Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

Segura puts success into focus for Open-minded Agassi Analytical coach takes pupil beyond flash


Pancho Segura is a short, crinkled man whose skin is as brown as a chocolate bar from his days on the tennis court. His eyes peer out from narrow slits surrounded by crow's-feet. His hands are big and firm, the kind of hands that make gripping a tennis racket easy, and his mind never seems to stop analyzing the game he has loved since the 1940s.

He is 72 and so full of energy that when he is talking about how tennis should be played he cannot sit still. He is up, demonstrating lateral movement. He is seated, stretching his arm, showing how every movement in Andre Agassi's serve is maximized.

His eyes get even narrower as he envisions what the future can hold for his newest pupil.

"If he's not ready by the time we get to the U.S. Open, he better quit and become an accountant," said Segura. "But I think, by the time we get to the U.S. Open, the only players who might have a chance to beat him are [No. 2 Pete] Sampras and [No. 1 Jim] Courier. Anyone else means that something radical happened."

The U.S. Open is just five days away and Agassi goes in seeded lower -- 16th -- than he has been since 1987, when he was unseeded. But the fact he is seeded is an indication of Segura's impact.

During the past five weeks, Segura has persuaded Agassi to spend more time on the practice court, and it has paid off. Agassi, whose ranking had dropped from a high of No. 6 to No. 31, has risen to No. 16 in the world the past four weeks.

Since losing in the third round of the Newsweek Tennis Classic in Washington in late July, Agassi has reached the quarterfinals at the Canadian Open and the semifinals in Cincinnati and New Haven, Conn., in his past two tournaments, losing to eventual tournament winners Michael Chang and Andrei Medvedev, respectively.

Segura's persuasiveness and Agassi's new dedication to the game was evident in Washington during the first week of their pairing. When journalists tried to get Agassi to give an update on his body-hair removal method that so captivated Wimbledon and the British press two weeks earlier, he smiled, but said: "My body hair is now secondary to my tennis.

"I'm very curious to see what I can do when the mental and physical parts of my game come together. It has once for the greatest two weeks of my life at Wimbledon last year. I won't be satisfied until I get back to that, and I know it will be a very satisfying feeling: No different from any aspect of life, when you dedicate yourself to achieving something you've questioned yourself capable of."

After losing at the Newsweek Classic, Agassi did not rush back to his Las Vegas home. Instead, he stayed in Washington and practiced with Segura for another two days.

They are an odd couple, this elder statesman of tennis and the 23-year-old with the shaggy hair. On the practice court, Agassi's blond ponytail flaps from the back of his cap as he chases down balls delivered by the bow-legged septuagenarian, whose hair is close-cropped beneath his own cap.

"When I hired Pancho, I got a lot more than I bargained for," Agassi said then. "It's premature, but already, I'm starting to feel more focused. We'll have to wait and see to determine how much impact his coaching has on me, but any input from a new voice after 10 years with the same coach [Nick Bollettieri] has to help."

Segura, who helped Jimmy Connors reach the top and stay there, has taken a leave from his job at La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, Calif., where he is director of tennis, to undertake Project Agassi. His six-week contract runs through the U.S. Open. He'd like it to last six years.

To get Agassi to meet his full potential, Segura had no doubt about what must be worked on, and he has insisted on no shortcuts.

* "The bottom line is: He who makes the first serve tougher has theadvantage," said Segura. "I saw Andre serve at Wimbledon and I was amazed. . . . Suddenly the guy is serving a ton, and a high percentage of first serves, with power. It is a blessing, a plus. If he can serve two first serves like that a game, I will be happy, because nobody can attack his serve."

* "The key is to play the score," said Segura. "I want him to attack the second serve. He hasn't done much of that before, but I want him to do it when he is ahead, so he gets more benefit."

Segura doesn't want to see Agassi go for broke at 0-30 or 15-40, but when he's ahead by 30-0 or 40-15, then there should be no hesitation.

"You can win more points and lose a set," Segura said. "The idea is to win the key points. The guy with the best fundamentals doesn't necessarily win tennis matches. The guy with the best nerve, who knows how to play key points and the graphics of the court, that is the player who will win most often."

* Segura believes a player has to know how to play the court and the weaknesses of opponents.

"You know, I was a pretty good tennis player myself, without bragging -- and I know these things," Segura said. "I know what players like high balls and low balls. I have good instincts and I will help him to know these same things."

Agassi, who has enjoyed nothing better than whaling away from the baseline, has not been the most astute player of tennis.

Even at Wimbledon last month, he found the most encouraging thingabout his performance the fact that "I can come in here without playing for two months and win on my sheer physical ability."

Thinking and concentration are Segura's prime targets.

"Andre has great instincts, great power and great fundamentals," Segura said. "I do not believe he has a weakness. He is one of the few players with equal strokes on both the forehand and backhand. I compare him to Bjorn Borg in that respect.

"He only has to improve his intensity and his concentration on the key points. I think he is doing it."

Segura, like Agassi, looks at the U.S. Open as their final exam, a test of how well the teacher and student have connected. But Segura obviously likes what he has seen.

"By the time we get to the Open," Segura said, "his chances of winning will be much improved. We're going to beat Sampras and Courier -- believe me."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad