A WHOLE NEW WORLD: Exclusive Larry Stefanki Interview


Moses roamed around in the desert for 40 years. But that was nothing. The United Kingdom – the motherland of tennis – hasn’t had a Wimbledon champion in 73 long arid seasons. But with the Flying Scott, Andy Murray, the land of proper manners and devastating defeats, had a hope. And this guy was no phantom. After all, Tim Henman was a kind of grand middleweight lifting his game to play with the heavyweights. The scion of a fine Oxford middle class family, he overachieved adeptly to tease and excite an obsessive nation. Nervous and twitchy, he induced an uneasy sense of doom that brought out Britain’s inferiority complex and their curious love of losers.

But Murray was different. He’s not your father’s Wimby hopeful. Last year’s U.S. Open finalist and now No. 3, the pale power boasted 6-2 winning records against both Andy Roddick and a gentleman named Federer. With a win here he would have come within 5 points of No. 1 Rafa Nadal.

Murray’s backstory was steel tough. As a 5th grader he survived a mass , his parents divorced (not so pleasantly) and he was shipped off to a Spanish tennis factory as a kid. A singular player gifted with speed, subtlety, nuance and inspired court sense, he can also play power ball and hang tough to win (like he did in that 3:57, five set/under the roof marathon against Stan Warinka).

Ah yes, the tea leaves were all falling in place. He had beaten Roddick three straight times, including a straight set victory earlier this year and owned a win on grass. Plus, his homeland was in a frenzy. One felt the storm of hope.

But Murray was up against a rejuvenated veteran . This Wimbledon’s A-Rod (who was coming off a 3:51 win over Lleyton Hewitt) was not the Andy Roddick who lost his mojo in the first round at the U.S. Open or the laden slugger being embarrassed by Gael Monfils at the French or an upset victim, being tossed out of town by Janko Tipsarevic at last year’s Wimby.

Right after that devastating loss, Roddick thought about stopping. But he sat down with his future wife Brooklyn Decker. “Brook and I had a lot of talks,” said Andy. “I definitely openly questioned it at that point … So this off-season, we said, ‘You know what, if you’re not gonna be up there, let’s at least not wonder. Let’s prepare yourself and give yourself every opportunity … I did work real hard and have been committed from everything to diet to sleep to everything … I certainly gave myself every opportunity to succeed … I know that being happy and not having any worries away from the court, in my mind it can only help things. Brook has been a very calming influence, and someone that I can kind of confide in and not have to put up a super brave front in front of.

So it’s been real good. And … [she]certainly makes the [friends] box better looking … She didn’t really know much about tennis, so she thought I was playing real great … she thought I looked cute in the shorts.”

Andy may still have his sassy sense of humor. But now he’s a married man – settled and knowing of the ebbs and flows of a sometimes brutal tour. A product of some of the best coaching minds in America (Brad Gilbert, Jimmy Connors, Pat McEnroe, Larry Stefanki), he delivered a rather dizzying collection of shots to counter his favored foe.

As expected, when Andy wins, he serves huge: 21 aces, 75% first serves in and a 143 mph rocket.

But there was more today. Confident, panic-free, focused and hitting on all cylinders, this said John McEnroe, was the best match he had ever played. He gave us an inspired Roddick-ian show like we never saw before: charging the net, volleying with an artist’s touch, returning bravely, attacking Murray’s susceptible second serve and giving Murray as much as he got in cat and mouse baseline exchanges.

Thanks to an artistic drop shot, he broke in the tenth game of the match to win the first set 6-4. But Murray – moving with new vigor and blessed with a surge of aggression – blasted laser backhand crosscourt passes and broke right back to start the second set.

The Scott soon collected the set to even the contest. But he couldn’t convert on three break points early in the third set and he failed to out-fox Roddick on a set point in the critical third set tie-break, which the Texan corralled 9-7 when he unleashed a mean backhand that Murray muffed.

Again in the fourth, the Scotsman revealed this was not to be his day, dropping a break point that would have given him a 5-3 lead in the 4th, netting an easy backhand in the 4th set tiebreak and finally flubbing a backhand to give Roddick a 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (5). Now merry old England would suffer yet another of winter of discontent – 74 years without a homegrown champion. There man had been convincingly been outplayed. Roddick, the ’03 U.S. Open champion and a finalist there in ‘06 would now be returning to the Wimby final to attempt to do what he failed to do in ’04 and ’05: beat The Mighty Federer who will be seeking a record 15th Slam crown.

So how did Roddick turn around his career and how can he possibly beat Federer, who he has lost to 18 times in 20 matches.
To find out how, I chased down his coach Larry Stefanki, who has performed wonders with many a player, including A-Rod who he began working with in December.

Larry Stefanki

INSIDE TENNIS: So what about facing Roger Federer in the final. He’s down 18-2 to the Commander and Chief.

Larry Stefanki: What is that – 20 matches.  So I am going to say that 21 is a fresh’’ start. And I’m going to say, he hasn’t played him since 2005 in the final. So it’s a whole new match and it’s virtually 0-0. I don’t care if he’s played 20 matches and he’s 18-2 and I am going to try and get a fresh slate.

