Game, Set, Match
By Bruce Schoenfeld
Coach Larry Stefanki handles tennis’ most irascible players with a sharp tongue and a dash of zen.
Under a darkening desert sky near Palm Springs, Yevgeny Kafelnikov of Sochi, Russia, one of the world’s best tennis players, raps two-armed backhands, one after another, to the rear of a practice court. The shots are placed with a precision more often associated with darts than tennis: a fist’s length from the baseline, then closer, then directly on the line.
From his side of the net, Larry Stefanki isn’t nearly as precise. Stefanki, 44, is Kafelnikov’s coach and a former competitive player, but on this night he might as well be a concrete wall. Average-sized, with blond hair headed for gray spilling out from under a baseball cap, he slaps each return with enough pace to get it to Kafelnikov’s backhand, but no more. “Nice,” he’ll say on occasion, or “Location!” or “Good depth,” but nothing pithier than that. When all three balls are beyond easy reach, Kafelnikov and Stefanki retrieve them, then convene at the net for a few moments to resume a conversation they’re having about golf.
Occasionally, cheers waft over the palm trees from Stadium Court, which looms behind Kafelnikov. Andre Agassi is playing here at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, defending his No. 1 ranking, and at seven o’clock on this March evening, two days into the Tennis Masters Series tournament, Kafelnikov, a former world No. 1, is working to get the ranking back. Only it doesn’t look much like work, and what Stefanki is doing doesn’t look much like coaching—not compared to the individual instruction you can get for $20 an hour and up at any resort in America. Anyone wandering by to ogle might wonder what, exactly, Stefanki is getting paid for.
But though the coaching may be nebulous, its effects aren’t. Kafelnikov, ranked 11th in the world when he started working with Stefanki following the 1998 season, won an Australian Open and an Olympic gold medal before parting ways with Stefanki after the Italian Open in May. He spent six weeks at No. 1 in 1999 and earned a career-best $3.7 million last year. An aging John McEnroe, ranked 28th and falling when he hired Stefanki at the end of the ’91 season, played deep into the Australian Open the following January, then surged to one last Grand Slam semifinal at Wimbledon. Under Stefanki, too, the undermotivated Marcelo Rios climbed from the sport’s nether reaches to No. 1. Somehow, Stefanki makes world-class tennis players even better. And in the lucrative world of today’s pro tour, that makes him very valuable, indeed.
Even his charges can’t easily explain Stefanki’s contributions. “Larry and I are successful together because we are beyond player and coach,” Kafelnikov said before the split. “We have the same interests. We like the same things in life. And when I tell him something, he listens to me. At my level, I don’t need someone to tell me what to do and how to do it.”
In fact, Stefanki did tell him what to do—and occasionally how to do it too. His secret is stealth instruction, subtle to the point of insidiousness. “Larry is very good at making personal connections with players,” says Tom Gullikson, formerly the U.S. Davis Cup captain and coach of, among other pros, Jennifer Capriati. “You can do more coaching walking back from a movie or sitting over a beer, when the player isn’t as likely to be defensive, than you can on the court. It is subtle, but effective.”
Yet Stefanki is hardly a subtle person; one never wonders if he’s in the room. If you’ve conjured up an image of a tennis version of Phil Jackson stashing Buddhist tomes in racquet bags, replace it immediately with the vehemence of Bob Knight and, if anything, Tzu Ssu and the Doctrine of the Mean. Coaching is ultimately a service industry, but Stefanki has never hesitated to risk dismissal with a pointed comment or a lecture on professionalism, if he felt it was warranted. “If I look at myself objectively, I’d say my intensity is very high,” he says. “That may not always mesh with the player I’m coaching, but I’m not bashful about giving my opinion. I’m very direct. If that gets me fired, so be it.”
“He’s an extremely straight shooter, I can tell you that,” says Tommy Tucker, a coach and longtime friend of Stefanki’s. “He isnot out there to tell these players what they want to hear. Players tend to be surrounded by a lot of yes-men, and Larry lets them know where reality is, whether they want to know or not.”
The result is an improbable coaching style that might best be described as in-your-face Zen. Stefanki offers an opinion, as loudly as he deems necessary, then retreats to see what develops.
If he’s chosen the right player to work with, eventually he’ll see his instruction take hold. “You have to find a way to let the player come around to the viewpoint himself, however long it takes,” Stefanki explains. “And when he does, I never say, ‘That’s what I’ve been telling you for two and a half years!’ I say, ‘Oh, really? You’re going to try that?’ Then I go home and tell my wife, ‘You’ll never believe what he finally decided to do!’ ”
As it happens, Stefanki’s wife, Kelly, is the daughter of John Brodie, who played quarterback for the National Football League’s San Francisco 49ers from 1957 to 1973, and has a Zen streak of his own. Because of Brodie, whom he has known since his childhood in Los Altos, California, Stefanki has long understood what being a world-class athlete entails, not only physically but philosophically. He credits Brodie with inspiring him to focus on the task at hand, think positively about it, always behave professionally, and even ratchet up his innate competitiveness. “Setting a certain standard, and settling for nothing less,” he says.
