The man who coached Pete Sampras to the top and will help bring Roger Federer to the U.S. Open is taking a brief break from the world of competitive tennis, and getting back to his roots. This Saturday, East End native Paul Annacone will host a tennis clinic for all levels at Mashashimuet Park where brother Steve runs Sag Harbor Park Tennis. The Express recently caught up with him at his home in East Hampton.
By Claire Walla
Q: When you were a little kid, would you ever have imagined that you’d be where you are now, having played tennis professionally and coached two of the top players in the world?
No, I never thought of it. I mean, I’ve been pretty lucky. Sometimes I have to wake up and shake myself a little bit! [laughs] Tennis has afforded me a great life journey. Having been born and raised out here, and now thinking of all the places I’ve been — playing on the center court of Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open — it’s pretty incredible.
But it’s been a great ride so far and hopefully it’s not going to end anytime soon.
Q: With the kind of coaching you do — working with people on a year-to-year basis, analyzing games, focusing on the finer details of someone’s performance — what does a two-hour clinic look like? That’s seems like a very short amount of time.
Basically what we’re going to do is spend some time going over as many of the key areas of the game technically and tactically — and try to do it so that everyone can have a lot of fun. One of the things I think is a key component at any level is figuring out the right way to play.
A lot of people at the club level get really wrapped up in very technically oriented components. But whether you’re a 4.0 club player or Roger Federer trying to win the French Open, you want to know how to play strategically, you want to know where to hit balls and why, and you want to know the consequences and repercussions of what you do on the court.
Q: What’s one thing specifically that you notice a lot of players overlooking about their own game?
It’s funny, you can be playing at the U.S. Open, or you could be playing the club championships down at the park, but I always hear people revert to technique-oriented malfunctions during their play, without even understanding what the mental part of their own game is doing.
In other words, if my dad is playing for the club championship at Mashashimuet Park, he’s going to feel pressure. And if Roger Federer’s playing the finals at Wimbledon, he’s going to feel pressure.
The really skilled coaches will take the whole comprehensive picture into play [and consider the] consequence of what competition does to you before giving out technique-oriented advice.
Q: That almost sounds like in order to be a good tennis player and bring your A-game you have to do a lot of confidence building beforehand. What advice to you have for people to get that mental component in gear before they go out and compete?
First of all, you have to have realistic expectations. If I’m going to play golf, I can’t expect to play Jack Nicklaus, or Tiger Woods, or Rory McIlroy.
Unfortunately, human nature is to turn on the finals of Wimbledon and to see Nadal and Djokovic playing and say ‘I want to go do that!’ I mean, that’s normal, and that’s why we all get excited and want to play tennis and other sports. But, we have to be realistic before we get onto the court.
Knowing your own game is really a key component of it. If you know your own game and you’re aware of how you’re trying to play, then you tend to be a little more objective as to how you evaluate yourself as you go along.
Q: It seems like in the past few years the sport of tennis has been dominated by Europeans like Federer of Switzerland, Nadal of Spain and Djokovic of Serbia. Is part of your goal with the clinic and with some of the other educational programs you do to instill a love of the game in younger people to try to grow this generation into the sport?
It’s an interesting time in sports in general. And the bottom line is: You want to get more racquets in hands.
But, I also believe things are cyclical.
Now, we’re coming to the end of an era in men’s tennis, where Andy Roddick’s slowing down a bit and James Blake’s winding down.
I came along at a time when John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors were winding down; so everyone was kind of screaming, ‘Where are McEnroe and Connors and what’s wrong with American tennis?’ There was a little bit of a lull right at the top, and then all of a sudden you have Michael Chang, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Andre Aggassi.
So you go through some peaks and valleys, but the idea is to get as many people playing and enjoying the game, whether it’s at the club level or the professional level, because the more racquets you have in hands, the easier it is to get that talent to high levels.
I think Steve’s got a great comprehension of how to do that. He’s done a really good job with his Smokey Mountain Tennis Academy in Knoxville, Tennessee. And hopefully we can start to do something like that in Sag Harbor.
Q: Are there any young tennis players you have your eye on now that you think are going to become the Roddicks, Aggassis and Sampras’ of the next great American tennis era?
It’s always a bit of a guessing game. One of the easiest things is to see how they hit a tennis ball. The more difficult thing is to see their emotional makeup. That to me makes it easier to figure out how good the complete package can be, and that takes a little bit of time. Right now there’s a young American names Ryan Harrison who’s done extremely well. He’s in the top 100 in the world [ranked no. 100] and he’s only 19-years-old. He’s going to be a very good player.
Q: Now, to keep it current, what is the one thing Federer is working on to gear up for the U.S. Open in September?
Well, right now I hope he’s working on his tan. [laughs]
Basically we’ve been going strong since the beginning of April without any significant break. The Davis Cup just finished on Sunday, so he’s got a little bit of time off. I go back over in a week and a half and we spend basically two and a half weeks training before the U.S. hard court swing starts.
When you’re fortunate enough to be with someone like Roger, most of it is just game management: understanding what he wants to do and how he’s going to do it.
Obviously, in today’s men’s game it’s very difficult to compete. And you see Novak Djokovic having such a great year and Rafa’s always Rafa, so that makes it difficult. But, Roger got to the semis in the Australian Open, got to the finals of the French Open, and quarter finals of Wimbledon: he’s right there. And he’s already won 16 Grand Slam titles, so I don’t see any reason why he’s not going to be really geared up and ready to play in New York.
Q: I would imagine at this point, especially for a top athlete like Federer who’s trained so intensely over the years to perfect strokes and serves, that a lot of it just come down to that mental aspect of the game.
Yeah, a lot of it is your mental disposition and also the strategic way you’re approaching the match on the day. There’s such a fine line between winning and losing these days. And I think that generally the best players know how to manage their game the best, because when they play well, they’re going to beat everybody anyway. But, if they only play average but they manage their game well, they’re still going to beat a large majority of the guys.
That’s one thing that Roger, and Rafa and now Novak have really learned to do extremely well.
For me, a lot of the discussion is about those things. Obviously, we go on the court and do a lot of drills and we do a lot of things to work on good habits and engrain good technique in their shots and understand how they’re hitting the shots. But a lot of it is shot selection and an emphasis on strategy.
And hopefully we’ll be able to impart some of that on some of the park-goers this weekend.