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Tennis Great Looks Back and Forward

Tue, 08/27/2019 - 17:57
Quite a playing and coaching career for Paul Annacone
A Californian now, Paul Annacone gets out to the East End several times in the summer.
Jon M. Diat

It was a result that shook the tennis world. In the late summer of 1986, in the U.S. Open’s first round, Paul Annacone of East Hampton defeated John McEnroe, handing the champion of seven Grand Slam singles tournaments a shocking loss.

“It was a thrill to have beaten one of the all-time greats of tennis,” Annacone recalled Friday afternoon in the players lounge at the U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows — exactly 33 years ago to the very date of his monumental conquest. “But it was also uncomfortable as well. John was a true legend at that time and I really admired him. He had taken a six-month sabbatical before the Open, but I knew he was not at his peak.”

A week before, Annacone had played McEnroe in an exhibition match at the Hamlet Cup in Jericho, on Long Island, and had lost. Seven days later, at the Open, Annacone, after dropping the first set 6-1, rallied behind 23 aces to win the next three sets. It was a day to remember, albeit in Annacone’s very stoic way.

“It’s a great memory for me, but for John, well it was the U.S. Open, it was a loss on a bad day,” he said. Asked whether he and McEnroe, now a prominent tennis commentator for NBC, talk about that match, Annacone said it doesn’t come up.

“John and I are great friends,” he said. “But John had so many big matches in his career compared to me. So, his loss to me probably does not stand out. For me, sure it does. For me, it was different — it was something I will never forget, but it’s not something the two of us talk about.”

A relentless serve-and-volleyer during his 14 years on the tour, Annacone ultimately won three A.T.P. titles and reached a career-high ranking of 12th in the world in singles. His doubles career was notable as well: with Christo van Rensburg, a South African, he made the finals of 17 major tournaments, winning nine of them between 1984 and ’89, including the Australian Open title in 1985. He was the third-ranked doubles player in the world in 1987. In all, he won 14 doubles titles on the tour — a mighty fine playing career to say the least, especially considering his game was largely honed on the humble Mashashimuet Park courts in Sag Harbor, where his father, Dominic, was the school district’s superintendent.

But Annacone is probably better known now as the coach who helped shape the games of Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. Under his guidance, Sampras won 9 of his 14 major titles, and Federer reclaimed the world’s top ranking and won Wimbledon in 2012.

Today, he is coaching Taylor Fritz, a 21-year-old from the San Diego area who is ranked 27th in the world, and is continuing as a commentator for the Tennis Channel. It’s a full schedule for the 56-year-old Annacone, who, despite being on the road for up to 18 weeks a year, still loves what he does.

“I’m very fortunate in what I do,” he said. “I love being at the U.S. Open. It’s my favorite tournament, and I have great memories here [he and David Wheaton were the tournament’s runners-up in 1990]. I don’t mind the travel and I like the balance between working at the Tennis Channel and coaching Taylor.”

Annacone, who shares Fritz’s coaching with a longtime friend, David Nainken, is enthusiastic about the lanky 6-foot-4-inch right-hander’s prospects. “Taylor has tremendous potential,” he said. “His mother was a top-10 player and his dad played professionally as well. He has a great first serve and a very strong forehand. He has steadily moved up in the rankings since he turned pro, and he just loves the game.”

While Annacone hoped Fritz might enjoy a deep run at the Open, he still managed to break away so that he could spend some time on the East End in the past few weeks.

“I got out to East Hampton twice this summer to see my father, and I hope I can get out there once more,” he said. With his wife, Elisabeth, and three children — Nick, Olivia, and Emmett — Annacone calls Woodland Hills, Calif., home now.

“I’m hoping to see my brother, Steve, at the Open too,” he said. The brothers are very close. Steve served as Paul’s coach during his playing career.

Two years ago, Annacone published “Coaching for Life,” a book that took him a decade to write. “I promised my father I would do it, and I’m glad I finally did,” he said with a smile. “It was well received, but I don’t have any plans now to write another one.” He also has four “tactical tennis” DVDs —  “Attack the All-Court Player,” “Beat the Baseliner,” “Know Your Own Game,” and “Neutralize the Net-Rusher” — to his credit.

For now, Annacone is content to focus on his work with the Tennis Channel and with Fritz, who he thinks has it within him to win a Grand Slam. No American male has won the U.S. Open since Andy Roddick did in 2003, he noted.

“He [Fritz] is trending the right way. I’ve really enjoyed working with him. He’s a little fiery, but he is very mature and handles pressure well. He has all the tools to be one of the best in the world.”

There’s no doubt that Fritz is in very capable hands.

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