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Playing Solo
by Steve Flink

Roger Federer recently parted ways with his coach, Tony Roche.
As Rafael Nadal closed in on a third consecutive Italian Open crown last weekend, as all of the leading players stepped up their preparation for the French Open, as the game's closest followers looked forward to the coming weeks, news traveled rapidly across the tennis community that Roger Federer and his coach Tony Roche had reached a mutual decision to end their professional partnership. For the time being at least, Federer will play without a coach, which in and of itself is not that big a deal.

After all, Federer and former coach Peter Lundgren concluded a successful run together at the end of 2003, the year the Swiss maestro collected his first Grand Slam championship at Wimbledon. When Federer made that announcement, more than a few eyebrows were raised in tennis circles because he was swiftly coming into his own as a champion. So why would he let Lundgren go? Federer responded with his racket, bursting into a brilliant stretch, claiming three of the four major titles in 2004, demonstrating that he did not necessarily need a coach to play his best tennis.

In fact, Federer won 74 of 80 matches that remarkable season, garnering 11 singles titles in the process. His only significant setback was a third round loss at Roland Garros to three time former victor Gustavo Kuerten. Federer would not have surprised any of us if he had kept competing on his own indefinitely. But as he prepared for the 2005 Australian Open, Federer hired Roche to be his coach on a part time basis, and Roche stayed on in that capacity until the world No. 1 lost to Italy's Filippo Volandri in the round of 16 at the Italian Open last week.
Federer fell in that contest 6-2, 6-4 against a player he should handle with ease, self destructing in a sea of unprovoked mistakes. A few days later, he announced he would no longer be working with Roche. The circumstances of this broken union are strikingly different from what happened between Federer and Lundgren. Right now, he is enduring the most painful period of his career since he took over the No. 1 world ranking on February 2, 2004.

For the first time since he made it to the top, he has been beaten in four straight tournaments. It all started with back-to-back defeats at the hands of the industrious Guillermo Canas at Indian Wells and Miami. Those were bruising losses because they took place on hard courts. Thereafter, Federer moved out onto the clay, losing a straight set final to Nadal in Monte Carlo before his latest loss to Volandri in Rome. Bowing to three different players in his last four tournaments was a serious blow to Federer's considerable pride. Federer might feel he will gain a better perspective on what has been going wrong by not having Roche in his corner, although he also seems to be advertising his current low level of self esteem.

This is not to suggest that I believe he is trying to blame Roche entirely for his recent woes. In my view, Roche was probably too rigid a thinker. Roche had a good track record as the former coach for Ivan Lendl and Patrick Rafter, who believed in him unabashedly. But I often wondered why Lendl--- never a natural at the net--- would serve-and-volley on almost every point at Wimbledon when he might have been better off staying back selectively behind his first and second serves. Roche believed Lendl--- who twice made it to the final of Wimbledon but never won the tournament-had the right strategy on serve. Other authorities disagreed.

Federer, however, seemed very appreciative of the advice Roche gave him through the years, right up until this difficult patch. Now Federer wants to clear his mind. The view here is that the departure of Roche won't make that much of a difference one way or the other. Federer at the moment is almost devoid of confidence, an odd and deflating feeling for a man who has grown accustomed to ruling the world of tennis with a majestic and largely instinctive brand of play.

Whether or not he hires a new coach, Federer is one of the most self sufficient athletes in the world, and he will persevere. His supreme talent, creativity, and versatility will carry him out of his current despondency back to a sunnier world. The fact remains that he will probably never dominate the game as comprehensively as he did from 2004-2006, when he suffered only 15 defeats in three sterling seasons.

Federer is fortunate that he has the capacity to solve many problems primarily by himself. Andy Roddick might be another story. He took his game to another level in 2003 when Brad Gilbert took over as his coach, finishing that season at No. 1 in the world. At the end of 2004--- still up there at No. 2-Roddick stopped working with Gilbert, and for a long while seemed tactically and technically befuddled. But then he hired Jimmy Connors as his coach in the summer of 2006, and the former world champion rearranged Roddick's mindset and arsenal. The influence of Connors on Roddick has been substantial. Federer does not need that kind of nurturing.

He will sort out his coaching predicament soon enough. But we should not read too much into the Roche departure. Roger Federer is a strong minded man who will shape his own destiny with calm professionalism and intelligence.

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