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The Inside Track | Diane Pucin

Annacone's Two-Step Program Saves Sampras

September 06, 2002|Diane Pucin

NEW YORK — "Let's go."

It was that simple, a two-word command from Paul Annacone to Pete Sampras.

"OK," Sampras said.

It was that simple, a one-word acknowledgment that the athlete was happy to have the old coach back.

Sampras--sprightly, bouncy, running on his toes and gliding easily to the net; bouncing serves into every nook and cranny of the box or into the body or off a line; clocking his forehand with verve and power; curling his backhand neatly onto the baseline--knocked brash Andy Roddick out of the U.S. Open Thursday night.

Even though Roddick was seeded No. 11 and Sampras No. 17, even though Roddick is 20 and Sampras 31, even though Roddick had beaten the four-time U.S. Open champion in their only two previous meetings, it would not have been unreasonable for someone to pick Sampras to beat Roddick in the last of the men's quarterfinals.

But no one predicted this, a 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 clubbing. Not in 1 hour 30 minutes. Not with Roddick getting only one break-point chance (which wasn't converted). Not with Sampras running the young gun to distraction, to snarling chats with the chair umpire and moody monologues with himself.

This was, as Jim Courier said, a butt-kicking, a lesson in tennis nuance. Roddick can serve hard. Sampras can serve hard and smart. Roddick can hit a big forehand. Sampras can hit a forehand big, medium and soft plus a one-handed backhand that moves. Roddick can't get his feet to do the quick-step dance to the net. Sampras scampered always forward and drove his volleys deep or dropped them short and angled.

We didn't see this coming.

Annacone did.

Too many thought Sampras was two steps slow and one step from the tennis grave.

Annacone didn't.

"I think sometimes we believe everything we read and see," Annacone said. "What Pete showed tonight is that he doesn't believe everything he reads and sees. Pete is a terrific talent and that talent wasn't gone. It needed to be reawakened."

For nearly seven years Sampras and Annacone had been the perfect pair. Annacone pushed, but not too much; tinkered, but only when necessary.

It was a delicate place for Annacone at the beginning. Sampras had been devoted to Tim Gullikson, who had helped create Sampras' belief in his ability to win on Wimbledon's grass. When Gullikson was diagnosed with the brain cancer that would kill him, Sampras turned to Annacone, a quiet man, which suited Sampras, and a good friend, which suited Annacone.

But at the end of the 2001 season, after Sampras had gone 15 months without a tournament win, with the losses making Sampras grumpy and Annacone frustrated, Sampras called his coach and asked him to be only a friend. That was fine with Annacone.

"I think Paul and I, professionally, probably hit a point where we needed to take a break from each other," Sampras said.

"I'd agree with that," Annacone said. "It is important to take breaks from people. Then sometimes you appreciate what you have after you don't have it. I did. I think maybe Pete did a little bit too."

After Sampras had his second-round flameout at Wimbledon, a bad, stumbling loss to George Bastl, Annacone was sad and Sampras was distraught.

"It was painful to see," Annacone said. "And really bad for Pete. It is hard to watch someone that great, such a great athlete, be in that place. So I asked Pete, 'Do you want to wallow around in mediocrity or use this to motivate yourself to becoming Pete again?' "

When Greg Rusedski, after losing to Sampras in five sets last week, suggested Sampras had lost a step and a half, the timing might have been bad for Rusedski but the thought had been expressed by many other players.

"His speed looked fine to me tonight," Annacone said. "Jim Courier said to me after this match that Pete's speed is all about his confidence and if his confidence is there, Pete moves great. Believe me, Pete still has the wheels when he needs to use them."

For a night, Sampras did move with more purpose than he has in the year since he beat Andre Agassi on the same court in the same round of the Open. But the first step isn't as explosive as it used to be, and Sampras can't always get that rocket burst after his serve, that athletic push to the net that always left him in perfect position to strike the perfect volley.

As Sampras and Roddick came onto the Arthur Ashe Stadium court, and "Glory Days," the Bruce Springsteen song, was piped in loud, it seemed to be an anthem of what had been for Sampras and what was to come for Roddick.

Except that Sampras has summoned, over these last 10 days, the athlete within himself. With Annacone back in his corner, Sampras has pulled back the covers and found his confidence.

"I'm not the reason Pete is doing well now," Annacone said. "And I wasn't the reason he was doing poorly. All I've done is help trigger what was inside him."

In Thursday night's first game, Sampras held his serve at love, hitting an ace and a forehand winner. And in the second game, Sampras broke Roddick from the baseline, with a backhand winner.

After two games, Sampras had exposed Roddick as a young man who, on this night, seemed awestruck by the occasion and by the opponent. By the end, Roddick was grunting in anguish as he lunged for Sampras' corner-driven shots and pulling at his spiky hair. There were no dives into the crowd to accept high-fives, no dramatic exclamations of joy.

After the last point, a cruel drop volley by Sampras, Roddick came to the net, gave Sampras a hug and whispered "Too good."

"I got beat. By Pete," Roddick said. By Pete, by a sore foot that may have hampered his movement, by the occasion, and most of all by the ghost of Pete past, which has been summoned to the present by Annacone.

"Andy seemed a little bit low," Sampras said. That was kind. Mostly what happened to Roddick was that he had to play the old Pete, new again. For another night.

Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com

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