The King-Maker

PAUL ANNACONE, ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS SPORTS NAMES TO EVER EMERGE FROM THE SOUTH FORK, TALKS WITH EAST ABOUT LIFE AMONG SUPERSTARS, HIS WIMBLEDON PICK, AND HANDLING LOSSES (AND WINS) LIKE A CHAMPION

His roots run deep out here. Paul Annacone’s father, Dominic, retired in 2011 from a long career in public education, having served as a school district superintendent in Sag Harbor and then Wainscott. At 13, Paul went away to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida then returned his senior year to graduate from East Hampton high. He was ranked number one in the NCAA at the University of Tennessee and eventually reached number 12 on the world tennis tour.  As a coach, Annacone guided two of the most decorated players in the history of the game, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, during key stretches of their careers. He’s currently an analyst for the Tennis Channel and recently put the finishing touches on a book, Coaching for Life, due out in July. Annacone and his wife, Elisabeth Seldes, a screenwriter, producer, and former senior executive at MGM, live in Woodland Hills, Cali., and East Hampton.  

You’re as local as they come. . . .
I was born in Southampton and raised mostly in East Hampton. My mom is a Schiavoni from Sag Harbor. Her family started Schiavoni Plumbing and Heating and they also have the Sag Harbor IGA (known as Schiavoni’s). I’ve got three aunts, three uncles, and 10 cousins in that branch of the family. 

Your dad is a hugely respected figure in public education on the East End. How did he shape who you are? 
My parents were both very progressively process-oriented and task-oriented. They emphasized the importance of discipline and getting tasks done, which helped me mature at a young age. 

What’s your coaching philosophy? 
As the coach of an individual athlete, you have to figure out how to deliver your message in a way that the player needs to hear it. Roger [Federer] wanted to talk a lot about his tennis. We had long conversations about strategy, for instance. Pete [Sampras] didn’t like to do that; he wanted things really streamlined. I had to figure out how to deliver 20 minutes of coaching thoughts to Pete in a two- or three-minute window. 

The Swiss get the unemotional, boring rap. What’s Roger really like?
The furthest thing from boring that exists. . . . Roger’s one of the most gregarious people I know. He’s about as normal as you could be, given what he’s accomplished. . . .  [Traveling with him] is like traveling with a superhero or a big rock star. The magnitude of his visibility is hard to put into words. Whenever he’s in public he’s never, ever left alone. He handles it with total class — the most calm, cool, appreciative demeanor. He’s always said it’s just his good fortune, it’s flattering. Every time I see his parents I tell them what an amazing job they did raising him.

And Pete Sampras? 
Pete is very different. He’s a much more insular guy, not nearly as gregarious. Roger has friends in every city. Wherever he goes, he has dinner with six, eight, 10 people. When Pete and I traveled together, it was just me, him, and his physical trainer. Pete didn’t like to use up a lot of energy with stuff that took away from his ultimate goal.  

That Australian Open final in January was some match. Didn’t you predict — correctly — that Federer was going to win the tournament? 
Actually, on TV at the end of last year, I picked Roger as my player of the year for 2017. [Winning the Australian Open] was a huge statement. . . . For a player like Roger or Pete, slowing down is the biggest challenge. It’s not whether they can still play great but can they sustain it? . . . If he’s healthy, Roger would be my pick to win Wimbledon this year. 

When player and coach part ways the public wonders if there was drama or conflict. How was it with Federer?
It was so mutual. He’s one of the most sincere, thoughtful athletes I’ve been around. We had a long lunch and halfway through it, we both just kind of agreed it was time to move on. It’s not a personal thing, or like all of a sudden I forgot how to coach. It’s just that at some point it’s kind of run its course and it’s time for a new perspective. . . . One of my proudest achievements is the three players I coached the longest — Sampras, Federer, and Tim Henman — are still three of my closest friends.

