The Coach

Thursday, June 18, 2009 /by
Photo by Ian White
A teacher's effectiveness is best judged by his students' achievements. That's why California's Robert Lansdorp doesn't care if you've never heard of him. His calling cards are four No.1 players by the names of Sampras, Austin, Davenport, and Sharapova.

He has never been the exuberant, indefatigable tennis evangelist in the manner of, say, Nick Bollettieri. Nor is he the man you would tap to create a Davis Cup dynasty—an empire of the kind Harry Hopman erected on the backs of a bunch of rough-hewn farm boys in Australia. Unlike the cerebral Bob Brett, who coached Boris Becker, he’s not especially intrigued by the psychology of greatness, nor would he be satisfied with the mission of a Paul Annacone, the adviser, confidant, and finetuner of Pete Sampras.

None of those roles suits Robert Lansdorp, who is, arguably, the most successful and influential coach of the Open era. This is partly because he is a lone wolf and a contrarian, a man who likes to travel light and keep things simple in the way that complex people often do. Lansdorp is a man hungry for recognition, yet discomfited by the glare of the spotlight. He’s a big man and a rough man and a blunt man, all of which makes it that much more intriguing that the role in which Lansdorp is most comfortable—and the one for which he seems inexplicably suited—is that of a teacher of children. It couldn’t be simpler. He’s a shaper of kids into tennis players, and a remarkable number of those players end up titans of the game, dazzling fans and bamboozling opponents.

Lansdorp is 67 now and, he reluctantly concedes, “kind of retired.” Take that to mean that the résumé is still incomplete, and he’s still working with a couple of potential worldbeaters. Thus far, Lansdorp has helped mold the games of four No. 1 players—Sampras, Tracy Austin, Lindsay Davenport, and Maria Sharapova—as well as a pile of pros who are household names wherever tennis is the lingua franca: Eliot Teltscher, Brian Teacher, Jeff Tarango, and Justin Gimelstob, to name a few. Lansdorp has accomplished all of this without having an academy or institutional support.

He has coached exclusively in Southern California, mostly in the tennis-rich precincts of suburban Los Angeles (until a recent divorce, he was a longtime resident of Rolling Hills Estates). Despite the blue-chip résumé and gruff exterior, he’s a tennis nut, a kindred spirit with your corny neighborhood teaching pro—the one who pulls his car up to the public courts while munching on a sandwich, changes into his tennis shoes, pulls a ball hopper out of his trunk, and exclaims, “Wow. What a great day! Ready to go, kid?”

“Robert has to be in the discussion when you talk about the best coaches of all time, because he’s had some of the best players of all time,” says Teltscher, who’s now a USTA coach based in Carson, Calif. “And to me, the number one thing about Robert’s students is that they all wanted to play hard for Robert. Someone who can make you try hard—that says a lot. He got the most out of us.” “Robert’s own work ethic is huge,” Austin says. “He has an uncanny ability to instill discipline in his players. You’ll either develop with him or you’ll be gone.”

Despite those critical endorsements, Lansdorp downplays his track record for producing champions. In fact, he says he’s not even sure he likes to be called a coach. “I don’t set out to make champions and I don’t think of myself as a coach. I like to develop kids. I never looked to make someone the No. 1 player in the world. I just wanted to make each kid the best player possible. That’s how it was 38 years ago, when I started. That’s how it still is.”

Born in Dutch Indonesia in 1938, Lansdorp saw his father, a businessman, interned twice. First it was by the Japanese during World War II, and then by the Sukarno regime in Indonesia during its revolt against colonialism. In 1948, his family fled to Holland to escape the violence. They moved again in 1960, settling in California, where Lansdorp earned All-American honors as a tennis player at Pepperdine. That’s as far as his playing career went. He knew by then that he had a better ability to recognize and analyze great strokes than to hit them, and he took to the idea of helping others develop them.

