Thursday, August 10, 2000

Coach built rapport, better Sampras


Pete thrives with Annacone's simple, low-key approach

By Michael Perry
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MASON — So really, what does Phil Jackson tell Michael Jordan with seconds left in the NBA Finals? What could Bill Walsh say to Joe Montana when he has two minutes to drive for a winning touchdown? What in the world can Paul Annacone advise Pete Sampras at Wimbledon?

        “The final at Wimbledon (in '99) when I played Andre (Agassi), I was having trouble with my serve, and he just told me one thing before I went out and played,” Sampras said. “It was something with my toss. There are little things that can make a difference between winning titles and losing them.

        “He doesn't get enough credit. Tennis coaches generally don't.”

        Sampras has won more Grand Slam titles than any other player (13). He may not be No.1 in the ATP Champions Race or ATP Entry System, but Sampras is pretty much the favorite any time he plays in a tournament.

        Annacone has been his coach since January 1995. At the time, he was helping out on an interim basis because Tim Gullikson had become ill at the Australian Open. Gullikson died of brain cancer May 3, 1996. Annacone had retired the previous spring after suffering a herniated disc in his back.

        He and Sampras grew close during Gullikson's illness. Annacone could relate: His best friend died of leukemia when he was 19.

        “It's hard to tell anybody how to feel,” Annacone said. “Sometimes life is just cruel. It was a hard transition from Tim. The only thing you can do is try to make the best of a bad situation, and that's what we all tried to do.”

        Annacone is a good fit for Sampras. Both are low-key. Annacone talked to Gullikson often on the phone, trying to understand Sampras' idiosyncrasies, how he liked things done, how best to deliver suggestions.

        “This goal was to try to figure out ways to not screw up everything that he was doing,” Annacone said with a smile.

        “The thing about coaching, it isn't necessarily what you know, it's how you say it. The most successful coaches in individual sports are not Bobby Knight types. These guys are professional athletes; you're not molding a 13-year-old kid.”

        The job is also about scheduling, making sure Sampras plays in tournaments that allow him to peak for the big events, and keeping him mentally fresh.

        Periodically during the year, they will practice on something specific.

        The biggest difference Annacone has made in Sampras' game — both agree — is getting him to play more aggressively.

        “Early in his career, he didn't use his athleticism as much as he could,” Annacone said. “He's such a good athlete and he volleys so well, it's silly not to play that way a little bit more. He's gradually become a little more offensive-minded in terms of moving in toward the net. He's dangerous when he is on the run.”

        Sampras has won many different ways. Annacone said the key is figuring out when to attack and when to pull back, adding, “That's what great players are able to do.”

        The two talk for a few minutes before each match, highlighting strategy and maybe a couple key points. After matches, they don't always get together right away to rehash.

        After Sampras lost to Marat Safin last week in Toronto, he and Annacone spoke for about five minutes and revisited the defeat for about 10 minutes the next day.

        “You can sit and talk about a 21/2-hour match until you're blue in the face, but I don't think he or these other top guys want to dwell on it,” said Annacone, who was ranked as high as No.12 during his playing career.

        Said Sampras: “I like to keep things pretty simple, not blow things up and make a big deal out of something. He knows I don't like to hear a lot of things and to overload. The key is communication, and we do that very well.

        “He's someone who's played the sport at the highest level, and he knows what it's like to compete. He's seen my game enough to know when it's clicking, or when I'm pulling my head down, and he's got the bird's-eye view that I can't see. It's been a great ride.”

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