Commentary

Stefanki is waiting in the wings

Updated: October 9, 2012, 2:36 PM ET
By Ravi Ubha | ESPN.com

For most of the past 20 years, Larry Stefanki has been on the road as one of tennis' most respected coaches.

He has guided John McEnroe, Marcelo Rios, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Tim Henman, Fernando Gonzalez and Andy Roddick and achieved success with all of them.

But when an emotional Roddick bid adieu to the sport at the U.S. Open in September, Stefanki returned to California for a well-deserved breather.

When he was reached last week, Stefanki said he was looking forward to going on a recruiting trip with his third and youngest son, Joe, a baseball catcher in his senior year in high school.

"It's a special time for me," the 55-year-old said in a telephone interview. "Nos. 1 and 2 are long gone, and this is my last one. I'm not saying … "

He paused for a second, then continued.

"I'm not totally retired yet," Stefanki added. "I still have that thing inside my soul to coach at the highest level."

The pro level.

[+] EnlargeLarry Stefanki
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLarry Stefanki on his desire to continue coaching: "I'm not totally retired yet. I still have that thing inside my soul to coach at the highest level."

And therein lies the answer to what many inside tennis must have wondered when Roddick called it quits: Would the chirpy Stefanki stop, too?

When Stefanki first combined with Roddick at the end of 2008, making the difficult decision to end his partnership with Gonzalez, he suggested Roddick might be the last elite player he would work with.

Stefanki wouldn't be willing to travel as much now, but if the circumstances were right, he'd take the opportunity. He has received calls since Roddick announced his intention to stop playing -- mostly from parents of juniors.

"It's never over, over," Stefanki said. "It's in my blood. Andy said 'You're a lifer.' I said 'No.' I like the challenge of someone challenging themselves. If they're 20, 25, 30 in the rankings, I don't care about the number, it all has to work in kind of like a reality check of saying 'I'm stuck, you've seen me, you've been out there.' That's how Fernando approached it. He said, 'I've played all your guys a lot. What do you think?' I said, 'It doesn't matter what I think. What do you think?'

"That's the most important thing because it's an individual game. There's no one holding your hand, and you have to get it done. You really have to look in the mirror and decide, 'I want some help.' Not like, 'I'm making 1 or 2 million dollars a year and I'm happy with that,'" Stefanki said.

Gonzalez knew of Stefanki's pedigree before their collaboration and came away suitably impressed. In their time together, the Chilean solidified his flashy game and improved his backhand, able to drive through the ball more instead of simply using a slice. He reached the Australian Open final with Stefanki in his box in 2007.

"I had the best memories with Larry in my career," Gonzalez said in a phone interview in March. "He was the best coach I had. Larry taught me a lot about tennis. I learned how to win matches without playing my best. Larry is a very, very good coach, especially when you are trying to be on top."

Stefanki isn't exactly putting his feet up at the moment -- he is imparting his wisdom to a 15-year-old junior.

He has thought about opening an academy, although "you're going to need two to three other coaches to run something like that. It's very gratifying, but I'm not willing to take that step at the moment."

A lifer he may not be, but you suspect Stefanki will be back on the men's tour. Sometime.

British state of mind?

Having coached Tim Henman, Larry Stefanki has ties to the U.K.

He turned down a chance to work with Andy Murray six years ago, but they continue to be on good terms and Stefanki was delighted to see Murray win his first Grand Slam title in New York last month.

"It was absolutely nice to see," Stefanki said. "He's a good friend. I really like him as a person. He has that kind of humor that is so dry; he's almost the driest comedian possible. He doesn't laugh at anything he says, but I laugh because he's pulling people's legs to see what kind of reaction he gets. For me I'm a big fan."

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.