The man who rode shotgun for Pistol Pete can supply Henman with a lethal weapon

The Interview - Paul Annacone: Sampras's guru is building on his friendship with Britain's No 1. Ronald Atkin talks to the coach whose aim is to make him Wimbledon's No 1
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Tim Henman sets off this week armed with an air ticket to Qatar and a new-found confidence that, at the age of 29, 2004 could become his best-ever season. Having spent much of this year recovering from a shoulder operation and then seeing his world ranking dip to 40, Henman came storming back to win the Paris Masters title last month and climb back into the top 15.

It was a victory he credits in large part to advice sought, and received, from Paul Annacone so, not surprisingly, he has decided to recruit the American, who spent eight years as coach to Pete Sampras, on a part-time basis. Henman's first stop is in Doha for the million-dollar season-opening tournament before flying on to Melbourne, where he will team up with Annacone and prepare for the Australian Open, which begins on 19 January.

After terminating his two-year coaching relationship with another American, Larry Stefanki, following the US Open last September, Henman announced his intention to go it alone. But not much more than a month elapsed before, having played poorly in losing to David Nalbandian in Basle, the British No 1 rang Annacone to seek help.

The two became good friends during Annacone's stint with Sampras, who frequently practised with Henman. Then, as he advanced through the Paris field, knocking out bigger and bigger opposition en route to his best-ever tournament success, the calls to Annacone became nightly ones. Annacone, a 40-year-old who reached the Wimbledon quarter-finals on his debut and rose as high as 12 in the rankings, came to London immediately before Christmas for 10 days of intensive sessions with Henman.

Of their first conversation, Annacone recalled: "Tim rang from Basle to ask what I really thought of his tennis. I gave him a 20-minute talk, not a monologue, about where he needed to focus and how he could continue to get better and maximise his strengths. Then, after Paris, he called to say how excited he was about playing the right way all week and asked if I would be interested in working with him part-time. It seemed a nice marriage because I don't really want to travel that much any more, and at this stage of his career Tim doesn't need someone 30 or 35 weeks a year. We will work together between 14 and 20 weeks, though a lot will depend on how the year progresses.

"I worked with Pete for so long. What do you do after that? We are great friends and I am still involved in some of his business opportunities, helping him make the transition into an off-court life, but that is mainly through phone calls, faxes and emails, which I can do from anywhere. To get back on the court again was tricky for me to think about, but when Tim and I started talking I thought, 'Wow, this is a great opportunity'. He is a great guy, a great player, a great professional and an integrity- ridden person. What more could you really want?"

What Annacone definitely did not want was a full return to the tour. He had worked briefly with Jennifer Capriati and for the US Tennis Association's high-performance section and received several coaching offers. "I don't want to get into any names," he stressed. "There were several possibilities, but the tricky question was who did I coach after I coached Pete Sampras? The second question I had to ask myself was whether I wanted to go out on tour with an 18- or 19-year-old who was starting to break through. That is when you need a coach 35 weeks, to help you deal with the emotional ups and downs. For me, Tim was great. He knows what it takes to win, he just maybe needs a little push to get over the top."

Annacone will prepare to administer that push without any written agreement. "Tim and I are such good friends and men of honour. We know what we want to do in the next year. We are going to get it ironed, see how it goes and see if he is happy. In order to be really successful or a good coach and have longevity, what you say has to be said the way a player needs to hear it. Pete needed to hear it differently than the way Tim needs to hear it, and Tim needs to hear it differently than Andre [Agassi]. So if you're good at what you do, besides having the knowledge, the way you express it is pivotal. So Tim and I need to make sure that works well.

"Our friendship helps because we won't take a month to get to know each other, how to communicate, how to react. I think he respects my knowledge of the game and my understanding of how he plays. But no matter what you say to a player of Tim's calibre, if he doesn't believe it, it doesn't matter what you say. Given that, it's just a matter of what's the best way for me to help maximise his potential."

There will, however, be no tampering. "Tim is not going to start hitting two-handed backhands and playing from 15 feet behind the baseline. But the things that aren't his strengths, how do we get them better? It's just a couple of small challenges. At the risk of sounding arrogant, the fact that I've been fortunate enough to be involved with tennis at the very top will help him. So will the fact that, like Pete, Tim is an offensive volleyer. But the challenge for Tim is that it is very difficult to serve and volley if you don't really feel your serve is a weapon."

Here is a key element of the Annacone strategy. Stefanki persuaded Henman to sacrifice pace on the serve in pursuit of greater accuracy and consistency. This has now been discarded. "Tim is going to be more aggressive with his serve. He may double-fault a few more times but will get more free points."

To those, John McEnroe in particular, who have scoffed that anyone could have coached Sampras, Annacone had this reply: "For a relationship to last that long I must have been doing something right. And my goals for Tim are the same as they were for Pete, to do the best job I can to help them reach their potential.

"I have always steered clear of saying things like Pete had to win Wimbledon again or Tim has to win Wimbledon. When you're as good as they are, if they're playing their best tennis, more times than not they are going to be around the final weekend of the Grand Slams. Tim has a huge goal, a great goal, to try to win Wimbledon. If he doesn't do it, sure, he will be disappointed, but if he plays his best on grass there aren't many guys who could beat him. So OK, the idea is to help him do that."

Much of the assistance will take place away from the din of battle, where, as Annacone readily acknowledges, coaching skills are secondary to man-management. "They are all great players, even someone 60 in the world. You don't make a Sampras, an Agassi or a Henman. They are hugely gifted, talented athletes and it's your job to figure out the best way to get the most out of them.

"So there is a lot to be said for what happens in hotel-room conversations and strategy conversations. How do they deal with lost luggage or lost passports? Their rackets didn't get delivered, the practice courts were freezing, the practice balls were late and the sun was in their eyes. The coach has to deal with everything like that which can come up in a long year.

"It's easy to play tennis when everything is great. One of the first things Pete told me was, 'I just like to see how guys react when things aren't going so well, when they are in a fight with their girlfriend or they are getting divorced. That tells me a lot about their character, how badly they want to try to win'.

"There wasn't a huge percentage of the time when Pete Sampras played what he considered great tennis. When he did, it didn't matter what anybody else did. But what he did probably better than anyone was to win a lot of matches when he wasn't playing that well. But his confidence never wavered, he never got flustered, he never doubted that his talents would come through, so it became second nature.

"That's something you don't teach, and I want to help Tim with that type of confidence to help him to the next level. It's an exciting proposition. To me, Tim has all the pieces in place. More than anything, I admire his desire still to get better. He is a class act and a good friend. I think we'll both learn a lot.

"He is excited about the way he is playing, happy about all the things we are working on, he feels like he is making improvements already. Now it's a matter of staying healthy and to keep working hard and to understand, sure you want to win every tournament you play but it's a long year. Let's be objective and re-evaluate as we go along."

Having witnessed what Annacone's advice and friendship helped Sampras to achieve, you have to agree when he says of his new job with Henman: "I think it will be a fun ride."

Biography: Paul Annacone

Born: 20 March 1963 in New York.

As a player: turned professional in 1984 and reached Wimbledon singles quarter-finals that year. Won three singles titles (win-loss record 157-131) and 14 doubles titles (including 1985 Australian Open). Career prize-money $1.6m. Also a member of the 1986 US Davis Cup team. Career-high rankings: singles, 12; doubles, 3.

As a coach: guided the career of Pete Sampras for seven years, during which time Sampras won five Wimbledon titles, two US Opens and an Australian Open. Now working with Tim Henman.

Also: in December 2001 was named managing director of USA Tennis High Performance.