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KURT STREETER

Andy Roddick can thank Tom Stow for this finals run

There's direct lineage from the 1920s player turned exacting coach to Roddick's recent improvement.

July 05, 2009|KURT STREETER

In the well-worn form of Andy Roddick, a good bit of 1930s great Don Budge and his irreverent, long-deceased tennis coach have found their way to the regal grounds of Wimbledon.

Roddick's thrill-ride swing to the men's final, where he meets five-time champion and longtime nemesis Roger Federer today, has been a monumental surprise; not only to seasoned observers who assumed he had long ago played his best tennis, but to Roddick himself.

"To be honest, the last couple of years I didn't know if I would ever get a chance to play for a Grand Slam title," Roddick said after his semifinal dismantling of Britain's great hope, Andy Murray. "Now I get to, and it's a dream."

As has been widely noted, this particular dream has been guided by a new coach: a hyperkinetic San Diegan and former tour journeyman named Larry Stefanki. Since the pair hooked up late last year, Roddick has streamlined his game and his attitude. The results have been steadily encouraging: the semifinals at the Australian Open, a personal-best fourth-round showing at the French Open, two close matches against Federer in lesser events. And now, out of nowhere, his third final at the All England Club.

Maybe, just maybe, it'll be different this time. Under Stefanki, Roddick has slimmed by 10 to 15 pounds. As important has been the change in how he plays: He's lighter and more balanced on his feet, he's more erect and relaxed and he's taking shorter, sharper swings. Instead of lunging, leaning and groping like a rag doll on a string, he has focused on the simple principal of moving aggressively forward.

None of this is a surprise to those who know about the lineage of Tom Stow, a little-known, one-of-a-kind tennis coach from Berkeley who died two decades ago.

Even die-hard tennis fans may be wondering, Tom who? In the 1920s, Stow won a national doubles title at California. Then, for decades, he taught a distinct serve-and-volley style while coaching at Cal and then at the Berkeley Tennis Club and a few other tennis outposts in Northern California. It was Stow's coaching that put a stamp on one of the sport's all-time greats, Oakland-bred Budge, the first man to win all four Grand Slam event singles titles in one year, the Wimbledon champion in 1937 and 1938.

Budge's best shot? Arguably, the backhand drive. It's not a coincidence that one of Roddick's most improved shots at this year's Wimbledon has been his backhand, taut, tight and down the line.

Here's how the lineage spreads. Stefanki played at Cal in the mid-1970s. Along with his brother Steve, who coached the U.S. Olympic team in 1984, Stefanki developed much of his tennis philosophy while working with Stow when Stow was in his 70s and nearing death. (Full disclosure: Steve was my tennis mentor when I was co-captain of the Cal tennis team in the late 1980s.)

To Larry and his brother, Tom Stow wasn't just another tennis coach. He was a maestro: a crafty, chain-smoking, uncompromising sort, a man willing to buck every trend and see the game differently. He studied dance and tried to get them to move like Fred Astaire. He studied boxing, hoping to have them press forward with the steadiness of Joe Louis. Sometimes he'd force his students to spend their afternoons hitting balls while sitting in a chair, to teach the feel of being grounded. He'd focus session after session on two parts of the game often overlooked by other teachers -- returns and serves -- which Roddick has excelled at this Wimbledon. Stow almost never watched his charges play matches, not even Budge. He figured tennis' true essence lies in finely tuned practice. The competition would take care of itself.

"I have learned something from every great player I've ever worked with," Stefanki said in an e-mail the day after Roddick's semifinal win, a reference to his past coaching of players such as John McEnroe, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Fernando Gonzalez. "But the foundation of fundamentals and knowledge of the game is credited to Tom. His principles and understanding of footwork and absorbing speed is second to none. He was a true master in that regard . . . he understood this game played in a rectangular box better than anyone I have ever come across."

And so it goes. The lineage moves one step forward. A player from the roaring 1920s becomes an exacting teacher. Without wide notice he spends decades doling out wisdom. That wisdom travels through an all-time great, then it evolves and adapts while remaining true and honest and relevant. Now we find it at Wimbledon.

"My only regret," Stefanki wrote, "is that Tom is not around to see his techniques are still being passed on."

There are limits. A startling upset can occur. Most likely though, by this afternoon these techniques will have been neutralized by the great magician from Switzerland.

But this much is certain: No matter what happens in the final, America's long-suffering top tennis player has just had a marvelous tournament and a superb half of a season. His once foundering career is moving in the right direction -- forward. For all of this, we now know, Andy Roddick owes a debt to Tom Stow.

--

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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