Monday, January 14, 2008
Updated: January 15, 8:47 AM ET
I'll be curious to see if the name Robert Lansdorp comes up when the first epic clash of the Australian Open takes place in the second round, with Lindsay Davenport going up against Maria Sharapova. That's because Lansdorp's fingerprints are evident on both players' games.
They aren't the only ones, either. Lansdorp's list of Slambots goes all the way back to players like Eliot Teltscher, once a perennial top 10 pro, and Tracy Austin, who was the gruff, swaggering, 6-foot-3 Southern California king and queenmaker's first Grand Slam champion-grade success. And it says a lot about "Robert" -- for that's how Austin always refers to him -- that she and many other current and former top players happily acknowledge the debt they owe him. He's almost 70 now and, by his own admission, "semi-retired."
It's somewhat sad that Sharapova has always clung to the myth that her father, Uri, was her coach. (Although she recently admitted that Michael Joyce, long stuffed into the closet and forbidden to talk to the press, may be described as her coach.) Everyone in tennis knows that Nick Bollettieri and Lansdorp were the ones who did the heavy lifting when it came to Sharapova's development.
On the other hand, when you see that Sharapova fall-away forehand or some of her other stroking glitches (serve, anyone?), maybe it's just as well that Lansdorp's name has largely been left off her resumé. Lansdorp is in no pressing need for validation, and those who demand it can start with this accolade from Pete Sampras: "If any of my kids want to learn tennis, Robert is the man I would send him to for groundstrokes -- without question."
Davenport might be Lansdorp's greatest success story, because he shaped her game in a way that minimized her liabilities (relatively poor mobility and a surprising degree of awkwardness in someone with such great hand-eye coordination) and maximized her assets. He once told me "the thing with Lindsay is that if she had a coach who was heavy into top spin, she would never have seen the top 50, no matter how much desire she had. She was kind of lucky that I taught a flatter game. Lindsay surprised me when she won her first pro event at 16, on clay. I was like, 'How the hell did you win a clay-court tournament?'"
That answer to Lansdorp's typically brusque rhetorical question is simple: Because you taught her to hit a clean, flat ball, Robert! Davenport was a great student, and Lansdorp built her a rock-solid game. That solid foundation is a major reason that Davenport has managed to make such a spirited and inspiring comeback from her maternity leave. Those flat, almost inconspicuously elegant strokes have withstood the test of time, and they're second nature to Davenport. What problems she's had (and this is a woman whose three Grand Slam titles in some ways represent underachievement) are unrelated to her stroking fundamentals.
As a Lansdorp project, Sharapova is not nearly as fully realized. The stroking discipline we saw in the built-by-Landsdorp ground games of Davenport, Austin and Sampras are fitful in Sharapova. Maybe that's what she gets for hedging her bet and coyly playing Bollettieri and Lansdorp off each other, while Uri claimed exclusive coach status. The most successful players who were developed by Lansdorp are, not coincidentally, the ones who most completely trusted his abilities.
Sharapova is capable of blasting Davenport off the court (remember, at 31, Lindsay is 11 years older than Maria), but I like Davenport's chances if stroking consistency and discipline become issues.
Have an Australian Open question? Ask Peter Bodo during his chat on Wednesday, Jan. 16 at 1 p.m. ET.