The coach behind the player

Updated: June 17, 2004, 3:03 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

As Tim Henman improbably advanced through the French Open, he was asked by a rabid press corps to explain himself daily. By the semifinals, his insights and observations were reduced to a one-sentence mantra.

Paul Annacone
After coaching Pete Sampras for years, Paul Annacone is working with an improved Tim Henman.

"The whole crux of what I'm trying to do with my game is about this: clarity and imposing my style," Henman said in Paris after losing to Guillermo Coria.

The frail Englishman had been to no fewer than seven quarterfinals at Wimbledon, his favorite local tournament but never so far in any other Grand Slam tournament. Three months shy of his 30th birthday, how did Henman get so far two weeks ago at Roland Garros?

Two words: Paul Annacone.

"Tim is one of the best players in the world for a reason," Henman's coach, Annacone, said from London last week. "It's all about having a clear picture of what he can do and executing his style."

It sounds more like Zen mechanics than stroke technique and strategy.

"Yeah," Annacone said, "it's a lot about belief."

And while Henman would lose the next day at The Queen's Club to Karol Beck -- despite holding a match point in the third set -- Henman remains one of the favorites to win at Wimbledon, which opens Monday at the All England Club.

Annacone, who guided Pete Sampras through his best years and nine Grand Slam titles, deserves much of the credit. Henman's parting with Larry Stefanki last year and his renaissance under Annacone is just one example of the flurry of coaching changes among some of the major players in tennis.

A closer look at coaching
ESPN.com takes a look at the intimate relationship between a top tennis player and his or her coach.

Wednesday: Why is Wimbledon title contender Tim Henman having such success? Look no further than coach Paul Annacone. Many players are making the switch to a new coach.

  • Players didn't have coaches until Bjorn Borg started the trend. Today, they're a part of a larger entourage.
    Thursday: It's not unusual to find some a family connection between a coach and player on the WTA.
  • Kim Clijsters' coach, Marc De Hous, discusses what it takes to coach a No. 1 player.
    Friday: Andy Roddick began working with Brad Gilbert after last year's French Open. Despite Roddick's improvement, Gilbert says there's still plenty for the player to learn.
  • Although coaches travel with players, they can't coach from the court. The only place that happens is at Davis Cup, Fed Cup and in World Team Tennis.
  • After winning Wimbledon last year, Roger Federer and coach Peter Lundgren split at season's end -- one of the sport's big stories. Coachless, Federer won the 2004 Australian Open final over Marat Safin, who has now retained Lundgren as his coach. Jennifer Capriati, who has been coached by her father, Stefano, since her days in juniors, has hooked up with Heinz Gunthardt, Steffi Graf's old coach. An energized Capriati reached the semifinals of the French Open and beat Serena Williams in back-to-back matches with Gunthardt in her corner.

    Lleyton Hewitt won the 2001 U.S. Open and became the No. 1 player in the world -- and then fired coach Darren Cahill. Hewitt won Wimbledon in 2002 under Jason Stoltenberg but has struggled recently. Andre Agassi hired Cahill early in 2002 and has been with him ever since. Agaasi's old coach? Brad Gilbert, who spent eight years with him before their split. Gilbert is now working with Andy Roddick, who sacked Tarik Benhabiles after last year's French Open.

    So are coaches just another accessory in today's complicated game of tennis, like the massage therapist, the physical trainer, the racket stringer and the psychologist? Do they matter or are they just as expendable as the racket that lost the last set?

    The Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, have won 10 Grand Slam singles titles between them. They list their coach as father Richard, who is not viewed as someone who enhances their games from a strategic standpoint. Still, they have had a lot of coaching over the years, from their time with Rick Macci and Nick Bollettieri to their Fed Cup experiences with Billie Jean King and Zina Garrison.

    But the tantalizing question remains: Could they have won more with a coach concerned solely with the technical X's and O's?

    Federer is ranked No. 1 in the world and has won more money this year ($2 million) than any other player. Could he have done any better with a coach? After he exited the French Open with a surprising third-round loss to Gustavo Kuerten, you could make that argument.

    "Obviously, I want to know right away myself why I lost," Federer told the gathered media. "Right now, I don't really know."

    When asked if not having a coach in this situation is a problem, Federer frowned.

    "No," he said curtly. "That's not the problem."

    "Serena, Venus, Federer -- anyone that tells me a player is better without a coach -- I totally disagree," Annacone said. "I don't believe they wouldn't be better working with a full-time coach."

    Federer's decision to part with Lundgren never has been fully explained, although rumors persist that it was over the issue of money.

    "I just had the feeling I should look for something new," Federer said last December. "I would like a new impetus. After thinking it over carefully, I saw this as a solution for next year."

    One man's solution is, well, another man's solution.