Make no mistake about it: Strokes are what Robert Lansdorp is all about. And don’t even bother wondering if he can help your kid if that child isn’t prepared to hit thousands of balls with disciplined strokes during every session with him. “It isn’t my job to get kids into shape,” Lansdorp says. “It’s your job to show up that way.”

Austin likes to cite Twenty at the Baseline, one of Lansdorp’s infamous drills, as a good example of his modus operandi. The student stands at the baseline and must return 20 consecutive balls fed by Lansdorp; one error and the count starts over. That Lansdorp is a “genius” at feeding balls (“Don’t laugh,” Teltscher says, “there really is an art to it”) makes the drill that much more complicated, because he’s apt to throw in a moonball, a heavy topspin drive, a wicked slice—all in relentless succession. The successful Lansdorp charge is a player with impregnable groundies, disciplined to the point where they simply don’t misfire. As Austin says, “Robert won’t allow you to have bad technique or footwork. It’s all built on that. You might have to hit a hundred forehands down the line for him on a given day before he’s happy, but you do it.” And the strokes Lansdorp usually designs are best described by the useful if quaint-sounding noun “drive.” Forehand or backhand, most Lansdorp protégés hit relatively flat, compact strokes. They drive the ball. For a clear picture of what this means, visualize the Davenport backhand or Sampras forehand (Austin probably has the most representative game of the bunch). In fact, Lansdorp has such a precise and refined understanding of what it takes to hit clean drives that when Sampras was struggling in the summer of 2002, Lansdorp called his coach, Annacone, and told him, “Pete’s hitting that forehand different. His follow-through is up around the neck, not the shoulder. That’s why his balls are flying.”

Annacone reportedly replied, “What are you talking about?” Lansdorp went out to the local courts, made a tape of himself imitating Sampras’ forehand, and sent it to Sampras. Although Annacone’s memory of those events is hazy (he’s not sure Sampras even watched the tape), Sampras broke out of his slump and won his final major title a few months later, at the U.S. Open.

Lansdorp’s genius is for simplicity, but simplicity isn’t all that sexy. Nobody waxes poetic about Davenport’s drives, few pundits have described Sharapova’s or Sampras’ games with the breathless awe they reserve for Roger Federer’s inimitable strokes. Lansdorp’s methods—and the fruits they bear—are, like the man himself, straightforward. And if teaching simply struck strokes is 50 percent of the Lansdorp formula, the other half—the half that isn’t about instruments, but about making players want to play for you—is the Lansdorp aura.

Abearish 6-foot-3, Lansdorp is both baby-faced and weathered. He has clear blue eyes, and they often glint with a demonic sort of glee. His great mane of white hair is almost comically dramatic. He speaks with a rolling, guttural Dutch accent. The combination of Lansdorp’s heft and his storied bluntness is potent and unnerving. “Robert is a taskmaster and a disciplinarian,” Annacone says. “He will beat you up on the court, and you have to be able to deal with that. Little kids can be fragile, but if you have a tough little 8-year-old, Robert’s the man.”

Teltscher says that one of Lansdorp’s greatest assets is his unwillingness to kowtow to anyone, prodigy or parent: “He once sued Tracy, he kicked Pete off the court, and I was kicked off, too. He walked on Sharapova. Nobody is untouchable to Robert, and that’s part of what makes him so good.” But Lansdorp concedes what most of his players know: A great deal of his bluster is a front. He enjoys—and makes good use of—his gruff persona. This is the same man who says he once peeled off a few hundred-dollar bills so that a young Sharapova could buy clothes and showed up at her family’s apartment lugging a Christmas tree that they couldn’t afford to buy themselves.

