In part 1 of this blog post, I listed the first five of my list of the world’s top 10 tennis coaches of all time. Here are the rest:
6. Richard Williams
Father of multiple grand-slam winners Venus and Serena, Richard Williams deserves his place among my top 10 for this incredible achievement. The Williams sisters have won 23 grand-slam titles between them.
I’ll never forget a TV interview with the young Williams sisters when they were around 11 and 12, I think it was on TransWorld Sport. When asked which top tennis players she most wanted to be like, little Serena replied “No! I’d like other tennis players to wanna be like me!”
Richard Williams set a goal for his daughters when they were very young: to turn them into tennis world number 1’s. Not only did he achieve this, but he revolutionised womens’ tennis by creating two female power-players, with intimidating physiques and shots which many male professional tennis players would be proud to own.
Richard employed a ‘no pressure’ approach to his daughters’ tennis when they were kids, keeping them out of tournaments to concentrate on honing good technique, and letting them enjoy a full life outside tennis. In short, he let them have a happy childhood (unlike Andre Agassi’s father, to name just one pushy tennis-parent). Both Venus and Serena have continued this philosophy of maintaining outside interests throughout their adult lives.
One thing which sets Richard apart from other tennis coaches is his ability to overcome financial and racial adversity to reach the top. Some call him the greatest coach of all time.
7. Nick Bollettieri
One of the most financially successful tennis coaches in history, Nick Bollettieri is also the biggest and most charismatic self-promoter in the tennis world.
His stable of world number 1’s includes Andre Agassi (most famously), Jim Courier, Monica Seles, Boris Becker, and Martina Hingis. He is probably the most prolific tennis coach of all time.
His trademark coaching style is attacking tennis: take the ball early, return aggressively, keep the opponent pinned back behind the baseline. In 1978 he founded the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, in Florida, USA. It’s a boarding school and tennis boot-camp combined, for talented tennis kids from around the world.
Nick Bollettieri is an eccentric, brilliant, wildly enthusiastic, larger-than-life workaholic tennis zealot.
8. Robert Lansdorp
Probably the second most prolific tennis coach in history, a close second to Nick Bollettieri, is Robert Lansdorp, California’s most famous tennis coach.
Lansdorp has coached several world number 1’s, including Tracy Austin, Maria Sharapova, Pete Sampras, and Lindsay Davenport. Pete Sampras wrote in his autobiography, A Champion’s Mind, “Robert Lansdorp was outspoken and brutally honest… and a very gruff manner,” and went on to say, “His big thing was repetition,” meaning tennis drills.
Lansdorp’s trade-mark shot is the forehand groundstroke. He coaches his students to hit this shot fairly flat and low over the net, with tons of pace, and with a specific target on the court for a winner or at least to set up a winner on the next shot. He has developed a reputation over the years as a forehand groundstroke specialist, and the ‘Lansdorp shot’ has become part of tennis terminology.
Lansdorp started at the Jack Cramer club, where he coached his first champion, Tracy Austin. He went on to coach at the Riviera Tennis Club, where he coached Maria Sharapova. Maria came to Lansdorp and said, “teach me how to hit the ball like Lindsay Davenport.”
Robert Lansdorp: uncompromising, the epitome of military discipline, frank, fears nobody, and relentless in his goal to hard-wire great shots into the brains of his students. The perfect recipe to create grand-slam champions again and again.
He is also loved and admired by his former students, who threw a surprise 75th birthday party for him earlier this year at the West End Tennis Club in Torrance, California.
9. Brad Gilbert
Andre Agassi summed up the outstanding quality of Brad Gilbert: he coaches the ability to figure out a way to win even when you’re not at your best, and also when you’re up against someone better than you. Brad coached Andre Agassi from 1994-1995 and helped him climb out of the doldrums of world number 32 to reach world number 1 in an era dominated by Pete Sampras.
Brad Gilbert wrote arguably the best tennis book, “Winning Ugly” which sums up his approach to tennis. He is the master of tactics, strategy, and the mental game.
More recently, in July 2006 the LTA hired Brad Gilbert to coach Andy Murray, but there was a clash of personalities and they split in 2007. Gilbert allegedly criticised Murray for being obsessed with playing video games and not devoting enough time to practice.
Brad Gilbert: big talker, full of energy and enthusiasm, more focused on strategy and the mental game than on technical skills.
10. Paul Annacone
Paul Annacone’s two most famous students were Roger Federer and Pete Sampras.
Annacone, one of America’s best tennis brains, coached Sampras between 1995-2001, and helped him to maintain his world number 1 spot for a record 286 weeks.
More recently, Roger Federer hired Paul from July 2010 to October 2013, and helped him claw back his world number 1 ranking, and win Wimbledon 2012. Credit should also go to Roger Federer’s personal trainer Pierre Paganini who helped him with his speed around the court and immaculate footwork.
Annacone said of Pete Sampras that he was brilliant at blocking out all distractions during his time as world number 1, and of Roger Federer that he was great at maintaining his emotional equilibrium after shock defeats and great wins alike.
One of Annacone’s great skills was to manage his player’s calendar in such a way as to create time and space for physical and mental recuperation between grand slams. This contributed to Roger Federer’s largely injury-free career.
According to Annacone, the two most important shots are the serve and the return. He says the key to Sampras’s success was his serve, not its power but its surprise placement, its disguise. One of Annacone’s favourite serves is the body serve, as it handcuffs the opponent, and cramps their return which can then be attacked to assert dominance in the point from the start.
And his philosophy on the return of serve: short backswing, hit out in front with aggression, not simply block or float it back. This is similar to Nick Bollettieri’s approach with Andre Agassi.
Paul Annacone was also a master of time, space and angles. His key principle was to create bigger targets for yourself and shrink the targets available to your opponent. Force your opponent back behind the baseline to give them fewer angles, and force them out wide so they have more court to defend. And meanwhile shrink your opponent’s options by being in the right place at the right time, as quickly as possible, so you’ve got your side of the court covered.
So these are my personal top 10 tennis coaches of all time, in no particular order, as they’re all brilliant in their own ways.
Dominic Londesborough is a personal trainer in London and keen tennis player.