Another Brodie daughter, Diane, married Chris Chandler, the Atlanta Falcons’ quarterback. Through the years, Chandler has watched Stefanki distill Brodie’s mind-set through his own singular personality. “They both have a way of explaining something without really explaining it,” Chandler says. When he describes the way Brodie (who competed on the PGA Senior Tour after playing football) once told him to toss a football underhand, then connected that motion to a golf swing that Chandler was having difficulty with, you can see the seeds of Stefanki’s methodology.
Such an oblique approach works especially well with personality types likely to ignore more direct instruction. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Stefanki has built a career on guiding the neurotic, the enigmatic, and the downright irascible. McEnroe’s volatility is famous enough that, at least with casual fans, it tends to obscure his standing as perhaps the most skilled shot maker in history, while the ornery Rios is said to have not a single friend on the tour. “When Larry was working with Marcelo, he used to ask me to have dinner with them,” says Tucker. “He couldn’t stand to be alone with the guy.”
Kafelnikov, Stefanki’s most recent project, is an enigma: a post-Communist Russian with a stockbroker’s zeal for profits who plays in a tournament almost every week, but disdains sponsorships and endorsements. He can be fiercely competitive, yet is rumored to have lost some matches on purpose in order to get to the next city, the next tournament, the next golf course. His tennis strokes are straight from the instruction manual, his powerful body the ideal type, but a jittery and often gloomy disposition can loosen his focus; it’s said that he’s never more than two matches away from quitting the sport.
When Kafelnikov ascended to the No. 1 ranking for the first time in May 1999, he lost half his matches for the next six weeks until his rating dropped, then expressed relief that the pressure had been lifted. Stefanki was enraged. “When Yevgeny got like that, I would stop what we were doing and say, ‘Why are we here?’ ” he says. “I’d say, ‘Stay at home, be with your wife and kids. Because if you don’t want it, if you don’t want to be the best you can be, I’m sure not going to bother.’ ”
Stefanki put up with such lapses of ambition only because he believed Kafelnikov, then 25, had the game to replace Agassi as the finest player on the ATP tour. “Larry is very astute at knowing which players have the potential to go to the top, and there aren’t many,” says Stefanki’s brother Steve, a former U.S. Olympic coach who teaches tennis from his Napa home. Larry Stefanki had Kafelnikov ranked consistently in the top five. Yet despite his entreaties, Kafelnikov led the ATP tour in matches played for the sixth time in seven years in 2000. While most elite players arrange their schedules to be fresh for Grand Slams and other major tournaments, Kafelnikov optimizes only his frequent-flyer miles.
As a result, he not only lacks the time off to refine his strokes and strategies, he spends much of the season exhausted. “It’s physically impossible at his level, one of the top five players on the planet, to play thirteen weeks straight and be at one hundred percent,” Stefanki said in Indian Wells in March, his voice tinted with disgust. “He knows it, I know it, but he keeps on doing it. And he has no training regimen, so if he gets hurt he can lose everything in a hurry. He drinks something like twelve Cokes a day, but when you try to suggest that maybe it isn’t too good for the nervous system, he ignores you.” Stefanki took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “From McEnroe’s personality, to Rios, to this yo-yo,” he said, half to himself. “Maybe I should have my head examined.”
Stefanki’s career as a player had two shining moments. In 1981 he won an obscure ATP event in Lagos, Nigeria, a tournament so far from the tennis mainstream that almost nobody he knows saw it happen. His other championship came in 1985, at the tournament that would later become Indian Wells. It was held then at the La Quinta resort, where Stefanki, who had moved to the desert after college, had an affiliation as a touring pro. His ranking of 143rd didn’t qualify him for the main draw, but he was granted a wild-card entry and made the most of it.
Stefanki upset one higher-ranked player after another that week, but he also managed to avoid the likes of Jimmy Connors, Guillermo Vilas, and Johan Kriek in a dance through an upset-filled bracket that could not have gone better had he choreographed it. Each day’s results were so improbable that Weller Evans, an executive vice president of the ATP, visited the telex office while working at a tournament overseas to complain that the machine was surely faulty. “I kept seeing names like Greg Holmes and Larry Stefanki winning round after round,” Evans says, “and I figured, ‘Wait a minute, something has to be wrong.’ ”
It wasn’t, though, and Stefanki finally defeated David Pate and pocketed the $51,000 championship check—a sizeable sum in 1985 dollars, and more than his annual earnings for any previous year. It boosted his ranking to 35th, likely prolonged his career, and gave him entrée to a few more tournaments and acknowledgment from a few more important faces. By then he was already thinking about coaching.
