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LaRosa's Sweet Spot: March 11, 2009

3/11/2009 2:20:00 AM

LaRosa's Sweet Spot Main Page

March 11, 2009

In a will-they-or-won't-they dance that's dragged on second only to Harry and Sally, Roger Federer and Darren Cahill are finally going to "test the waters" on a real (coaching) relationship. Having slept with the news, I've woken up torn between honey-lit afterglow and a total freakout wondering if this was a mistake of biblical proportions.

Coaches are invaluable. Especially when a player starts spinning their wheels in the clay. And certain players scream, Help Me Obi-Wan, You're My Only Hope. How much did Zeljko Krajan turn Dinara Safina right round like a record baby? Has Ana Ivanovic's hiring of Craig Kardon (of Navratilova, Davenport and Capriati fame) not been met by more exhales by the Serb's fans and fans of women's tennis in general? 

But Roger Federer has always been his own special creature. And like a fine Swiss watch, I hesitate to celebrate someone tinkering with him who might just throw his cogs all out of whack.

Because, let's face it, Federer's game ain't broke. Shot for shot, he's still the best non-Spaniard in the game. He's got two obstacles, and they're both in his head. And I have serious doubts any coach can help him with either.

The first, but by no means simplest, is the wedgie-picking warrior who's taken full-time residence in his noggin. Rafael Nadal's rivalry with Fed is still the single best story in tennis, and their matches are true events. But their outcomes are becoming less unpredictable. When you watch you're sort of wondering when, not how, Nadal's going to do it this time.

Cahill can be of service to the degree that several of these battles really have been the difference between a few points here and there. At those points, Federer's wilted as much as Nadal's surged. And he is wilting, as evidenced by his terrible fifth set at the Australian where his serve and his forehand went skipping off together to fetch a pail of water.

Federer is trying to get over his Nadal hurdle to reach Pete Sampras' Grand Slam title record.
But what is he wilting against? Is it really just Nadal? Of course not (though what a scary mask it wears). His biggest and much more lethal problem is smashing Pete Sampras' Slam record. Roger's been standing at this door, flowers in hand, for the better part of a year and a half. No one's ever been on the other side. So who out there, even a coach as good as Cahill, is going to be able to relate enough to talk him through it?

Fed knows this. That's why the tears flowed in Melbourne. For a man so used to solving every mental puzzle on court, he's handcuffed by history. And the chance to make it.

And we've seen what can happen when a player becomes so fixated on one chess move that he loses sight of the whole board. Andy Roddick became obsessed with Fed, and soon it pulled at the threads of his entire game. Justine Henin admitted she wanted to win Wimbledon so badly that it ultimately became just too big of a goal. "I didn't feel myself capable. It was too much for me." So says one of the greatest female players the sport has ever seen.

The handful of scrubs Fed's lost to in the last year and a half certainly hasn't kept the rest of the tour from hoping they catch him on an off day. But he's still Roger Federer, and they know it would take something special to join the club. He's a tennis mastermind and he can squash you with his giant brain.

And that's been true his entire career. Truth is, while he's had two of the best guiding hands in the business in Tony Roche and Peter Lundgren, he's always seemed above coaching. Like he can figure it all out on his own. Indeed, more than half of his 13 Slam titles have been accumulated when he was flying solo. So is taking on a coach while you're still making finals the best message to send to an already rabid locker room?

In the end, I'm cautiously optimistic about the addition of Cahill for one reason and one reason alone. Nadal needs the competition. I just really hope the motivation for asking for help is more about opening a window for some fresh air and not flailing at a life preserver. Because you only start drowning when you panic. 

All that said, there's something sort of wickedly exciting about it all, isn't there? Coaching changes don't usually yield results right away. It can take a few months. Just in time for Wimbledon? Or the French...

Update: All THAT said, word from Fed's agent Tony Godsick today is the deal fell through. "Darren's a great guy, and personally I think it was a good fit, but it just didn't go much further once it came down to the traveling." Smells fishy to me as Cahill traveled all the way to Dubai for "a long test session." Alas, looks like Roger's going to have to solve this puzzle on his own after all.

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Sweet Spot P.S.

I got an e-mail from a most excellent reader from Dubai by the name of Nirali. I wanted to post an excerpt here:

"Mr. LaRosa,

Is it really necessary for you to punctuate every mention of Dubai in your blog with a 'hiss' or other expressions of displeasure? I understand why you feel so disgusted with the Peer matter. As a matter of fact, I was a ballkid this year at the tournament and I feel the same way about the whole situation. I'm the one who looked forward to seeing her, I'm the one who missed out on seeing her...

' Dubai ' as a city has not offended you in any way.' Dubai ' as the tournament of ballkids, players and fans have not offended you. It was a great tournament, it's a nice city; it is the government's fault for not allowing Shahar to compete. Not all of Dubai. Maybe the tournament officials, I don't know. WE did not do anything wrong - in fact, we're the victim, we're the ones who lost out on watching her compete! If you're annoyed that more players didn't stand up for her and withdraw, then your fight is with them. Don't keep attacking the city, it's unfair.

I'm only 16, and I love following tennis. It really sucks to watch one of my favorite bloggers cyberglare at the very word Dubai all the time. I was already so disappointed because I was truly looking forward to the tournament and ballkidding all my favorite stars, and so many pulled out or lost early.... That said, you are one of my favorite bloggers, so thanks for all the other (nicer) blogs you've written.

Sincerely,

Nirali"

I wanted to respond to this publicly. Nirali, my hissing at the word Dubai wasn't meant to be at the city or its people, but at the Peer situation brought on by the government. That said, I know what it's like to have to defend where you live due to the actions of your own government and you're right, it is unfair. So I won't be doing any more cyberglaring (I'm stealing that word by the way). Thanks for writing, and for giving a voice to even more people who got stomped by all this. Hopefully you'll get to see everyone you want next year.

James