IT: As a coach is this the most satisfying stretch of work, working with Andy.

LS: Yes, yes.

IT: Is he a good learner?

LS: He is. He’s very stubborn, he’s got great qualities of a champion and it takes time to turn the pages with him, but he listens really well and I think he’s absorbed it. I watch him play and he’s sound now and it’s fun to watch him. You have to acquire all these things.

IT: He’s so calm, so panic-free.

LS: That’s what we talk about a lot now. I say, ‘you’ve played 38 Slams and you are acting like you have never played one. I mean, you are the man. You have the best serve in the game, right now in my opinion and you should go out there feeling, hey free it up. I tell him, you are am going to hold 91% of the time. That means, why not have a little fun. Let your body relax a little bit. You’re going to make mistakes. We all do. But, beats himself up. He’s too hard on himself. But over these last few months he’s really changed his attitude.

IT: Same thing with approaching Roger. He is the best of all time in many books.

LS: He is, yes. He is the favorite, you just have to let it go. You have to let it fly.

IT: Would your coach, the legendary teacher Tom Stow, be happy with Andy’s play today.

LS: Yes. We saw the heart of a champion out there today. You don’t teach Andy how to compete. Before he wasn’t that sound technically, but he has really focused on that the last seven months. It was very alien to him. I didn’t really want to get too technical with him, so I kept it as basic – big thought process – as possible.

Everyone said his backhand sucks, it was no good. But he’s really worked on his backhand return for seven months and its paid off. In December we talked about it paying off for Wimbledon. I said, if you get this routine down you’ll change your muscle memory – because it takes four to six months to change muscle memory – and when the ball is going 130 mph you don’t have time to think.

Tom [Stow] always emphasized efficiency. Your lower body is your anchor and if you are all twisted up and falling off balance while you are hitting you can’t get the next ball. He never really thought about it, but Andy is a really smart kid and aware.

IT: I had a sense that this man was drawing on all his experiences from all his years.

LS: This is a culmination. I don’t know if you have noticed.

IT: I sure have.

LS: Let’s face it, he’s won Davis Cup. He’s won a Slam. He’s a great competitor and now it’s all coming together and he’s relaxing a little bit. We’ve talked a lot about that, almost changing his presence and maturity on the court. And he’s done it and I’m proud of that, of his changing that after all these years of hype, hype, hype. I said, ‘you have to find a calm space, a flow.’

IT: What about saving all those break points today, he really stepped up?

LS: We talked about that, about stepping up and hitting the ball. I said every second serve, he’s not going to hit it past 90 mph. You’ve got to club it. It has to be your first strike, its going to be the shortest ball in the rally and you are hitting your backhand great. I think it is almost better than his forehand return. Here it’s been better than his forehand return. So clubbing that second serve returned certainly paid a lot of dividends today.

IT: And what about all the intangibles. Going up against a Brit, he had a rough 2-6 record against him and earlier this year Andy lost to him in Doha.

LS: Absolutely. That was the first tournament I was with him. He said I’m going to be coming like a storm trooper and I said ‘lets try that plan.’ Then last night, I , that doesn’t work -becoming a target for Andy Murray. He has way too much ball control. He’ll lob you, dink you and he passes too well. You’ll be a duck. You’ll have to volley up. You don’t want to be a target. You have to be very selective.

IT: Was there a little bit of rope a dope strategy out there, taking the pace off a little bit ?

LS: Andy served and volleyed to the body, which is the first time he did that. Before he did like 47% to each side, but just 6% to the body and I said that wasn’t enough, you have to serve 20% body and run to net. He’s not a very good one-handed player when you jam him, but you are going to have to hit a volley. He wants it ‘free’. But I said no, you are going to have to hit a volley and love a volley and want to hit a volley.

IT: Andy has real touch up there for a linebacker.

LS: Yeah, he’s got moxie. He’s learning. He has really good hands for a big guy. We practice a lot on that and his hands are very good. We do a lot of two on ones at net and we play a little dink ‘em game afterwards.

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Venus Williams

In anticipation of the woman’s final I had this exhange with Venus Williams after she crushed Dinara Safina.

Q. In Serena we see this incredible fight, this incredible intensity, which is unique for tennis, and all of sports really. Can you give us one example of where you’ve really seen this intensity either on the court or off?

VENUS WILLIAMS: I just remember a long time ago, we were playing in Sydney. I think it was still at White City. I think she was playing Davenport, who at the time was at least in the top five or maybe higher.

We were just coming on tour. It was about maybe 1998, and she was just down 1-6, 2-5. I was playing after, yet again. I’ll just never forget. She came back and won that match. It was so intense. I just learned so much from that, her fight.

I think that actually had a huge impression on my career, that one incident actually. We saved the article. It was called White City’s Great Escape. Afterwards I would read it with an Australian accent. You know, we’d read it over and over again, about how she overcame all the odds and won that match.

I mean, that’s classic Serena Williams, so… It was a huge lesson for both of us.

Q. Do you ever tell her to chill out or do you just leave that alone?

VENUS WILLIAMS: Oh, I never tell her how to react, even on the doubles court. I let her do exactly what she needs to do. We just encourage each other. What works for her might not work for me, but just got to go with the flow.