by Steve Flink
After his quarterfinal loss to Tomas Berdych on the fabled Centre Court of Wimbledon last month, Roger Federer gave an obligatory press conference. He was understandably dismayed by making his earliest exit at the All England Club since 2002, but what was most striking to most of the reporters in that room was the acerbic tone of Federer’s remarks. He hardly praised an opponent who had played a first class brand of big hitting tennis. He was condescendingly dismissive of the notion that he may have an increasingly difficult time dealing with the rising brigade of overwhelmingly potent ball strikers which include Juan Martin Del Potro (who upended Federer in the U.S. Open final last year), Robin Soderling (his French Open conqueror), Ernests Gulbis and, of course, Berdych. Furthermore, he blamed his loss to Berdych largely on the arm and leg injuries he said had been plaguing him, rather than acknowledging that he had been fundamentally outplayed.
All of that was regrettable stuff from the man so many authorities believe is the greatest tennis player ever to step on a court. But there is every indication now that Federer has reflected candidly on his recent string of disappointments, and is willing to take a new and different look at how he wants to fight his way out of a significant slump. In his last eight appearances since he secured a 16th Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open, Federer has not won a tournament, reaching only two finals in that span, failing five times to make it past the quarterfinals, falling to No. 3 in the world behind Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Clearly, he is not content with those results, and he wants to wage a spirited campaign to reestablish his authority, recover his conviction, and resume his winning ways.
Federer has wisely turned to Paul Annacone to help him in the coaching arena. The 47-year-old Annacone has joined the Federer team on a trial basis, and already they have started training together. Federer could not have picked a better man to place in his corner. Annacone did a stellar job as Pete Sampras’s coach from 1995-2002 (with a brief interruption that last year), playing a quiet yet important role in guiding the American superstar to nine of his fourteen Grand Slam championships. Thereafter, he worked with Tim Henman, and recently he has been in charge of the national coaching program for the British LTA. Annacone is not only highly competent, strategically savvy and a professional through and through, but he also has just the right kind of disposition to make this venture work with Federer. Annacone is understated and dignified, self assured yet not egocentric. As was the case when he was by Sampras’s side, Annacone will know precisely when to speak up and put his views on the line, and when to say less and allow Federer to do more of his own thinking.
I spoke last week with Brad Gilbert, the esteemed ESPN analyst who coached Andre Agassi (1994-2002), Andy Roddick (2003-2004) and later worked with Andy Murray. Gilbert--- who used his extensive knowledge of the game to help both Agassi and Roddick secure the No. 1 world ranking--- is as good a judge as anyone of the coaching trade. He believes Federer has chosen well. As he points out, “Paul had great success with Pete and he also did a good job coaching Tim Henman. Coincidentally they are all the same sized guy with one-handed backhands so it is right in Paul’s recipe. I am sure this is the right move at the right time for Fed because he didn’t have the best last couple of months for him. He is tweaking a little and adding to his team.”
Federer has always been admirably self sufficient in many ways as a player, stubborn in his approach like all great champions, but able to compete favorably on his own or with the benefit of a coach. How receptive will Federer be to having someone of Annacone’s stature step in and perhaps urge him to make some important alterations in his game at this stage of his career? Gilbert responds, “Roger will be 29 when he plays his next tournament in Canada. [His birthday is August 8] It is not like he has got another six or seven years at the top. He has got probably another few years at the top and he wants to see what he can do. He did work with Jose Higueras a few years ago and Tony Roche before that. Now he is getting ready to try another situation. Paul has pretty darned good credentials. Roger is bringing somebody on board because he wants to get a different view, and Paul has a world of experience.”
Those who know Annacone’s history wonder whether or not he will convince Federer to get to the net more frequently than has been his custom. Annacone--- playing in an era when the courts and conditions were usually faster—was a confirmed attacking player who came forward relentlessly. With Henman, he was well matched alongside an accomplished serve-and-volleyer. But, more interestingly, he seemed to influence Sampras significantly. Sampras had always liked to serve-and-volley behind every first delivery, but was often reluctant to follow his second serve in. And yet, over the years (and perhaps in no small measure because of Annacone’s encouragement), Sampras in the latter stages of his career was fully committed to serving-and-volleying constantly on his second serve as well. Will Annacone try to influence Federer similarly by urging the Swiss to shorten points and approach the net a lot more often? Will he put the full weight of his views behind imploring Federer to serve-and-volley with some regularity?
Gilbert answers, “That is only speculation. But I would say it usually takes a while [if something like that is going to happen]. You practice for a short time and then, boom, you are playing a tournament. I would assume it would take some time to implement some things. I will be curious to see how it looks when we go up to Canada. I can’t expect a dramatic change in a couple of weeks. Maybe they will be building for some small changes for the summer and through the U.S. Open, and then look to the longer term after that.”
