Roundtable: The state of Roger Federer
Roger Federer announced last Saturday that he had split with coach Paul Annacone after 3½ years. The news came near the end of a subpar season for the 32-year-old Federer, who is 36-13 with one title and a number of losses to lower-ranked players. The 17-time Grand Slam champion has slipped to No. 7, and this is the first year since 2002 that he hasn’t made a major final. Was Federer's partnership with Annacone a success? Should he hire another full-time coach? And what, if anything, can he do to regain his dominant form? Ricky Dimon of The Grandstand and Erik Gudris of Adjusting the Net and Tennis Now join me to discuss all things Federer.
Courtney Nguyen: The news of Federer's split with Annacone didn't shock me. The coaching relationship seemed to have run its course earlier this year, and given Federer's poor season (at least by his sky-high standards), a change was definitely needed before 2014. Looking back, what do you make of the Federer/Annacone pairing? During Annacone's tenure, Federer reclaimed the No. 1 ranking after winning his 17th Grand Slam title (Wimbledon 2012), made the 2011 French Open final and earned a career-best silver medal in Olympics singles. He also suffered some devastating defeats -- those two blown leads in back-to-back U.S. Open semifinals to Novak Djokovic stand out -- while shocking losses to journeymen players this year have contributed to a drop to No. 7 and left him fighting to qualify for the ATP World Tour Finals.
Ricky Dimon: Was the partnership a smashing success? No. Was it a moderate success at the very least? Absolutely. It’s easy for Federer to say in hindsight that returning to No. 1 and winning another Grand Slam title were their two main goals; after all, that is what they accomplished. But there is no reason not to take Federer at his word. So if those really were their aspirations from the start, they got the job done, even after Federer fell to No. 4 in 2011 and endured a nine-major drought after winning the 2010 Australian Open.
Erik Gudris: Of course it was successful. Surpassing Pete Sampras’ record of most weeks at No. 1, especially when many thought that the top ranking was out of reach for Federer, is probably the highlight of the Annacone years. Of course, the debate will continue as to what exactly Annacone did for Federer, whose game was largely unchanged in those three-plus years. Annacone’s work behind the scenes and being a new voice for Federer to hear on a weekly basis laid the foundation for what they achieved together. Some will say that they should have accomplished more, but those doubters can’t deny that they certainly had a fine run.
Nguyen: I don't know what more they could have accomplished. Annacone can't fend off Father Time. Do you think Federer will hire a new coach? At this late stage of his career, I'm not sure it's worth it. He's always had Swiss Davis Cup captain Severin Luthi in his corner, and Luthi knows Federer's game and mentality better than anyone.
Gudris: I mean, frankly, what could a new coach tell Federer now?
Dimon: He shouldn’t hire a new full-time coach, and I don't think he will. Federer is one of the few players (Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is another) who fares better without one. After splitting from Peter Lundgren in December 2003, all Federer did was win the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2004. He remained dominant from 2005-2007 with only Tony Roche as a part-time confidant. This time around, he isn’t trying to get back to No. 1 -- at least let’s hope not, because that isn’t going to happen. His goal should be to win one more Slam, and that is realistic with just a few minor tweaks. He still has the talent (see this summer's highly competitive Cincinnati quarterfinal against Rafael Nadal) that, when merged with just a little more confidence, can win a Slam.
Nguyen: Earlier this week, Annacone told USA Today that Federer can still be great and that he just needs to put the pieces together. So let's all put on the coaching hat. How exactly does Federer go about doing that?
Dimon: This depends on what “greatness” and “back on track” mean. Federer’s days of being No. 1 or even in the top two are over. He’s never going to regain the consistency of storming through years with only semifinal and final results. He’s rarely going to beat Nadal and Djokovic when they are “on.” What Federer really needs is a dream draw at either Wimbledon or the U.S. Open in which he avoids Nadal and gets Djokovic on an “off” day for the Serb. Then he can cap his career like Annacone's former protégé Pete Sampras did when he won the 2002 U.S. Open.
Gudris: The immediate issue for Federer is his forehand. That used to be his go-to shot, but it's become often unreliable. In his fourth-round loss to Tommy Robredo at the U.S. Open and his third-round loss to Gael Monfils at the Shanghai Masters last week, how many times did Federer line up a routine forehand mid-rally only to see it drift wide or sail long? Will yet another racket change help? Maybe. But it is more likely due to improper footwork, another issue for Federer this season. Both need to get fixed pronto.
