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By Richard Pagliaro | Monday, August 14, 2017

Roger Federer, Paul Annacone

"I would say Roger is more of a historical sportsman. Pete was more of a gladiator," said coach Paul Annacone of coaching Roger Federer and Pete Sampras.

Photo credit: Joe Castro/EPA

As an attacking player, Paul Annacone played in-your-face tennis.

As an analytical coach, Annacone spent years probing the minds of iconic champions Pete Sampras and Roger Federer helping them craft solutions to on-court challenges.

More: Federer Withdraws from Cincinnati

Absorbing the day-to-day discipline required to attain and sustain greatness left such a profound impact on Annacone he’s dedicated a book to the process.

In his new book, Coaching For Life, Annacone uses tennis as a metaphor for problem-solving the challenges life provides. The book incorporates experiences and anecdotes from Annacone's time coaching Federer, Sampras, Tim Henman, Sloane Stephens and his work with the LTA.

American tennis fans know Annacone as an unrelenting serve-and-volleyer who once prompted John McEnroe to observe: “He comes to net on the coin toss. He just keeps coming.”

The 54-year-old Annacone was a pure serve-and-volley player who used his net skills to reach a career-high rank of No. 12. He reunited with Sampras at the end of the Hall of Famer's career coached the former World No. 1 to the 2002 US Open title in his storybook farewell tournament.

"I am often asked, 'What makes the great so great? What can we learn from their level excellence?' " Annacone said. "I answer these and many more questions in Coaching for Life.

"You can achieve success, the book points out, but you have to follow certain procedures. As I say in the book, the will to win is nothing without the will to prepare."

We caught up with the Tennis Channel analyst for this interview in which Annacone discusses the secret to success Federer and Sampras share, the single biggest key to achievement in tennis and in life and why he believes Sampras is more similar to Rafael Nadal than Roger Federer. 

Tennis Now: What was the aim in writing the book?

Paul Annacone: It’s kind of interesting in that I didn’t have an initial idea to do it. When I first started coaching, I started keeping notes. And then I started coaching Pete Sampras and I kept a lot of notes about his process and how he did things and I just really kind of became a little bit of a sponge with all of my environmental stuff. Then when I started coaching Roger, I thought “It’s interesting to watch how these guys do things and why they’re successful.”

After I was done with Pete and started working with Roger, I thought “We always talk about the stuff we see. We talk about the process stuff of what we see and we talk about the physical talent and there’s a lot of other ingredients.” I think we can learn a lot not only about how they became champions, but about why they’re successful. I think it’s an intriguing topic because I like the combination of all of the ingredients that make you successful and not just what we see on TV.

TN: In his book, Sampras said a pivotal moment was when you told him: “You’re Pete Sampras and they’re not.” In other words, impose his identity as a champion. How were you able to convey that in a way Pete acted on it?

Regarding Roger, do you think he went through a similar stress point with confidence or with Roger was it more the knee injury and regaining his health?

Paul Annacone: It’s an interesting topic. With Pete it was a time in his career I felt like he needed a little bit of identity check. He had gone through 24 or 25 months without winning a tournament and he was a little emotionally drained from being Pete Sampras and also playing on the tour. Pete was a little bit tired, but he was pretty clear about what his goals were. For Pete, it was pretty simple. I had the most belief in his laser-like focus and his ability to kind of impose his will, but only if he bought into that process. Only if he believed it.

I talk about that a lot in the book—about buying into their process. Whether that’s Pete or me or my son or someone’s daughter, it’s about how they get the most out of themselves. With Pete it was like “You’ve got to remember who you are and what you’ve done.” I don’t believe that that kind of talent or skill goes away—it doesn’t. But you have to have that belief. Because at that level, Richard, I really believe that the mental drives the physical. In order for Pete to get the most out of himself physically and strategically, he had to get that mental capacity back first. I think he did. He did it a lot quicker than I thought. We saw it with the US Open.

With Roger I think it’s a little different. Roger’s a different human being. He isn’t as fatigued by this lifestyle as Pete was. He embraces it. He loves it. He travels with his family, he enjoys being a citizen of the world, he enjoys participating in the tour and seeing the different cities and countries we go to.

I think Roger has had a couple of speed bumps. When we wrapped up in 2013 that was a really tough year for him physically because of his back. He doesn’t talk about it a lot, but he was basically hurt all year. I always felt if Roger got healthy again there was no reason he wasn’t going to have a resurgence because he has such immense skill. I didn’t think it would be on the magnitude of what we’ve seen so far this year. But the guy is so talented, it’s amazing.