What happened next has never been fully explained. At some point in the late ’80s, Steve Stefanki had sent a series of glorified fan letters to a struggling John McEnroe, whose attention had been diverted from tennis by marriage and parenthood. “I wrote him saying that I knew he still had it in him,” Steve says. “I said, ‘If you want to give me a call, I’ll show you how to get your game back in about ten minutes.’ ” McEnroe never responded, but in late 1991 he found himself playing an exhibition against Agassi in Los Angeles, an event for which Larry Stefanki was procuring talent. Stefanki picked up McEnroe at the airport and hit with him before the match, but he was so disappointed watching the young Agassi breeze to a 6-2, 6-1 victory that, in characteristic fashion, he accosted McEnroe afterward and urged him to immediately retire.
Perhaps Stefanki’s directness startled McEnroe, or he may have even mistaken the Stefanki brothers—the one who had written the fawning letters for the one trying now to end the career of the best player of his generation. McEnroe doesn’t remember what he was thinking, but he did call Larry the next morning and invited him to his Malibu home. Five hours and a few Zen maneuverings later, the world-famous McEnroe was pleading with this coaching neophyte to help him.
“Here I was, by the end of ’91, with three kids of my own and feeling that I wanted to play less, precisely the time that the ATP was trying to get its top players to play more,” McEnroe says. “I felt like Larry could appreciate the situation I was in. He told me to forget the rankings, in a sense, and just focus on the big event. He’s someone who was basically new to coaching, and I could sense he’d make a good coach. I knew the job would be a stepping stone for him, and it would give me a burst of energy, and that is essentially what happened.”
Stefanki’s first tactic was to splice together a highlight reel of McEnroe at the height of his powers and suggest that McEnroe watch it. McEnroe demurred for weeks, until the night before he was to leave for the Australian Open. “John was a ‘feel’ player, and the best way to get him that feel back was to show him what it looked like when he had it,” Stefanki says. Two weeks later, McEnroe was in the quarterfinals, the start of a resurgence that lasted for the entire 1992 season. “There was an energy there from him—he believed I could still play at the highest level,” McEnroe says. “It was what I needed.”
He was able to get that energy despite a relationship with Stefanki based on mutual incompatibility. Stefanki gave positive reinforcement; McEnroe rebuffed it. He played best, he believed, when he could align himself against the rest of the world, his coach included. “John told me, ‘I like everyone to root against me,’ ” Stefanki says. “He’s telling everyone in Paris, ‘f—- you!’ at the top of his lungs, when he could have them cheering for him, and putting all that positive energy to his advantage. It’s stupid.” What they did share was a commitment to winning tournaments. “He isas competitive as I am, which is why it worked,” Stefanki says.
Among those who noted Stefanki’s accomplishment were the handlers of a junior champion from Chile, a player with skills almost on par with McEnroe’s, but also with a predilection for squandering matches. Marcelo Rios is to tennis what the Matt Damon character Will Hunting is to mathematics: an enormous natural talent who fears the responsibilities inherent in success. It fell to Stefanki to play the Robin Williams role, parrying his way to something resembling a mentorship. “Marcelo’s dad and agent both felt John was the most difficult personality on the planet,” Stefanki says. “They figured if I could work so well with John, this guy would be easy.”
He wasn’t. At the time he hired Stefanki in ’95, Rios was ranked 103rd and had exited nine of his last ten tournaments in either the first or second round. Yet the day they met, Stefanki couldn’t motivate him to even keep the ball on the court in practice. Then he challenged him to a match. “You’re the No. 1 junior in the world, and you can’t even beat an old man like me,” Stefanki said, knowing he would prove one point if he beat Rios, and a bigger point if he didn’t.
Enraged, Rios thrashed him. “And I didn’t miss a ball,” Stefanki says. “This kid, when he was at his best, saw the court like McEnroe. He could create angles that tennis had never seen. The difference was, Marcelo didn’t really care if he won or lost. He just loved making superstar shots, whether or not it was the right moment in a match.”
Stefanki cajoled Rios all the way to No. 1. “It drove me nuts, it drove me fruity,” Stefanki says. “But it worked.” Then Rios, who now had endorsement contracts, money in the bank, and a reputation as a tennis artiste, fired Stefanki despite his No. 1 ranking. A bonus in Stefanki’s contract would have kicked in had he remained, but equally important to Rios, he’d proven what he could accomplish and could dispense with Stefanki’s discomfiting drive to succeed.
“He was satisfied just getting to No. 1,” Stefanki says, “but I always told him that I didn’t care about the $25 million he had earned, I wanted Grand Slams. That’s how you measure success.”
