He Knows How to Make Stands Last, and Last Stands

Times Staff Writer

Paul Annacone sits in the stands, baseball cap pulled low over his forehead, face frozen in concentration, and only his eyes move. Back and forth they go, to the rhythm of tennis, following the ball and a tennis player. But this player is not Pete Sampras. Not anymore.

In his mind, Annacone is making a recording. He is noticing the way this tennis player tosses the ball before a serve, where this player moves after a forehand, how quickly this tennis player reacts to a drop shot or lob. So the job is not different.

For nearly a decade Annacone sat in stadiums around the world making a precise mind image of Sampras, arguably the best player ever.

Sampras, winner of a record 14 Grand Slam singles titles, is retired, but Annacone can't stay out of the stands.

This week Annacone and Jennifer Capriati have formed a tentative alliance. The 27-year-old Capriati, who for most of her eventful career has been coached and coaxed and mentored by her father, Stefano, may need some help. Stefano has tired of traveling the world but his daughter has not and she'll need a coach next year.

Annacone wouldn't mind a job and if this has been an audition, so far it has been a success.

Capriati arrived at Staples Center for the season-ending Bank of America WTA Tour Championships having played only two tournaments since the U.S. Open and carrying some very noticeable extra weight around her waist.

She can still hit the ball hard, though, and those big strokes have carried Capriati into the semifinals. She beat Anastasia Myskina, 7-5, 5-7, 6-4, Saturday for the chance to play Kim Clijsters today.

The match was sloppy -- the players committed 72 unforced errors between them -- and Capriati was huffing and puffing and searching for extra air as she bent over after long, intense points.

But there was fight in Capriati. There always has been. And as she enters what could be the last year or two of her career, Annacone says he sees in Capriati something of the late-career Sampras, sees a player with the need to win a big one, to have one more huge moment, to prove something to the doubters who wonder why Capriati bothers to butt heads with Clijsters and No. 1-ranked Justine Henin-Hardenne and sisters Serena and Venus Williams and all the eager young Russians who are storming the top 10.

"What can't be denied," Annacone said, "is Jennifer's talent. She is still a great athlete. She is saying all the right things. She reminds me of Pete when Pete was 31 and I came back to him."

Annacone means those magical few months in 2002. He and Sampras had split, Sampras choosing to experiment with a new coach during his last, prolonged slump. After the dispiriting loss Sampras suffered at Wimbledon that year, Annacone came back, just in time to help guide Sampras to his final, emotional U.S. Open win.

"I think Jennifer is in a bit of the same place," Annacone said. "It's a matter of finding the right motivation. It isn't about winning every match. It is about forming a plan and following that plan. Is Jennifer capable of winning another Grand Slam? Yes."

It is for his knowledge, Capriati said, and for his calm ways that she has chosen Annacone for this little experiment.

"Obviously, he knows a lot about the game," Capriati said. "I thought his personality would fit in with me as somebody who is really calm and collected and is just very much a thinker and a smart guy. It's not like I need my technique to change. He is not going to change my game."

Maybe not, but Annacone made some gentle suggestions about how Capriati might improve her service placement to win more easy points, which should always be welcomed by players who might be facing opponents nearly a decade younger.

After the win over the 22-year-old Myskina, Annacone waited for Capriati to toss balls to the crowd and sign some autographs and receive warm applause from fans grateful to watch a former champion. It was the same with Sampras. Annacone has the experience of coaxing what's left in the arms and legs and head of a champion late in a career. And he's happy to share.

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