With characteristic frankness, he says, “I think I’m pretty smart in how I approach it. When kids come to see me, they’re a little bit nervous. They don’t quite know for sure who I am and whether or not they should be afraid of me. So I can get a lot done. It also helps to instill that respect. You hear Tracy talk now, and it’s like I was the greatest thing since sliced bread. But I was very, very tough on her.”
 Of course, there’s a downside to being the lone wolf, the taskmaster, the outspoken truth-teller. It keeps you on the perimeter, not entirely trusted. “Robert can be his own worst enemy; he can be such a difficult person,” Teltscher says. “I can’t tell you how often I’ve said, ‘Robert, can’t you just give in, even just a little, on this?’ And he says, ‘No!’”

Last September, Lansdorp attended the U.S. Open ostensibly to support his protégée Sharapova. He had, after all, come a long way with her. Sharapova has been guarded about the development of her game, insisting that she’s coached by her father, Yuri, while acknowledging debts to Nick Bollettieri and Lansdorp. But it’s the latter who appears to have had the largest role in shaping her game. “I always felt closest to Maria,” Lansdorp says, “because I didn’t just teach her, I took care of her. She was with me day in, day out for a month or so at a time.”

Lansdorp found the hype at Flushing Meadows overwhelming. Already irritated, he called Yuri to task in the press for showing too much emotion at Maria’s matches. It led to a falling out (“How could Robert just let an eight-year relationship go down the tubes like that?” Austin wonders), which was just fine with Lansdorp. He said he was already disappointed by how little the Sharapova camp had done for him, in the way of bonuses or remuneration, once Maria became a star. The saga of the coach left by the wayside may be the secondoldest story in the pro book (the oldest being “How I Almost Beat So-and-So”). The smart ones, like Bollettieri, won’t discuss the subject, knowing it will make them look foolish at best, pathetic at worst. Lansdorp is different—his willingness to tell all is part of his appeal.

“Tennis players become so self-centered. You end up thinking you helped create something ugly,” Lansdorp says. “I guess you’re supposed to feel like a lucky guy to be around them. That’s why I like working with the kids. When I see their potential, everything else goes out the window. I still get excited when I see them get better—when two months later this kid looks like a player, no matter what his ranking is. I still have that in me.”

Teacher’s Pets Lansdorp Talks About His Quartet of No.1s

TRACY AUSTIN
“She was probably the toughest player, mentally, I ever had. She was a mental giant. If the others, if Maria had it the way Tracy did, she would be No. 1 for a long time. They were all easy to work with because they were intimidated by me, but Tracy was so competitive, she had such a desire to be great that she was a workaholic.”

PETE SAMPRAS
“Pete worked hard, but not in comparison with some of the others. The game came kind of easy for him. He practiced harder as a junior than as a pro, which was fine. You could see when he was a junior how much he enjoyed it—which you didn’t necessarily see when he started winning big. There was a big difference teaching Pete and his sister, Stella. The father [Sam] was always there, for every lesson of Pete’s. But he wasn’t always there for Stella. She didn’t seem to matter as much, and that got me mad. So I would make it tougher on Pete, and be gentle on Stella. Of course, she still doesn’t believe me when I tell her that.”

LINDSAY DAVENPORT
“She was very much like she is now. She worked hard but was prone to moping. She had an unbelievable backhand at 12 years old, and I admit some of that was raw talent. It was just as sweet as it could get. The thing with Lindsay is that if she had a coach who was heavy into topspin, 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?’ Another thing about Lindsay: She has a competitiveness that she hasn’t shown. To be No. 1, you have to be that way, but she never wanted that known. She did a good job hiding it.”

MARIA SHARAPOVA
“She’s smart, and she’s a happy kind of person. In eight years, only once did she walk out on the court without smiling and saying, ‘Hi Robert, how are you?’ It was a great feeling to have her coming on the court. She had a fantastic attitude toward practice, and you could see she was intelligent— she would end up running the show. Yuri [Sharapov] never gave me trouble. One time he said something on court and I said, ‘Listen, you want to coach her, go coach her.’ Another time, Maria had a little attitude problem and I grabbed my bag and walked off. I said, ‘If this is how you want it, you can go back to Florida. Now.’”

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