Larry Stefanki: The Brightest Mind In Tennis?


84172231LONDON — Here's a curious question. Among the top coaches

in the game, who has the best mind? Certainly, Andy Roddick's skipper, Larry Stefanki, who’ll be inducted into the Northern California Tennis Hall of Fame on July 28 and who's coached an array of other great champions, including John McEnroe, Tim Henman, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Marcelo Rios and Fernando Gonzalez, is certainly in the mix.

Inside Tennis editor and publisher Bill Simons sat down in the Wimbledon Tea Room with the bright and bold veteran, who won the Palm Springs tournament at the La Quinta Resort in '85 over David Pate. A conversation with a tennis genius Who knows. In any case, we hope you find this to be an interesting read.

INSIDE TENNIS: Is Andy Roddick underappreciated?

LARRY STEFANKI: His record is phenomenal. Of active players, only Roger Federer has more wins. It's an unbelievable record. Plus Davis Cup. Like Johnny Mac, he's put his tennis on the line to play for his country. He didn't play last year for the first time. And it's fun for him. He loves the team environment, to be the leader, to work with young guys, to give them insight.

IT: Can we call him a father figure?

LS: Yes. He's getting close to that. They respect his commitment, his work ethic, his drive, his competitiveness. A lot of these young kids need to be around more of that. Andy is a very good athlete, don't get me wrong, but he wasn't born with a Johnny Mac artistry, to be able to pick up a racket and hit the ball anywhere he wanted to. He's blessed with a tremendous serve, a great forehand, but it's his work ethic that got him where he is today. He's won 500 matches and sustained being in the top 10 for nine years in a row.

IT: If you were a tennis god and could go back to the beginning and change his game, what would you do?

LS: He's improved his backhand and his return an awful lot in the last two and a half years. If he could get a little bit more foot speed, with lighter feet, if I'm wishing, just 10 percent fleeter afoot. He'd be unstoppable. It's a low-body mobility game. Those things are difficult for him. He's worked so hard on his flexibility, his fitness. He's a stiff-body guy. He's not like a Novak Djokovic or a Federer. Johnny wasn't either, but he was a lefty.

IT: Can Andy win another Slam?

LS: At this moment, I'm going to say yes. If everything falls into place, if the karma and the energy are going in the right direction, I believe Andy can still win a Slam. I do. If it all falls into place and he allows himself to free up.

IT: What would you say to those who call him a one-Slam wonder?

LS: You're not looking at the right things. You're not looking at how many matches he's won. He's been in three other finals against the greatest player of all time at Wimbledon. He didn't lose to some slouch. Usually, when people say that, there's a bitter undertone, like you're a failure. I'd like to be a one-Slam wonder, too. I don't like that phrase. It's a backhanded compliment. 'How come you didn't win two?'

IT: This is a cruel game.

LS: It is. It's just like golf. You're all on your own. You do what you can to prepare, to give yourself the best shot. You work on your weaknesses. You shore them up, get them to where they're solid, then you put them on the line. It's gut wrenching. When it doesn't work out, you feel like a fish on deck. You feel like someone just cut you open.

IT: There are 127 losers at each Slam.

LS: You have to be resilient. You've got to get back on the horse. If you don't, you're in the wrong business. That's why the highs are so high.

IT: What are the keys to coaching in the pro game?

LS: It's a positive if you've played the game. It's important to realize the ups and downs emotionally that go into guys who become champions, who have the talent to get to the top-10. It's looking in the mirror and deciding what you need to do and to change to get to that level. In coaching, it's like a puzzle: the pieces of the puzzle have to be line, like ducks in a row. How well you move, your footwork, your ability to have a big shot. And you have to be solid enough with that weapon to not give a lot of points away. I'm a big believer in not giving up lots of unforced errors.

IT: And you believe in legs and core strength.

LS: Absolutely. It's a lower-body game. I'm a big believer in a lower-body game and if you don't have the capability of pulling that off, it's a very difficult now to get to the very top. These guys are all pretty tall and they have some serious firepower. They can push the percentages a little bit more. I've been around 30 years and they pull the trigger quicker and they can pull it off more now. Risk-reward — that's the whole thing about this game. When to take a risk, and when to play defense.

IT: Who's the best at risk-reward tennis?

LS: Two guys at the top of the game – Rafael Nadal and Federer. Roger's probably dipped a little bit because for four years he was what I call “The Denny's Chef.” Anything he wanted, he flip-flopped it around and pull off a miraculous winner in a bad position. He has not been able to do that as frequently now. Subsequently, his ranking has gone down a little bit. For four years, I've never saw anything like it.

IT: Is it a case of a .412 hitter now hitting .329?

LS: Now he's batting .360.

IT: Conventional wisdom says that Roger is the best of all time, but he can't beat the main rival of his generation. Big losing record to Rafa not just on clay but on other surfaces, except maybe indoors. The best player of all time can't beat the best player of his era.

