Hodgkinson: Sloane & Annacone
Published March 08, 2014 12:13
It's perfectly possible that one of the most influential figures on the women's tennis scene this year will turn out to be someone who won't be gripping a racket, who isn't part of anyone's entourage, and who won't regularly be attending WTA tournaments. Someone whose name you won't know, and whose face you won't recognise.
Backstage in American tennis - about as far backstage as you can possibly go - it's apparent that Olivia Annacone, the 21-year-old daughter of Paul, has been enabling her father Paul to develop his new player-coach relationship with fellow Californian Sloane Stephens. For all Paul Annacone's wisdom and his back-catalogue of achievement in tennis - in Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, he has worked with two of the greatest men in the sport's history - this is the first time he has coached a female player, and there's no doubt that it has been beneficial to him to have a daughter who is just a few weeks older than Stephens. "I do think it's a challenge for Paul that he's switched from the men's game to the women's, but he does have a daughter who's the same age as me, and that has helped," Stephens, who turns 21 this month, said in an interview with wtatennis.com.
A former World No.12 on the ATP's singles rankings, and now in his fifties, Annacone suggested he wouldn't be able to communicate effectively with Stephens if he was "out of touch". "I can relate to Sloane a bit because I have a daughter of the same age, and that helps from time to time, as it's good just to be aware of that generation, and to understand at least a little bit what is going on with that generation. I really feel that if you are totally out of touch then you cannot have the most impact," said Annacone, who started working with Stephens during the off-season. "Really the most important thing is for Sloane to feel at ease with me, and for the communication to flow naturally, and if that happens then we will have a terrific partnership and it should be a lot of fun."
Listening to how Stephens talks about Annacone, it would certainly appear that the communication has been flowing between the highest ranked American woman after Serena Williams and one of the most accomplished coaches in the sport: "Paul's definitely easy to be around."
Then there's the "super-convenience" of it all, as Stephens described it. "I just go down the street to practice, and Paul's always available as he lives so close to me, that's a plus. I've never really hung out with a coach before, but Paul and I have grabbed dinner together, and we've grabbed lunch together. It's good, it's fun, it's not too serious," said Stephens. "He's a really good guy, he's really patient, and he's really kind. He has a lot of knowledge, and it's just about putting what he knows in the right away, as I like simple things." They're not quite living on the same road, but they're close enough that Annacone doesn't feel the need to travel the international tennis road so much. "It's a key factor that Sloane spends much of her time in LA, as we can do a lot of good work at home, which has meant I can cut down a bit on my travel and still do a very thorough job," said Annacone, who described Stephens as "a terrific tennis player, with a great heart and a great family, who loves life."
"Sloane has a tremendous amount of talent and athleticism. The next 12 to 24 months will be about her understanding that talent and managing it - understanding how to be successful with your average game and also how to unleash her tremendous amount of firepower and use that as the asset that it is. She's so young and can create a lot of offense very easily, and her athleticism is a huge asset, so there are many terrific possibilities."
Of course, there are differences between the men's and the women's games, but, as Annacone noted, plenty of similarities too. "Many things are different, the game is very different for one. The similarity is that the women's game is getting much more athletic as well, and it's interesting to see how the women use their athleticism to suit their skills. It's still a tennis court, it's still a game and it's still about maximising your potential, but mostly it's about maximising your average days and dealing with adversity and not letting that effect your self-belief, happiness or your goals."
Naturally, Stephens is aware of the success that Annacone has had as a coach. But she won't be letting that unnerve her. "So Paul coached Roger, and now he's my coach, and that's crazy," she said. "Obviously, he's been on the road for a long time - he has also coached Pete Sampras and Tim Henman. There are a lot of people he's coached who have done extremely well. It's definitely a tough road to follow, but I think I'll be okay." If everything goes well for Sloane Stephens this season, she owes Olivia Annacone a drink.
~ Mark Hodgkinson is a tennis writer and author based in London. He is currently working on 'The Secrets of The Locker Room', which will be published by Bloomsbury in 2015.