– former coach of Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, & Sloane Stephens
– currently coaches Taylor Fritz
– coach at ProTennisCoach.com & a commentator at Tennis Channel
NW: How would you evaluate Taylor’s 2019? & What are the main focuses for his game in 2020?
Paul Annacone: Good year, finishing around 30, but there’s still a lot of work to do. That’s the most encouraging thing for me. He had a really good year, but there’s a lot of improvements to be made. I think the biggest challenge is going to be getting away from the match light and work on the areas that’ll hopefully take him from a very good pro to a great one.
Our focus has been on returning…especially second serve points. How can we create more ways for him to be offensive? He has a great power game and now we’ll work on the transition area of the court. Becoming not so much just a lateral baseliner player, but having a few more options in terms of moving forward…behind big ground strokes. His net play too, because it’ll become more important finishing. When you hit ground strokes as well as he does, you should be able to move forward and pick off some nice, easy volleys.
NW: What are the objectives/tasks/responsibilities as his coach?
PA: My job is to process what aspects of his game need work…so I can address the changes we have to make in a positive and meaningful way. Also, balancing and managing the schedule, so that he’s competing consistently, but blocking off time to get in the “classroom” to work on things. A tough balance, because if it were up to Taylor, he would play a tournament every week.
Also, working to help manage expectations and the emotions this career entails. Be happy about a win and it’s fine to be upset and disappointed if you lose. That’s healthy. But find that balance. Don’t let your losses drown you in this business.
NW: How was the transition, from being purely a coach to being in the booth commentating (Tennis Channel)? Was it a natural/comfortable adjustment?
PA: No, it wasn’t a natural transition. Luckily, I have great producers and great fellow commentators around me. As a coach, a lot of the stuff we do is close to the vest. It’s not about externalizing it for the public to hear. It’s about delivering the message in a meaningful way to the player…and generally that’s a private conversation.
I feel comfortable with my MO in the coaching arena. Confident in my ability to develop players. When I’m commentating…I am trying to build stories and also explain to the audience, not what is happening, but why it’s happening. There’s stuff happening mentally with players who experience the pressure you feel out there. Fans see a guy miss a routine ball, but it’s my job to explain what’s going on in that players head. That’s kinda what I feel the job of the analyst is.
NW: Are you in favor of the ATP allowing coaching?
PA: I love tennis, because I love problem solving…and in tennis there’s nowhere to hide. It’s just you. You have to make the adjustments. I don’t want to see coaching allowed. I think we should celebrate tennis for what it is. One vs one. Trying to figure out how to problem solve under pressure is amazing. When you walk onto center court at one of the majors and feel the spotlight and all that it entails…it’s what makes these athletes so impressive. They’re able to figure things out by themselves. I don’t want to see someone like me run out there at 4-5 in the final set.
I want to celebrate the players ability to figure the puzzle out, under duress. To me, that’s exciting. If you’re on a team…you can rely on other players to step up. No matter how great LeBron James is, he has teammates helping. If you step out on Centre Court at Wimbledon, you better be able to figure some stuff out. That’s quite a task, and the reason I have so much admiration for the top guys that do it consistently. It’s fun watching the young guys try to figure it out.
NW: The ball striking nowadays seems to be at a different level across the tours. Are people swinging differently (lol)?
PA: There’s a lot of great champions in tennis that didn’t hit the ball perfectly, or have the best technique. They understood what worked for them.
One of my favorite players of all time is Jim Courier. He dominated for a couple years and no one is going to coach a player to hit the ball how he did. He worked his backside off though and knew exactly what worked for his game and his style.
I’m a huge fan of him. He’s a poster child for a great professional tennis player, as far as working with what you’ve been given and getting the most out of it. I’ve also had the fortune of working with him for a few years at the Tennis Channel, and in my opinion, he’s the best analyst in the business. It’s fun to be on his team so to speak.
NW: Who else do you enjoy listening to talk tennis?
PA: Mary Carrillo is really boisterous and out there. She just wears her heart on her sleeve and it’s amazing. Steve Weissman is a younger guy that does NFL and tennis. He’s an amazing color analyst, but he has a different style. Brett Haber has been doing this forever and he’s really good. He’s a facts machine. He knows everything. Tracy Austin, Lindsay Davenport, Martina Navratilova. I love working and listening to all them.
NW: What are the storylines that interest you in 2020?
PA: I think the biggest story is, will one of these young guys finally break through (at a major). When will Roger, Novak, and Rafa slip up? We’ve sort of lost a generation of players in the mix. Not necessarily lost, but the Dimitrov, Raonic, and Nishikori group…we thought they would be able to squeeze out a couple majors…and they haven’t. That generation kind of got suffocated by the greatness of the Big 3. Now we’re in a new era where I think Tsitsipas is the closest of the young guys to winning a major. It could be this year though (someone steps up). I’ll be interested to see if someone does, who it’ll be. Is it Stefanos? Is it Shapovalov? Is it Medvedev? Do one of the young Americans make a run? That’s going to be exciting for me as well. I think this will be a year of reckoning for a lot of players on tour.