LS: It's interesting. I think it has something to do with Rafa being a lefty. Roger feeds into his strength. Roger likes to extend on the forehand a lot. But with Rafa everything's hooking into his body. He's got to get away from it a lot more. He does not like hitting the backhand out and away from his body on serves. Consequently, he ends up hacking short. He beats most guys in big situations. He's learned to bunt it short and it feeds into the righty's backhand side and then into Roger's strength on the forehand. When you play a lefty, into Nadal's forehand, it flip flops. That's Nadal's best shot coming forward. He can drag it up the line or he can hook you back off the court and go back into your weakness, which is your backhand. Roger doesn't seem to like to move in and take the ball off the rise with the backhand. You have to do that against lefties, especially off the return. Otherwise, Rafa's so quick with his feet moving to his right, he's going to dictate control with that little bunt slice return. He's off to the races.

IT: You worked with Johnny Mac — talk about his genius.

LS: He was phenomenal. He says he never hit aces, he was a spot server, never really got over 122 mph. But he had tremendous ball control. The only two guys I've ever seen who had ball control like that were Rios and him. They were so efficient. Their first step and their awareness of the angle. Johnny said he wasn't that fast, but his anticipation and awareness of what his options were. He would pick a guy apart after two or three games, knowing what he could and couldn't do. He would recall that in his mind. That art is kind of dead. Johnny dissected people with acute angles and the geometry of the court. That's how his style of play was. Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, Mac — they never gave you a free point. You had to earn it every time. Johnny was a fierce competitor, born with a gift. That doesn't happen very often. You see a guy like Rios, who was born with a gift but was a horrible competitor.

IT: Another breakdown, another way to look at it, is the artists versus workers. Nadal is seen as a worker, kind of like boxer Joe Frazier

LS: He is. Like Jim Courier. Not an artist.

IT: John was certainly an artist.

LS: Heavy. The amount of ball control he had, he played flat. Roger's not flat. But Roger is very much an artist with a lot more firepower. He can whack his forehand. John never had that. But he didn't make mental mistakes. Roger can make mental mistakes, but it doesn't really bother him. That would drive Johnny nuts, if he made an execution mistake off a short ball. That's what made him such a great player. He would execute at crunch time.

IT: We've talked about McEnroe, Nadal, Rios, Connors — all lefties.

LS: It's a huge advantage in this game. Take Connors — how good would he have been if he were right-handed? And Rafa was a righty. Toni Nadal switched him. He throws his stuff into the crowd right-handed. It's a huge advantage because all the big points are on the swing. Rod Laver even said that.

IT: Talk to me about the role of luck in tennis, especially with the draw.

LS: The numbers game is set with the seeds. Andy drew another lefty, Feliciano Lopez, three times within a month. That happens. We call them floaters. It went from Juan Martin Del Potro, Lopez, David Nalbandian — these are the guys you don't want to have to play. These guys have all been in the top eight. They've all made it to finals, done well at Slams. But luck is a factor. That's why it's part of the game. If you're playing well, it shouldn't matter. But the floaters are dangerous, and they know they can win. They're not intimidated. They pull the trigger so quick. There's no intimidation factor. It used to be that way with guys like Borg, Mac, Guillermo Vilas. Nowadays, maybe with Nadal on clay, but not on the other surfaces.

IT: You could say that Andy is lucky. He was brought up in a tennis family, raw talent, natural toughness. But on the other hand, he came up in the Nadal-Federer era.

LS: Federer and Nadal have dominated the game, and now Djokovic is jumping in the middle of the triangle. It's the same with Tiger Woods. But then you see what happened at the U.S. Open this year without Tiger there. It was almost anyone's game. When you have a dominant a figure, like Borg, who won six on clay and five in a row. He was invincible. But if you take that guy out, suddenly everyone has more opportunities. That's the beauty of this game. There's going to be greatness in every generation.

IT: You can argue there have basically been three great generations – Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, the Fab Four from America plus Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg, then Connors, Borg, McEnroe and, toward the end, Ivan Lendl.

LS: Those are the three eras.

IT: Which is the toughest?

LS: Now I see an era that very similar to Borg, Mac, Connors as I see with Djokovic, Nadal, Federer. Those are the closest similarities. You've got the Pete Sampras, Courier, Michael Chang, Andre Agassi, Becker and Edberg — that top 10 was phenomenal. But if you're talking just three dominant guys, I think those others are more similar. In the late '70s, early '80s, and now in 2011. I see a lot more of that because those guys seem to be at the end of the line at every major event. There's more of a correlation. I do think Fededer's all-around game is the best I've ever seen, bar none. But you compare the records. Nadal has kicked his behind. But it has to do with the matchup.

IT: What's the best job Larry Stefanki has done as a coach?

LS: I'm always evaluating myself. Every year is a yardstick. Every year I have to see that the person I'm working with is improving. Are you doing the right things? Are we making the right adjustments? That's how I gauge my success. You can always improve. When you stop thinking you can improve, it's time to get out of the business.