What are some of your current and future projects?
I’m excited about my book. Pete Sampras wrote the foreword, Nick Bollettieri [another legendary tennis coach] wrote the introduction, Roger wrote a couple of excerpts. I was lucky to have input from several other great players: Chris Evert, Jim Courier, Martina Navratilova. It uses tennis as a metaphor for life and relives the preparation and processes they all used to maximize their potential, which I think can help readers be better teachers, athletes, even parents. 

What would you tell a 16-year-old player with promise and a hunger to win? 
My advice is to have a really good perspective on what you’re doing and try to be heavily process-oriented and minimally results-oriented. That’s the key to developmental coaching. When I started coaching Pete, he was result-oriented but trusted his process. His biggest talent was managing his “average” level and trusting that he could problem-solve in the biggest moments. You’re going to play a handful of spectacular matches, another handful of poor matches. So the question becomes how are you going to manage those bad days? Show me what you have on those days and I’ll show you in a mirror who you are as a tennis player.

And for older guys and gals? 
No matter whether you’re a club player or Roger Federer on Centre Court Wimbledon, know what kind of player you are. Play the right way based on your game and, win or lose, you’re going to get better. Don’t be blinded by your competitiveness or emotional criticism. Have some objectivity about your game.

Where is pro tennis going? 
Well, first, there are bigger, stronger athletes and then there’s all this sports science, which everyone shares. The courts have been slowed down, the balls are a little heavier, the strings and rackets are able to generate more topspin and power in different positions, which makes it more difficult to come to the net. A decade and a half ago, I loved watching Sampras, the best server ever, play Agassi, the best returner. Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are two of the most amazing movers I’ve seen in any sport, but they play pretty similar. The contrast in styles, the diversity, doesn’t exist as regularly anymore. That makes me a little bit sad. 

What about the current state of American tennis? 
U.S. tennis is actually doing extremely well. We went through a decade where we didn’t have the players. We got used to these legends, Agassi and Sampras, Connors, McEnroe, Serena Williams. In the last five years we’ve had about 13 or 14 young players in the top 250 in the world . . . all 19 to 24 years old.

What are some of your peak moments over four decades in tennis? 
I played a Davis Cup doubles match in Australia. So I got to represent my country, which was pretty special. In 1986, I played John McEnroe on center court at the U.S. Open. He was coming off a layoff, was [ranked] about 10 in the world, and I beat him in four sets. I won three singles events on tour and the Australian Open doubles with Christo van Rensburg. Probably my two most visible accomplishments are coaching Pete Sampras for seven and a half years and Roger Federer for almost four.

How about your best memories of growing up on the East End? 
I loved the small-town serenity and the fact that it felt like one big family, so centralized in a small area. Everywhere we went, we felt safe and at home. 

A perfect summer day? 
Up early, out of the house, and at the beach before everyone’s there. I have 45 minutes or an hour to myself. I love to see the sun come up out of the ocean. I like to take a swim in the ocean. I know it sounds cliché, but it really is cathartic. The rest of the day, I like to spend time with my family doing almost anything then cap it all off with a barbecue.

What makes this a special place for you?
It’s the aesthetic beauty, the ocean, the green of the trees in summer. . . . Taking a walk through Northwest Woods or at Ditch Plain or Georgica Beach. . . . Look, I’ve been all over the world and there’s no place like East Hampton.

David Gibbons

Gibbons is a former sports writer, literary agent, book producer, and publishing executive who’s been a freelance editor and writer for the past two decades. Dave grew up in Princeton, N.J., where he remembers seeing John Forbes Nash pace the sidewalks in his Burberry raincoat and red Converse high-tops, muttering to himself. He has ghost-written six cookbooks for chefs and, with Max McCalman, co-written three books about cheese, one of which won a James Beard award. Gibbons currently writes the cheese column for Wine Spectator and was the most prolific contributor to "The Oxford Companion to Cheese." Andy Warhol once spilled a drink on his shoes at a party and said, "Oh, sorry."