How does Gilbert feel about the gifted cast of players that have troubled Federer lately? What is his assessment of what Annacone and Federer will have in mind when it comes to overcoming Berdych, Soderling, Del Potro, and Gulbis among others? “It is not like any of the guys you mentioned are slouches when they are on their games. Those kinds of players are tough, especially Del Potro who has been unlucky being hurt this year. He is a great player. But I am sure when you are the coach, you are looking at tapes and trying to figure some things out. You try to find a strategy to implement in the person’s game, and see how it works.”
Gilbert points out correctly that Federer always had someone looking after his technical and tactical interests. Here is the history of the Swiss in terms of his coaches. He turned pro in 1998 and was initially coached by the Australian Peter Carter, who died tragically in a car crash. Sweden’s Peter Lundgren--- who had shared coaching responsibilities with Carter--- took over on his own through the 2003 season, as Federer captured his first Grand Slam title that season at Wimbledon and finished the year at No. 2 in the world. Federer then chose to let Lundgren go and played the entire 2004 season without a full time coach, collecting three of the four major championships, taking command as the unequivocal world No. 1. He then hired Tony Roche in 2005 on a part time basis, and won two majors that year. In 2006, he won all of the majors except for Roland Garros, and then he opened 2007 by securing the Australian Open. But in May of that season, he chose to end the partnership with Roche. That did not stop Federer from having another three major season. In the spring of 2008, he brought in the highly regarded Jose Higueras in another part time arrangement, and that lasted only until later that year.
Since then, Federer has done his work without a coach, although he strongly considered the idea of hiring the thoughtful and clear-minded Darren Cahill in the winter of 2009. But the fact remained that through the many stretches when there was no official coach by his side, Federer has been assisted part time by Swiss Davis Cup captain Severin Luthi. He has been generous in assessing the input of Luthi, but I never got the feeling Luthi’s contribution was substantial. He simply knew Federer’s game and could offer advice that was sensible but probably it did not amount to much more than that.
Gilbert, however, believes Luthi’s role should not be minimized. He says, “He [Luthi] doesn’t get a lot of credit but he must know what he is doing. Roger has had him on board for quite some time and he is still staying on board so the guy always seems to be there. But any way you look at it: man, Roger has had a lot of success so it is hard to argue with how he has gone about it.”
So how is Gilbert envisioning this crucial early phase of the Federer-Annacone partnership? How much will be up to Federer, and how much influence will Annacone have in moving things in the right direction? “When you are coaching,” replies Gilbert, “you just go to work on day one and try to make things happen. You are looking to keep moving things forward as a coach so you just start with day one and move to day two and keep going from there. If you are coming on board to coach a football team or a basketball team, you are not thinking about whether or not the team won the championship the year before. It is a new team, a new time and a new routine, and it is the same with tennis. You just go to work and that is the simplistic thing about it.”
Yet Gilbert realizes that expectations will be high among close followers of the game. He asserts, “If it works, that’s great, but if it doesn’t turn out to be a royal flush like everyone thinks, if it is just short of that, I am sure some people will say it isn’t working. It is not an easy situation. It is not like people are expecting Paul to come on board for Roger to get to the quarterfinals or semifinals. People are going to expect more. As I said, that is not an easy situation but the best thing you can do as a coach is try to move your player forward, do the best that you possibly can, and see what you can get done. I know Paul will do that.”
Annacone must believe he can make a considerable difference or there would be no point in pursuing this opportunity. Nevertheless, it is not an ideal set of circumstances for a coach of Annacone’s irrefutable skills and demonstrable competence to be put on the Federer team as part of a trial. The view here is that Annacone deserved more than that; he should have been guaranteed a year to prove his value to Federer. But the bottom line is that Annacone has accepted the deal for what it is and surely has good reasons for doing that. In any event, my belief is that he will quickly succeed in earning Federer’s respect. I expect to see Annacone around for a few years.
Having said that, I know that the key to the future of the Federer-Annacone experiment will be simply this: how does Federer fare in the next couple of majors? If he doesn’t at least reach the final of the upcoming U.S. Open or the 2011 Australian Open, Federer might get impatient in a hurry, and could then part ways with Annacone by the spring of 2011. The bottom line is that Federer has almost surely moved slightly past his prime. He remains in remarkable shape for an athlete less than a week away from turning 29, and he is a supremely gifted player who has as much pride as anyone out there in the world or professional tennis, but the fact remains that he is the father of one-year-old twin daughters, and his professional world is not as orderly now as it once was.
Only a fool would dismiss his chances of winning a couple more majors before he puts down the racket for good, but with Nadal back convincingly at No. 1 in the world, with that cluster of big hitters ready to confront him at any time, with the competition tougher than it has ever been during his years at and near the top, Federer will be hard pressed to collect additional Grand Slam titles as he closes in on the end of his twenties and then tries to sustain the highest of standards during his early thirties.
Both Federer and Annacone surely realize that the next year for him will be critical. That’s why it will be so intriguing to discover if Annacone can somehow shake things up in the universe of one Roger Federer.
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