One of my lasting memories from Andy Roddick’s U.S. Open farewell had nothing to do with the drama between the lines or any of the superlative shots he hit during a heartwarming run to the fourth round. No, it was a simple look Roddick shot to his coach, Larry Stefanki.
There was Roddick, sitting during a rain delay in the first set of what would be his final match, against Juan Martin del Potro. The American led 1-0 in the first-set tiebreaker when the rain that everyone knew was coming finally descended on Flushing Meadows, forcing the players to wait on the court while tournament officials decided what to do.
Roddick, who had been as relaxed and good-humored as he had been at any tournament in years, looked over to his box with a huge grin and he started … dancing. Well, dancing in the form of the cabbage patch, which I’ll leave to the Center Stage aficionados to decide whether that even constitutes a dance. ESPN smartly cut to a shot of his box to find his coach of almost four years, Larry Stefanki, the intense and stoic figure often hiding under a Lacoste brim, shaking his shoulders to the changeover music. With a straight face, Stefanki juked and jived to the rhythm, drawing a guffaw from Roddick and everyone watching from home. It was private moment between coach and player that was made public by the ever-present cameras, and one that perhaps gave more insight into their coaching relationship-turned friendship than any one-on-one interview could reveal.
When they teamed up in late 2008, Roddick was coming off a partnership with Jimmy Connors — the two parted ways earlier in the year — and Stefanki had just split from a three-year stint with Fernando Gonzalez. Stefanki’s résumé showed a man of great patience, one who seemed to thrive with intense, borderline explosive personalities such as Gonzalez, Marcelo Rios and John McEnroe. Roddick was looking for one more push and under Stefanki, he got it. Under his tutelage, Roddick made the semifinals of the Australian Open in 2009 and the final of Wimbledon that same year, losing to Roger Federer both times.
While Roddick has hung up his red, white and blue Babolat shoes, Stefanki let it be known he isn’t done yet. At 55, the Illinois-born coach who guided Rios and Yevgeny Kafelnikov to the No. 1 rankings, Tim Henman to a career-high No. 4 ranking, and helped get Roddick as close as he would ever get to a Wimbledon championship, says he still has that fire. Speaking to Ravi Ubha for ESPN.com, Stefanki said he’s ready for the next challenge.
“It’s never over, over,” Stefanki said. “It’s in my blood. Andy said ‘You’re a lifer.’ I said ‘No.’ I like the challenge of someone challenging themselves. If they’re 20, 25, 30 in the rankings, I don’t care about the number, it all has to work in kind of like a reality check of saying ‘I’m stuck, you’ve seen me, you’ve been out there.’ That’s how Fernando approached it. He said, ‘I’ve played all your guys a lot. What do you think?’ I said, ‘It doesn’t matter what I think. What do you think?’
“That’s the most important thing because it’s an individual game. There’s no one holding your hand, and you have to get it done. You really have to look in the mirror and decide, ‘I want some help.’ Not like, ‘I’m making 1 or 2 million dollars a year and I’m happy with that,’” Stefanki said.
Rarely are elite coaches with proven track records floating around the unemployment line in men’s tennis, which got me to thinking: Who might be in the market for a coach of Stefanki’s caliber, and which pairings would be the most exciting? Let’s dive in:
• Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Tsonga is, rather famously, coach-less at the moment. The Frenchman split with Eric Winogradsky — who helped him reach his first and only Slam final, at the 2008 Australian Open — in April 2011. Since then his results have been as quizzical as his desire to fly solo. When you talk about a player with raw talent, few outrank Tsonga, whose physical prowess and pure power should put him in the top five consistently. But he suffers from frequent mental lapses during matches, forgetting that he’s the high-flying Jo-Wilfried Tsonga who should be attacking the net and instead turning into a tiny David Goffin, content to battle from back behind the baseline. Tsonga needs to get a little more Gonzo, and Stefanki might be the guy to get him there.
• Grigor Dimitrov: The 21-year-old, ranked No. 56, needs a full-time coach who is devoted to him and it just doesn’t seem like he has one right now. He split with Peter McNamara at the end of last year and he’s been coached this year — at least on paper — by Patrick Mouratoglou, now an adviser (and maybe more?) to Serena Williams. Though he has the flair that earned him (cursed him?) the “Baby Federer” label, his one-handed backhand, while beautiful, remains a liability. Stefanki has the experience of helping to turn a one-handed backhand into a weapon, whether with strategic slicing or all-out hitting, and he could help the talented Bulgarian take the next step.
• Sloane Stephens: After a 20-year career embedded in the ATP, it’s doubtful that Stefanki would be willing to cross the aisle to work with the ladies. But is there a young prospect more exciting on either tour right now than Stephens? She split with Roger Smith in August and has been sharing a coach, David Nainkin, with Sam Querrey. Call me crazy, but I don’t think sharing a coach works in this sport. Stephens needs her own guy and Stefanki would be an exciting mentor. Much like Tsonga, Stephens has talent in spades and is arguably the most athletically gifted player on the WTA Tour this side of Serena Williams. What the 20-year-old needs is guidance, someone to help her deal with her in-match mental lapses and remind her that natural ability alone is no path to success.
• Sam Querrey: In his interview with ESPN, Stefanki said he wants to team with a player who A) seeks to ascend to the next level and B) acknowledges that he needs help to do it. It’s not entirely clear that Querrey is a match made in heaven on either front. The laid-back Californian gets knocked for his attitude, which can come off as “just happy to be here” when matches get tight. That might not jive with Stefanki, but it does offer an interesting challenge. Querrey, 25, has made great strides this year in his comeback from elbow surgery (he’s up to No. 22, close to his career high of 17th), most notably in his grueling four-set win over Milos Raonic in the second round of Wimbledon and even his five-set loss to Cilic in the next round, falling 17-15 in the final set. Big forehand, big serve. Sound familiar?
• Ryan Harrison: This one seems like an obvious choice. Harrison worships at Roddick’s throne and has benefited from the mentoring Roddick has offered through the years. No one ever questions Harrison’s desire, drive or ambition. When it comes to a player who seems open to doing whatever it takes to break through, Harrison’s your guy. And after what has been a generally forgettable season for the 20-year-old — Harrison is 23-24 since teaming up with Grant Doyle before the start of the season — his motivation going into 2013 could be at an all-time high.