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Original Issue

Backhanded Compliments

Taskmaster Robert Lansdorp is known only by his brilliant tennis brats

For a sport that strictly forbids coaching during matches, tennis sure has spawned its share of celebrity aides-de-camp. Brad Gilbert has gotten more notoriety as a coach--first of Andre Agassi, now of Andy Roddick--than he did as a pro. An ace self-promoter, Nick Bollettieri has a persona (and net worth) to match that of all but the very top players. At the U.S. Open, which kicks off on Monday, those in the players' box can expect almost as much airtime as John McEnroe.

How then to explain Robert Lansdorp? From his base in Southern California, Lansdorp has charted an unparalleled record for developing talent. At the Open several of his protégées will be on display: Lindsay Davenport, 2004 French Open champ Anastasia Myskina and 17-year-old Wimbledon champ Maria Sharapova, whom he has tutored for the past six years. (Lansdorp also coached Tracy Austin and Pete Sampras.) "He formed the base of my game," says Davenport, who worked with Lansdorp from age nine to 14. "I wouldn't be here without the strokes he taught me."

With a spectacular mane of silver hair, a thick Dutch accent and a knack for storytelling ("Did I mention the time I was poisoned in Indonesia?"), he's not the kind who blends into a crowd. Yet Lansdorp has remained an outsider. There's no instructional video series bearing his name, nor is there a sprawling Lansdorp Academy for precocious kids. He gives lessons ($120 an hour, no exceptions) on a court he leases from the city of Torrance, Calif., emphasizing rote learning and dispensing praise stingily. He once, with parental permission, spanked a petulant 12year-old named Michael Joyce--who went on to become a respectable pro. Myskina was a top 10 player, and Lansdorp would still tell her she "sucked up a storm." Says Sharapova, "It's the discipline that makes you more consistent."

If the draw gods cooperate, it is possible that Sharapova will meet Davenport in the women's final on Sept. 11 in what would be a final between two Lansdorp disciples. (Lansdorp likes Davenport to win the Open, with Roddick taking the men's title.) If they do, he'll have to juggle his schedule to see it, because he's not planning on staying for the entire tournament unless one of his pupils is in the final. "I have lessons scheduled that day," he says. "I'm not a big shot, you know." --L. Jon Wertheim



STROKES OF GENIUS The coach's tough love helped Sharapova win at Wimbledon.



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