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Higueras educating the next generation

After a stint with Roger Federer, left, Jose Higueras is cultivating young Americans. AP Photo

LA QUINTA, Calif. -- Jose Higueras would prefer not to be called a "guru," shaking his head ever so slightly at the notion. But the way tennis people treat him makes it hard to avoid.

Higueras is sitting unobtrusively in the shade outside the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, but with his full head of snowy hair -- the plumage of an eagle -- he's easy to spot. He is interrupted frequently. Affection and respect color every voice. One of the warmest greetings comes from Roger Federer, who smiles broadly and waves as he leaves practice.

A year ago, Federer was working intensively with Higueras on his clay-court game, the latest in a lengthy queue of top players who have sought the coach's advice. Federer viewed Higueras as the ultimate troubleshooter, and Higueras said his part-time gig with Federer was special. The two might well have resumed their arrangement when Federer went in search of a coach this season, but by then Higueras was taken.

"I wanted to do more with my time," Higueras said. "If I would have gotten more time with him that filled out my year, and I could have focused on that, I probably would have done that. He's a great guy and a great champion."

Instead, in a major coup this past fall, U.S. Tennis Association director of player development Patrick McEnroe persuaded Higueras, 56, to shoulder the job of building a cohesive coaching corps in a fragmented tennis nation.

The man whom commentator Bud Collins once fondly (and accurately) called "a 9-year-old dropout" is now a master professor charged with educating the next generation. Higueras is still teaching kids, but mostly he's coaching coaches, reaching out to everyone from the masses toiling in public parks to instructors at posh academies. "He has a whole lot more to offer than even I realized," McEnroe said.

Higueras doesn't need a depth chart to know that the numbers don't look great in American tennis right now. He is passionate, but not panicky, about the task at hand.

"The system creates the environment and the opportunity," he said. "It is true that it's not a great place to start in terms of who we have in that middle ground to make the jump, but you can never say this person is not going to make it or this group is not going to make it. We're going to pay more attention to the kids 12 and younger, and I think in the next three or four years, we'll have a really good crop of kids."

Higueras believes young American players grow up with great ballstriking ability but little sense of the chess maneuvers necessary to construct points. He believes training on clay is essential to developing players above and below the neck. He believes in conducting practice sessions at match intensity. Throughout the years, players have believed in him because he is unfailingly direct -- and because he gets results.

"Jose has one of the purest hearts and most sophisticated minds I've ever come into contact with," said Todd Martin, Higueras' former student and close friend. "He's understated but also immensely confident in his own ability to improve your tennis. His genius is that he takes that sophisticated mind and makes things so simple for everyone around him."

Eliot Teltscher, a playing contemporary of Higueras, preceded him in a managerial role in USTA player development and knows the challenges. "I would never bet against Jose," Teltscher said. "He's very determined. I don't think Jose would ever take a job where he didn't think he could succeed."

Can Higueras persuade a country that swears by the free market to embrace a more systematized approach? It's a job requiring patience, a job for a gallant grinder, which Higueras embodied in his prime.

Contemporary fans know Higueras as a watchful presence in the courtside box of elite players, frequently seen and seldom heard. A quarter century ago, he carved out a high-level career without the benefit of money or superlative talent.

Higueras cultivated his two most notable traits -- tenacity and a high pain threshold -- because that was all he had. He spent his early childhood in southern Spain in a stone barn without electricity. The closest water source was a half-mile away. His father picked olives to support the family. Higueras later bought the property, which he still owns; his brother looks after their small olive oil operation.

"Sometimes I mention that our kids can be tougher," Higueras said. "You don't want to say they're soft. Need is a good motivation. Now, does it mean that someone who does not need it is not going to make it? Absolutely not.

"The biggest satisfaction I've gotten out of tennis certainly isn't the money I've made. I have a great life, but there are some feelings you cannot buy."

When his family moved to the Barcelona area, Higueras left grade school to work as a ball boy at a local tennis club. A caste system prevented him from playing with the club team, and he didn't start climbing the competitive ranks until his late teens. "That's why you never hear me say, this guy has no chance or that guy has no chance, 'cause that's what they used to tell me," Higueras said.