NW: What are you looking forward to from the American men this year?
PA: To see if one will one of the young American guys take a jump. Will Fritz, Tiafoe, Opelka, or Tommy Paul find that consistency and make a move into the top 15-20 in the world, or will it take a little more time? Neither would surprise me.
NW: What other player(s) do you think will have a good 2020?
PA: I’ll be shocked if Felix Auger Aliassime doesn’t get it going this year. He’s one of the more composed and thoughtful young players and I think he will get back on track, despite struggling as of late. He’s going through the sophomore re-evaluation I call it. After one big year, the external expectations rise and therefore the internal expectations rise. I don’t care what anyone says…the outside expectation affects these players. And I think that’s what’s going on with Felix right now. He’s such a terrific player and a great athlete though.
NW: What about on the women’s side? What excites you?
PA: Serena winning last week had me wondering, “Will she get that next major?” She’s amazing. If she’s healthy, there’s no reason she can’t get back to the top. No one has completely taken the reigns and claimed dominance on the WTA Tour.
NW: How many majors do you think she will win this year?
PA: I’ll be shocked if she doesn’t win one major this year, but if she won two…it would surprise me.
NW: Why do you think most players, past and present, seem to believe winning Wimbledon is the best feat in tennis?
PA: Every major has its own personality. Wimbledon is essentially the Mecca of our sport, and because of that…it has a different aura around it. It feels pristine and has the same type of feeling as The Masters does. A lot of history.
New York City is the US Open. It’s crazy, it’s loud, it’s rambunctious. Australia is the big friendly major. Everyone is there for a good time and it kicks off the year. Roland Garros is Paris. It’s culture, it’s French, it’s the food. I don’t look at any of them as better or worse. They’re all just different. I’ve begun to define things more generically.
NW: What memory do you think of first when I say Wimbledon?
PA: My first time Wimbledon I qualified for the main draw and lost to Jimmy Connors in the quarterfinals. The place will always be special to me because of that. A free tennis lesson from Jimmy Connors (6-2, 6-4, 6-2). Not everyone gets to say that. He was incredible.
NW: How did you begin coaching Federer? I read that you had a trial period with him. If so, did it feel like one?
PA: Roger and I knew each other pretty well already. Most of it was going to a few dinners and talking about his game, his philosophy, and where he wanted to go. And then telling him what I thought that journey looked like. Then spending a couple weeks on the practice court going over stuff. So, we got familiar with one another fairly quickly. I didn’t necessarily feel like it was tryouts. But everything is a trial in this business. I’ve seen so many people lose their jobs in this business, nothing is for certain.
NW: Who are you picking to win the 2020 Australian Open titles?
PA: It sounds boring, but I’m going Novak and Serena. I could’ve answered it like this for the last decade. I mean he’s won it 7 times. It’s a joke. My biggest question with Serena is always, did she get enough matches in? And she has now, playing really well.
NW: 5 years from now. Who will lead the men in majors? (2025)
PA: Oh wow. Uhm…I’ll say.
If everyone stays healthy, that’s what I think. They’re all great.
NW: What kinda defines greatness, in your opinion?
PA: One of my ultimate clichés is,” How good is your average level?” One of the biggest mistakes in coaching is too many try to coach their players to play great. That’s not what I do at all. My big thing is, how do you react when you don’t play well. That’s what defines you. You play a handful of spectacular matches a year, a handful of garbage matches, and the rest is what makes you up. So, what are you on those days? That defines your career arc. It’s what makes the all-time greats…great.
If it’s a great day, they don’t think they cured cancer….and if it’s a bad day…they don’t think they need to go work at McDonalds. Systemically work through the ups and downs…make subtle tweaks and keep their head in it.
NW: Who is the best player all time, in your opinion? (GOAT)
PA: I have people say that all the time. Talking about who the greatest of all time is. I don’t like the word (goat). People play in different times against different eras. I would say most accomplished. I’ve lived through a lot of eras so it’s hard for me to say, because a lot of things have happened. I think if Rod Laver played in today’s era, with all the advancements in technology…he would have an even better record than he did. He would be considered more in that conversation. If Rafa had to play in an era with much more differentiation in court speed and surfaces…he would’ve had to make adjustments, but being a great player…he would’ve. Roger wasn’t in his prime when Rafa and Novak were. He’s 5 years older, so it’s a little different.
It’s hard to compare eras and such. Pete Sampras’ greatest achievement…the one he was most proud of…. wasn’t winning 14 slams. It was finishing as the year-end World No. 1 for six consecutive years. No one’s ever done before. It means, each 12-month segment…he was better than everyone. He said, “It was most important to me, because I knew I only had one shot at it.”
NW: Are these guys (The Big 3) the best talents that you’ve seen?
PA: I think Andre Agassi is one of the best ball strikers of all time. I think Sampras is in the conversation as one of the most athletic of all time. His play was poetry, like Federer. I think Nadal is in the same category as Jimmy Connors. They all have different stuff that they’re excellent at. Federer is the updated version of the Sampras. Rafa is the updated version of Connors. Novak is the updated version of Andre.