’ and ‘is’, and some also look at the younger guys with almost borderline resentment. When that happens, the motivation comes out of frustration, and that is very dangerous. When Roger and I first started talking about my doing this job, my questions for him were, ‘What do you want to do and why do you keep doing it?’ I didn’t want to get into a situation with somebody that didn’t want to play, or someone who was just trying to convince himself out of resentment or fear of the process. That was why the trial period with Roger and me was so important. For us to get together took all of about two days of me spending time with him in Zurich training and seeing that he was like a 22-year-old. We were doing three-and-a-half hour training sessions on the court and he was smiling and laughing and doing sprints, and I knew that he really loves playing. He isn’t playing out of frustration or resentment--- it is sheer enjoyment for him.”
Annacone pauses for an instant, then adds, “Roger sees the other guys coming along and he is so secure in what he has done that he doesn’t look at it as a threat at all. He looks at it as the joy of competition and as a challenge. Pete was very similar in that regard, and that is why at the end of his career Pete didn’t have an issue with giving up the No. 1 ranking. Pete didn’t enjoy playing as much at the end of his career as Roger does now, but he played fewer tournaments so he could be ready for the Slams and because of his security and mentality in who he was he was fine about not being No. 1 if it gave him the best chance to win the Slams. The security that Pete had is the same as Roger has. Roger would still like to be No. 1 but I don’t think that is what is driving him. He doesn’t sit there every week saying, ‘Okay, how do I catch Rafa?’ He has that big picture mentality of knowing that Rafa had a spectacular year and won three of the four Slams in 2010 so he knows that it is going to take a long time to give himself a chance. If Roger does not catch Rafa in the rankings, I don’t think he will be crushed. Right now the focus for Roger is just to be really ready for Australia. It is human nature as you get older to get lost on the difference of ‘was’ and ‘is’ and to have fear of other players trying to catch up, but Roger doesn’t have any of that fear in him, and he doesn’t need to. Pete was just like that, too, and it is a terrific asset to have.”
And yet, hasn’t Nadal raised the stakes in a way and given Federer all the right reasons for wanting to raise the level of his game to find a way to make inroads against his premier rival? Since Nadal has added diversity to his game with the much bigger first serve, better court positioning and more flattened out strokes to compliment his heavy topspin, has that made Federer more excited about the special nature of the challenge?
“I said to Pete in 2002,” replies Annacone, “that if you are not trying to get better you are getting worse. With all due respect to the greatest players of all time, it doesn’t matter how good you are because you still have to keep trying to get better. And even if it is not technically better, it can be strategically better of mentally better or physically better. That is what great athletes do. I see Roger trying to get better now, which is admirable. The guy has his 16 Slams but keeps trying to improve because he still feels young at heart and really enjoys it. He is healthy and happy and he has got a great support group and a terrific wife and beautiful kids. He loves it, and why not?”
But Federer the idealist and dreamer is also a seasoned professional and a realist, and he understands that excruciating losses can and will occur, and they must be handled with balance and restraint. Annacone was highly impressed with how Federer dealt with his loss to Djokovic at the U.S. Open when he was twice a point away from being back in the final, and with how Federer accepted his defeat with such equanimity against Monfils in Paris when he had five match points before bowing.
“I was really impressed with Roger’s objectivity after he lost that match to Djokovic. Novak hit two great shots to save those match points. Roger didn’t miss an overhead on top of the net or play the wrong way strategically, and he realized that. He wasn’t saying, ‘Oh my God, what happened?’ As an athlete you have to embrace that after it is done with it, it is done with. That is the great thing about sports and tennis. The great athletes can divorce themselves from the sensationalism that can occur in the media and say, “Okay, let’s get ready for the next tournament’, which Roger did after the Open. That’s what I mean about objectivity. It is not denial. You realistically analyze what happened and you get ready for the next one. It hurts to lose, but that is how it goes, and Roger recognizes that.”
So on goes Federer into 2011, trying to become the first man ever to win at least one major nine years in a row. On he goes, attempting to add to his legacy. On he goes, in search of more history. On he goes, determined to perform majestically on the premier stages. How would Annacone define a good year for Federer in 2011? “ Look,” he replies, “ Pete always used to tell me if he wins one Slam a year it is a great year so for those guys I don’t dare question whatever their contentment is no matter how much they have achieved. They have earned the right to define it themselves. I think Roger is pretty happy with how 2010 went. But the problem with being Roger Federer, Pete Sampras and now Rafael Nadal—or Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods—if that is your barometer you can be setting yourself up for failure in the eyes of some people. So it is hard for me to sit here and say if Roger wins one Slam it is an okay year and if he wins two Slams it is a good year and if he wins three it is a great year. I look at it the way I did in the past with Pete: my goal for him is to stay steadfast in the process because if he does that he will put himself in a position to win Slams. It is about perspective and objectivity, and Roger is very good at keeping his perspective and being objective. And it is part of my job to help with that.”
Meanwhile, Annacone can be content that he has been awfully fortunate to work with three exemplary players and individuals who have represented the game exceedingly well. About that he has no ambiguity whatsoever. “I love what I am doing, “ he concludes, “ and working with Roger is a joy. He is my third class act. Forget about the level of play of Pete, Tim and Roger. I have had three class acts with these three guys, with whom I have been able to communicate so well. I have been really lucky.”
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