In Higueras' world, attitude doesn't win points, shot selection does, although he concedes that the very best players exhibit a certain inborn "serenity" under pressure. "If you could get there [relaxing during big points], then I think a lot more people would get there," he said.

Hard work accounts for most of Higueras' success, but luck visited him as well. While playing in Palm Springs in 1978, he was a houseguest of prominent local politician and entrepreneur Frank Bogert. Higueras and Bogert's daughter Donna fell in love, married and have raised their children on a nearby desert ranch. (Bogert, who served four terms as mayor of Palm Springs, passed away in March at age 99.)

Higueras wasn't fast or powerful. He had a classic backhand, a deliberate service motion and a maddening ability to extend rallies, once exchanging 135 shots on a single point with Italy's Corrado Barazzutti. He won 16 tournaments -- all but one on clay -- rose to No. 6 in the world in 1983 and was twice a French Open semifinalist.

In 1982, Higueras was trailing Ivan Lendl badly during a final in New Hampshire when rain halted play. A scheduling conflict precluded resuming the next day. In a gesture that now seems as quaint as dialing a rotary phone, Higueras returned from Spain two months later and played the eight minutes it took to complete the match.

The meat of Higueras' racket hand bears visible scars from the time he won a five-hour-plus final in Hamburg, Germany, with flesh oozing like raw beef under broken blisters. He endured a debilitating case of tennis elbow and competed for two seasons with hepatitis.

His reputation for sportsmanship gave him near-instant credibility when he crossed over into coaching. Higueras would not leave his young family for long stretches; you had to come to him. In the '80s and early '90s, the USTA sent him some promising teenagers. Higueras guided Michael Chang and Jim Courier to a combined three French Open titles, and he helped Martin, an overachiever in his own mold, maximize his ability and reach two Grand Slam finals.

"He opened my eyes up to the other side of the net," said Courier, who calls Higueras "a peaceful warrior."

"He is the prototype of the best coaches -- he had to work for it, understand what he could and couldn't do, how to get into the other person's game. He's not confrontational. He doesn't need to be. You're either in or you're out."

Higueras' philosophy is rooted in his practice drills, which aim to improve footwork, encourage players to take balls early and at different heights, generate disparate pace and spin and adjust to an opponent's tactics.

"'Play your own game' is fine, but it has some limitations," Teltscher said, describing Higueras' approach. "Every player has patterns. The better players are just tougher to figure out."

Higueras demands unwavering, exhausting focus during practice. "It's extreme, mentally and physically," said 16-year-old Sloane Stephens, part of a group spending a month on European clay at Higueras' behest.

Martin said Higueras always outlined how a drill would apply to a match. "He used to say, 'Do this drill like you play -- if the ball is hittable, attack it,'" Martin said. "Two words were uttered constantly: 'No misses.' It's amazing how much less you miss when someone tells you that.

"I'm slow as molasses. I played at a high level because I was able to recognize when I had an opportunity and when I was disadvantaged."

Higueras' humility is a huge asset as he shifts from preparing individuals to helping train an entire country.

"He's not trying to create a bunch of little Higuerases," longtime USTA coach Jay Berger said. "We're trying to reach out to other coaches, give them the credit they're due, and work as a tennis community. I learn every time I'm on the court with him."

Nick Bollettieri, a coaching icon in his own right, said Higueras seeks feedback and never acts as if he has all the answers.

"You cannot have a successful program without winning the trust and confidence of inner-city, high school, college and private coaches," Bollettieri said. "He knows how to relate to people. He's not on an ego-building thing."

Higueras is tackling this immense project one clinic at a time, working at the USTA's national training centers in Florida and California as well as new regional centers and private clubs.

"We cannot coach everybody, obviously," Higueras said. "In a country this size, unless we get everybody together and work toward the same goal, I think it's pretty much impossible.

"I talk about two or three or four important things I think kids should be learning when they're young. I'm not going to lecture. I think [coaches] are pretty well informed already. We demonstrate, and then we all go home and try to do the best for the kids."

He says it with the serenity born of coaching champions.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.