Roger is a different type of personality. He goes about it in a different way. Pete was more driven by a sheer focus on what he wanted his accomplishment to be. Roger really embraces the entire process and so in many ways it’s actually easier for him to sustain a high level because he doesn’t feel as run down by the day in and day out rigors of being Roger Federer and all that’s expected from Roger Federer. He still loves it.

Roger and Pete get to the same place by intuitive philosophy, but in a very different way. One of the really interesting things about both of them is they both have what I call a positive sense of inevitability. They actually believe in the big moments that’s where their talents are going to shine and there are a multitude of reasons for that. And a lot of it is all of the terrific habits they’ve ingrained throughout their entire careers and it allows them in those big moments to just go out and play. They’re not afraid to win, they’re not afraid to lose. They can live with the consequences because of their processes.

TN: How much of your work coaching those guys was psychological and motivational and how much was technical, tactical and strategic coaching? What qualities make a good coach?

Paul Annacone: You go from stages. At this stage, playing as professionals, you generally aren’t making huge stroke production changes. It’s more about the process of understanding your own game, setting reasonable expectations, understanding the big picture, understanding how to maximize your potential and getting rid of negative things and then putting your plan in place.

Every personality is a little bit different. I would say at the pro level it’s close to 50-50 in terms of emotional and mental and then strategic and physical. I think it’s close to 50-50 and depending on the player and their skill sets, it fluctuates a little bit. It could go up to 65 and 35 or 70-30 depending on the time of the year and the player. With Pete, I think the last six months were 90 percent mental 10 percent physical. That’s why I love this job. That’s why I love to coach. Because you’ve got to figure it out. You’ve got to figure out which buttons to press when.

TN: You were among he first pros to come out of Nick Bollettieri’s Academy. What makes Nick a successful coach? What makes you a successful coach? What are key qualities for a good coach? How and when did players like Federer and Sampras like to receive information or strategy?

Paul Annacone: I think my strengths are communication and understanding the situation and then kind of figuring out when to dive into the categories we just discussed. I think Nick was the most influential kind of task master I had seen. He was great at explaining not only what you have to do, but the necessary discipline it takes to get yourself to do those things. Nick was a great instiller of discipline on and off the court and to show you how everything is connected—mental, physical and strategic. Those are the things Nick taught me.

Roger, Pete and Tim were very different. Roger and Tim were more similar in that they actually enjoy communication and collaboration with lots of aspects about the tennis, the game plan, the planning. They were more happy to have a lot of discussions about that stuff. Pete was more succinct. He wanted clear, simple themes about what he was trying to do and how the environment around it may affect what he’s trying to do. Pete wanted it in a real succinct, clear way.

Roger does a lot of communication, a lot of collaboration and so there was with Tim. And with Pete, I would say it was in a more focused way. A lot of my most impactful coaching with Pete was playing cards at night in the hotel room where it was just me and him talking about what the next days had in store and how he was going to best accomplish what he wanted to. It wasn’t always just on the tennis court. For me, it’s such an interesting journey as a tennis coach to figure out those personalities and kind of add value to what they’re trying to do on the court.

TN: What were the most emotional moments you shared or saw behind the scenes with Roger and Pete? What would surprise people about them?

Paul Annacone: The most emotional moments with Pete were right when I started with him in 1995 when Tim Gullikson had brain cancer. Pete broke down in the court in Australia in tears while he was playing Jim Courier right after he got the news about Tim and Tim had flown back to the United States. That was a huge moment for me at a very green stage to understand how I could help him get through this life perspective and still play tennis.

Then later in Pete’s career when he broke Roy Emerson’s (Grand Slam) record at Wimbledon when he beat Pat Rafter that was a hugely emotional moment for me because of everything that led up to it. I talk about it a lot in the book. He was pretty injured those two weeks and it was pretty amazing to watch what he accomplished and the adversity he encountered. To win that seventh Wimbledon in 2000 was really emotional. The final one was when Pete beat Andre in the 2002 US Open final when he hadn’t won a title in 25 months and a lot of people were saying “He’s done. He’s done. He’s done.”

TN: He beat Greg Rusedski in that 2002 run and Rusedski was one of the people saying he’s done.

Paul Annacone: Greg wasn’t shy about saying that kind of stuff. Luckily for Pete, he was wrong (laughs). So those were the biggest moments with Pete for me.

With Roger it’s more of how good he’s been for so long. It’s amazing that at 36 years of age he’s won two majors this year.

This one key that I’m going to tell you right now is the biggest key to success for any great player or business person. It’s the ability to not let what just happened to affect what’s going to happen next. That’s in a pro and con way.