    Safin, the temperamental Russian, won the U.S. Open at the age of 20, dismantling Sampras. Growing up in Moscow he was coached by his mother, Rausa Islanova, but in the four years since his first and only Grand Slam triumph he has worked with no fewer than six coaches. After he sent part-time ATP player Denis Golovanov packing, Safin took up with Lundgren in April following a spate of second- and third-round finishes.

    Serena, Venus, Federer -- anyone that tells me a player is better without a coach -- I totally disagree. I don't believe they wouldn't be better working with a full-time coach.
    Paul Annacone, tennis coach

    Safin reached the round of 16 at Roland Garros, and although that was balanced by previous appearances in the semifinals and quarterfinals, he showed a renewed patience and willingness to fight.

    "If he wants to be a champion again like he was, he has to have that -- even though he says to himself, 'I hate this game. I hate this and this and this,' " Lundgren observed.

    "This isn't a team game where the overriding philosophy comes from the coach, who molds the players," Annacone said. "It's more of a partnership in tennis. I feel the key to being a good coach is not about what you know. It's the ability to say what you know in a way that the player understands it.

    "Ultimately, these guys are great players. I'm not trying to re-invent the wheel. I'm just trying to get that wheel to roll more smoothly."

    A fresh voice Annacone coached the best player in the business and, by extension, was one of the best coaches in the business. This did not prevent Annacone from getting fired -- Donald Trump style -- by Sampras in 2002.

    Job security is not a feature in the tennis coaching life. Most of the time, tenure is related to the player's performance. Sometimes, though, it's simply a matter of not getting along with someone in the entourage, a parent or a girlfriend or boyfriend.

    A fresh voice, as Jennifer Capriati has suggested, sometimes creates a fresh set of ears. Larry Stefanki, who coached John McEnroe in his later years, says that Henman stopped hearing what he had to say.

    A positive message, particularly with older, established players, seems to work best. Tennis is a unique one-on-one sport; only one player ends the tournament without a match loss.

    "Tennis gets a little bit of a bad rap," U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe said. "The tennis coach is with the player 24-7. In a sport like basketball, if you're ticked off at the coach you go hang out with the boys or talk to one of the assistants. There's a little space there. Tennis is one-on-one.

    Jennifer Capriati
    Jennifer Capriati's confidence seems to have improved under the advice of a new coach.

    "A good buddy of mine coached me when I was trying to get my singles career going, and we went to Europe in 1990. He was so gung-ho, he really helped me. But at one point, he wanted it so badly, it got on my nerves. I said, 'Listen, I know your intentions are good, but you're stressing me out.' I told him to go home."

    Last year, Henman ended all but two tournaments -- Washington and Paris Indoor -- that way. He underwent shoulder surgery after the 2002 season and struggled, by his lofty standards, in 2003. He missed the Australian Open and won only 31 matches -- his lowest total since 1995, when he first broke into the top 100.

    After a loss to David Nalbandian in the quarterfinals of Basel in November, Henman called Annacone at his home in Los Angeles. They had become friends over the years and enjoyed talking tennis. Henman asked Annacone what he thought about his game and, clearly, the answers intrigued him. Annacone wasn't ready to commit to 30-plus weeks, but at the age of 29 Henman wasn't going to play a full schedule, either.

    "Tim, or whoever it is, can get caught up in what other people do," Annacone said. "I said, 'Hey, let's look at what you do best.' It doesn't matter what you have, if you don't have the goods."

    At Queen's, Annacone and Henman worked on the difficult transition from clay to grass.

    "On clay, there's more time to think, more time to strike the ball and construct points," Annacone said. "On grass, it's a simpler process. It's more reaction and instinct. So much of clay is defending. On grass, you're trying to figure out how to get on offense as fast as you can. Tim has to understand that sometimes on grass the match is out of your control. If a guy hits 30 aces, there's not much you can do about it.

    "He's feeling really good about his thought process, but now he has less control. It's contradictory, but Wimbledon does play to his strengths."

    Wimbledon, and its slippery grass slope, does not play to the strengths of Guillermo Coria. The French Open finalist -- he held two match points against Gaston Gaudio -- is viewed as the game's premier clay-court player.

    Coria, who married Carla Frankovich in December, sacked his coach, Alberto Mancini after the Australian Open. The two events were, apparently, related.

    Mancini, a former top 10 player, helped Coria win five titles in 2003, and also provided constant companionship. Three maybe have been a little too much company.

    "It's very important to have her with me, as she gives me great support," Coria said.

    In February, Coria retained the services of Fabien Blengino. Less than five months later, he, too, is out. Shortly before Wimbledon, Coria began working with former ATP pro and countryman Gabriel Markus, who is Coria's third coach in a single season.

    Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

    Greg Garber

    Writer, Reporter
    Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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