Familiar Bedfellows

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The coaching merry-go-round spins particularly quickly at this time of year, and every once in a while it kicks out a pairing that makes you scratch your head and think, “What? Those are strange bedfellows.”

The best example of that in recent times was Maria Sharapova’s decision to hire tennis icon Jimmy Connors earlier this year, even though Sharapova already had the communicable assets for which Connors was most famous—as well as an inherent disdain for the things Connors did best as a player.

Then there are times when pairings appear to be custom made for success, as in the case of Andy Roddick and Brad Gilbert. Both player and coach were gregarious, quick-witted, sports-loving American men. And Gilbert’s formidable tennis brain and exuberance made a nice match with Roddick’s raw athletic talent and youth. That talent had enough limitations to whet the chops of a crafty coach famous for extolling the virtues of “winning ugly”—which is also the title of a book Gilbert wrote.

That their relationship was relatively brief does nothing to diminish what Roddick and Gilbert accomplished. In 18 months, the coach helped Roddick get over the hump and win his first (and only) Grand Slam title, as well as finish No. 1 in the world in 2003.

Of course, Gilbert also coached Andre Agassi for eight years, during which Agassi won six of his eight majors. But the reality is that the most valuable input a coach brings in the big picture—things like general attitude, work ethic, and an understanding of one’s assets and liabilities—is exhausted pretty quickly, and certainly by the end of a year together.

When a relationship lasts much longer than a year or 18 months, it suggests either an acceptance of the status quo or a rare and complete mutual ease and trust, along with a like-mindedness when it comes to the “small picture” issues, like specific strategies and tactics, and everyday communication.

That Agassi/Gilbert pairing was a match made in heaven, and so was the one between Pete Sampras and Paul Annacone. Annacone also coached Tim Henman and, most recently, Roger Federer. Although Annacone and Federer went their separate ways just weeks ago, Annacone may already be ready to take on another project in Sloane Stephens. News of the partnership may have stopped you in your mental tracks, but perhaps it’s only because Annacone has never worked with a top woman before.

Annacone has been working in Los Angeles with the 20-year-old American heir apparent to Venus and Serena Williams. Stephens had an excellent 2013, climbing all the way to No. 11 in the rankings (she finished the year No. 12). She also added to her reputation as a player who routinely rises to the greatest challenges; she upset Serena to reach her first Grand Slam semifinal in Australia, and she survived the upset influenza at Wimbledon to reach the quarterfinals. Significantly, she lost to the eventual winner each time. She also made the fourth round at the other two majors.

Unfortunately, that zest for competition doesn’t always fire Stephens when it comes to quotidian tour play. She’s by far the best WTA player never to have played even a single main-tour final. Clearly, her problem at sub-major events isn’t nerves—if anything, it appears to be motivation. At times, she looks downright lackadaisical on the court. But that can be deceptive. For Stephens is leisurely rather than manic, watchful and calculating rather than blindly aggressive.

Until now, Stephens has been coached mainly by the USTA’s David Nankin. But he also looks after Sam Querrey, and it appears that Stephens wants to have a private coach. Annacone is committed to working with her only until the end of the year, but on a “trial basis.” That tells you that both parties are open to having a formal, theoretically long-term relationship. It’s hard to imagine Stephens going solo in Australia in January, when she’s on the cusp of what might be a break-out year.

Annacone has coached great men, and his personality is suited to that task. Having been a Top 15 player himself, he’s comfortable around elite players. The ones he’s worked with have been independent as well as extremely successful and smart. Annacone is patient, thoughtful, and quiet, and his laconic manner puts people at ease. He’s also shunned the limelight while showing an appropriate degree of courtesy to the media and other camp followers. He’s a big-time coach for big-time players.

Thus the big questions appear to be: Is Stephens ready to be a big-time player? And is she mature enough to appreciate and fully benefit from a coach accustomed to working with self-starters?

This is an intriguing issue. We know that Stephens has competitive fire, as well as a keen wit. She seems to enjoy playing the role of the wide-eyed ingénue, but probably isn’t quite as innocent as she likes to appear. In some ways, Annacone may be her Rubicon. Is she willing to cross it, when it means entering into the land of big pressure, consistent excellence, high demands, and obligations?

Coaches often must be adept at amateur psychology, even with the very best players. Sampras had a tendency to want to beat guys at their own games, but Annacone always wanted him to go out and dictate with that explosive game—“Show them that you’re Pete Sampras and they’re not.”

Stephens needs a measure of that sort of support; every player does, and more often more than you might think. Yet I don’t see Stephens as a player who needs a lot of stroking. Drama queen? Yes. Needy? Not so much. Annacone would not make a very good Svengali, so it would be a good thing if his charge didn’t expect him to be one.

In fact, the things Stephens most seems to need are the ones Annacone is good at providing. Those include a sound, practical grasp of strategy and tactics. Given Stephens’ degree of power, she’s been a very instinctive player—to her detriment, I think. She’s often been too content to react to what her opponent is doing, rather than taking charge. And she’s suffered some puzzling lapses of concentration.

I don’t for a moment doubt that Nankin was working on those shortcomings, but I also believe that Annacone will have his own, somewhat different thoughts on, and solutions to, those issues. A simplifier rather than a complicator, Annacone could create a template for Stephens’ game, and that may be something she hasn’t developed over the past few years of working on the details of steady, day-to-day progress.

We know for sure is that this isn’t Annacone’s first rodeo. He’s not just another coach, hopping from paycheck to paycheck. He must think a lot of Stephens’ game to have undertaken this experiment. So the more relevant questions raised in this trial are the ones it puts to Stephens. This seems like a potentially critical moment in her career; she’s a major breakthrough waiting to happen.

So I ask again: Is she ready and willing to pull out all the stops to make that happen?

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