Look, we saw what happened at the US Open in 2010 and 2011 against Novak match points in the semis, Roger lost both of those matches. I watched him up two sets to love against Tsonga lose that match in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. And the thing that amazes me most about Roger—and Pete’s this way too—those things don’t really dent their ultimate sense of belief in the biggest moments. They come back and they know and trust their skills in the biggest moments. We saw this time and time again with Roger. The last five years people have been saying “He’s not going to win again. When is he going to win again? He’s getting older.”

So when Roger beat Andy Murray to win the 2012 Wimbledon finals it was really interesting because during the rain delay in the locker room we were having conversations and I was so impressed with his composure and his calmness and his pragmatism in terms of what had to happen and the way it was going to happen. Roger doesn’t let emotional forks in the road get in the way of the clarity that’s needed to try deal with adversity and stressful situations. He and Pete were very different about it, but they both got to the same place of not letting those moments deter their sense of belief. That when the finish line is there I trust what I can do and I’m going to get across it.

I talked to Roger and Severin and Ivan Ljubicic before the Australian Open final and said: “What am I going to see today?” And he said exactly what happened. He said my biggest challenge is to go out there and play on my terms and trust it for five sets. That’s the hardest thing—for anybody to do—against Rafa because Rafa is so resilient and so oppressive in terms of his point-for-point pressure. Rafa can break your will. And so Roger, that day, basically said: “He’s not going to break my will and if I lose I’m going to lose doing what’s got me here.” And down 3-1 in the fifth we saw five games of it in the most crucial situation which we hadn’t seen very often with Roger and Rafa before. Roger trusted it. The last 30 minutes, that’s why you can’t ever categorize greatness and say they can’t do stuff. Because of situations like that.

TN: The US Open is going to allow coaching from the stands in qualifying rounds this year. What’s your position on on-court coaching?

Paul Annacone: On-court coaching, I’m open for the conversation. I struggle with it, personally, to be honest with you. One of my biggest philosophies as a tennis coach is my goal is to figure out how I can best impact a match for my player to problem solve in the biggest moments of pressure and adversity.

That’s one of the biggest things about tennis that’s so amazing. I sat at the player’s box at 4-all in the fifth set at Wimbledon. Watching these guys, it’s just amazing just to feel that tension. And to know it’s up to them to figure it out. I’m a little bit torn because I love the fact that tennis reveals character.

Because as great as Tom Brady is, he’s got teammates. As great as Lebron James is, he’s got teammates. When Roger steps up to the line to serve out the finals of Wimbledon, it’s all on him. You better figure it out. It’s a very long-winded way of saying I understand the concept of what they’re trying to do.

I haven’t seen it in a format that I like so far. I love the USTA is trying something. I think it’s a little misleading to do anything in the qualifying rounds because I think the facts can be a little misleading. It’s very different than getting out on center court in the big moment and seeing if something actually works or not. In terms of its broadcast or perception or the way it’s laid out. I’m open to coaching, I just don’t know the right format yet.

TN: I interviewed your colleague, Steve Flink, recently. He said on record you have to rate Roger as the GOAT but said he believes in an individual match-up, on grass or hard court, that Sampras would beat Federer at the peak of their powers. You coached both. How do you see a prime Federer vs. prime Sampras match playing out?

Paul Annacone: I don’t think you can compare eras. I think Roger and Pete are the closest you can compare because their careers intersected a little bit. If you go back and try to compare Rod Laver and Mac, for instance, I just feel like evolution of the game has happened so quickly and changed so much that it’s like comparing apples and oranges.

Roger and Pete are close because they intersected. Look at how successful Roger has been at Wimbledon winning it eight times, but look at the way Roger won Wimbledon and then look at Pete’s Wimbledons, it’s not even the same game. It’s like a different sport they’re playing.

Richard, my biggest thing is I believe if you give anyone who is great and legendary and put them in a different era with their mind-set, they’re going to figure out how to achieve at that level. And then it’s just subjective. If Laver played in Roger Federer’s era, Laver is going to figure out how to be Laver in this era. Now will that be enough to beat Roger? That’s what makes it so great that you can debate it.

I don’t like to compare eras just because it’s a different sport. To me, Roger and Pete are very different in terms of how they have achieved their greatness. I would say Roger is more of a historical sportsman.

Pete was more of a gladiator. I would put Pete’s mentality—even though he was very quiet—closer to Rafa’s extroverted version than to Roger's mentality. Pete, internally, was more like Rafa with that energy than he was to Roger. Pete was very quiet about it. Pete was very stealth, but he had that nothing is going to get in my way mentality that is very similar to the way Rafa is. Roger is more of an expansive, artistic style. He competes his backside off, but it’s a very different approach.


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