Since attaining No. 1, Rios, who won’t talk publicly about Stefanki (nor much of anything else), has finished ninth and 37th in the year-end rankings, and has not advanced to even a semifinal of a Grand Slam tournament. “So much talent,” Stefanki says. “It’s depressing to even think about it.”
Stefanki hasn’t spoken to Rios since he was fired, and until last March he hadn’t seen him play, either. But the day after his Indian Wells workout session, Kafelnikov faced Rios in the tournament’s first round, which forced Stefanki to see the match. It was the equivalent of encountering an ex-girlfriend years after an emotional break-up (though Stefanki, who was already dating Kelly at 17, might not appreciate the metaphor). Clearly excited about the prospect of beating his former coach, at least by proxy, Rios attempted several highlight-reel winners from deep to his backhand while running hard, then flipped his racket in frustration each time they didn’t materialize.
Kafelnikov won the first set on a Rios double fault, but not until he led, 6-5, in the second and needed only a service break for the match did Stefanki permit his feelings to show. He leaned forward in his front-row seat during the changeover and clapped hard five times in encouragement. When Rios buried a ball into the net on match point, Stefanki broke into a broad grin. Not only did Kafelnikov win an emotional match, he was on his game. Despite a travel schedule that already had taken him this season to Australia, Europe, North America, and twice to the Middle East—four continents in just a matter of weeks—he remained a threat to beat Agassi or anyone else.
Four days later, however, he was out of the tournament—having lost a semifinal match to Pete Sampras—and on a plane to Miami: another opportunity squandered. Stefanki was disheartened. After almost three years together, Kafelnikov still was trudging his path, logging match after match, refusing to take time for practice or even rest. Stefanki couldn’t make him do it; all he could do was wait for an epiphany. “He’s so aggressive, people don’t realize how patient Larry is,” McEnroe says.
Not patient enough, as it turned out. At the Italian Open in May, Stefanki told Kafelnikov that their relationship was no longer working. “To be honest, I don’t think the passion for the game is in his heart anymore,” Stefanki says now. “It got to a point where nothing I said or did was making any difference. He wasn’t willing to tweak his game, to keep improving, like the best athletes do. He didn’t want to end it, but we talked for a long time, and I told him if I’m going to be away from home for a month at a time, I would rather work with someone very eager, someone on the cusp who wants to get into the top echelon. I have to be challenged as well.”
Stefanki can’t change now; all he can do is persevere. He’ll be coaching again soon, it’s safe to say, and his tactics will remain the same. He’ll hit with his charge between matches, he’ll share meals with him, he’ll endure lost hours on planes. He’ll be there with succor, and the occasional casually framed suggestion about sleeping more, or coming to net, or skipping the Dubai tournament this year. If his next pupil is anything like the previous three, such perspicacity will be met with an opaque nod. A slight gain in the grand scheme? A slight loss? Hard to tell.
It’s how Stefanki makes his living, this advancing and retreating. Kafelnikov’s workout on the practice court, one understands now, represented merely a pawn advancing a single space in the chess game of their relationship. The big pieces would be moved elsewhere, out of sight. “The drive to the hotel afterward,” Stefanki says, a gleam in his eye. “The massage. The offhand remark. Plant a seed, see what happens. It’s what coaching is all about.”
Larry Stefanki assesses three top players:
LLEYTON HEWITT (20 years old) He’s the ultimate grinder, the next Jimmy Connors. He’s a little excitable, but he’s always working on his game. When he loses, he expected to win—he won’t take a backseat to anybody. He’s easily as fast as if not faster than Michael Chang in his heyday. Setting up for the ball, he gets prepared as well as Connors. He’ll be a perennial top-ten because of his competitive fire, his work ethic, and his desire to improve.
GUSTAVO KUERTEN (24) Very good on a surface like clay, where he has time to hit the ball. But if you put him on a grass court, or the U.S. Open court—anything a little quicker—he struggles. He doesn’t volley or play the forecourt very well. But he is a three-time French Open champion—not many guys have won three Grand Slams. He can be very offensive—he’s six three, he has a big, flat first serve, and a huge backhand sweeper à la Edberg, which is his best shot.
ANDRE AGASSI (31) Andre’s the best player in the game at the moment. In the last two years he’s really come together. He understands all the dynamics—the physical aspect, the competitiveness, being a class act. He plays a combination of McEnroe and Connors: He takes the ball early and always looks to open the court up. And he’s developed patience in his old age. He’s multidimensional, and that’s what I look for. How many dimensions are you showing me: Can you play the net, can you play the half-volley in no man’s land, can you hit the overhead, do you take it early off the return? If I were to teach someone, everything but the forecourt would come from Andre. And he still thinks he can get better. When you hear that from a guy as great as he is, that’s what sports is all about.
Bruce Schoenfeld wrote about American dessert wines in the July/August issue of Departures.