Nguyen: Aside from his forehand, which we can all see has broken down with more frequency this year, Federer's serve seems to have lost some of its effectiveness. A key part of his success is getting through his service games quickly and easily. He hasn't produced as many of those 45-second, morale-crushing holds for which he was known. Some of this has to do with his back injury, which seems like it can flare up at any moment. I'd also like to see him commit to the bigger racket, which he experimented with after Wimbledon.
Dimon: I agree with you on the racket, Courtney. On the latest racket switch, the idea was good. The execution was terrible. Federer’s trial period with the new stick did not last long enough and it came at a terrible time, right before the summer hard-court swing. If Federer wants to try out another, larger frame for two months during the offseason, more power to him.
Gudris: Scheduling will also be key for Federer, with the real emphasis on how he prepares for the Grand Slams. Though the European clay-court swing is important in keeping his top-10 ranking, Federer should limit his time on the clay, given Nadal’s continuing domination at Roland Garros. Federer skipped Miami this year. Should he bypass a Masters event before the French Open to keep himself fresh enough for a deep run at Wimbledon? It’s worth considering.
Technical issues aside, there’s also the growing reality that Federer will have more bad days even as he prepares for each match with immaculate precision. As Rod Laver said in Shanghai about Federer’s current woes, once you reach 30 and beyond, those days when “nothing” is there, as Laver put it, become more frequent. And there’s little one can do to prevent that. Fighting, and winning, during the “nothing” days could be Federer's biggest challenge yet.
Nguyen: I was in Shanghai when Laver made those comments. His "some days you got it, some days you don't" assessment of older players rang so true.
Gudris: The other thing Federer must do is take back some of the “swagger” he’s lost. And by that I mean not looking like an opportunity for anyone he faces next season, especially those players outside the top 20. He has to take care of business, and with a convincing “Fed is back” authority, in the early rounds of events so that lower-ranked players don’t feel like they have a chance.
Nguyen: No doubt the other players still respect the heck out of him and know that if he's playing well, they will have a tough road. But Federer's aura of invincibility has been punctured, as opponents have alluded to this year. The beginning of 2014 is key for Federer. If he can't lay down the gauntlet and remind those guys why they shouldn't just throw in the towel before they step on court with him, then it's going to be a long year. A strong end to this season during the fall indoor circuit would help with that, too.
Dimon: No, this season is a wash. Obviously, qualification for the World Tour Finals and a surprise run at that event wouldn’t hurt. But it probably won’t happen, nor is it necessary. What Federer needs is an offseason of significant training, preferably with some serious match practice against fellow pros (not those South American laughers against Tsonga and Juan Martin del Potro of 2012). Regardless, Federer’s best remaining chances to win another major are at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2014. Those are a long way off. Nothing in the immediate future matters a whole lot for him.
Gudris: But let’s not forget that Federer is 1-6 against top-10 players this year. Even if Federer makes it to London for the World Tour Finals, can we expect him to have much of an impact under the lights of the O2? A break from London, and all of the expectations that will be placed on him, could be welcomed. Having said that, a top-eight finish at year's end for Federer is important to keep him poised for Melbourne in January. It could well be how he performs Down Under that gives him, and us, a real indication of what to expect from him throughout 2014. And beyond.
Nguyen: What now for Annacone? He says he's a lifer, and he still has the energy and wisdom to coach another player.
Gudris: Annacone has worked with players either in mid-career or in their late stages -- Federer, Sampras and Tim Henman. Maybe it is time he find a younger player to help. I don’t know if Ryan Harrison can afford Annacone, but he certainly needs someone to figure out what has gone so wrong with him of late. Or perhaps Annacone should take several juniors under his wing and help develop their games so that they can compete at the pro stage. But if Annacone decides to stick with his “help a veteran pattern,” perhaps Tsonga? Everyone else has tried.
Dimon: Annacone was a serve-and-volleyer and chip-and-charger as a player. His baseline game was at its best when he did not have to use it. As such, it was not surprising that Annacone the coach achieved great success with Sampras and -- to a lesser extent -- Tim Henman (who made a run to the semifinals of the ... gasp! ... 2004 French Open under Annacone). Jerzy Janowicz currently has a coach, but he would be the obvious top choice. Benoit Paire, who also has a coach, is another equally if not even more exciting option. Both are young talents with huge weapons, a disdain for long rallies and a clear need for help with their mental approach.
Gudris: I thought of Paire, too, but that just might be too much je ne sais quoi for Annacone to deal with. If we are talking about going "old school" again, how about another Frenchman who likes to serve-and-volley in Julien Benneteau? Maybe Annacone can help him win that elusive first title.
Nguyen: The idea of the strait-laced Annacone trying to rein in the emotionally volatile Janowicz or Paire is a beautiful disaster waiting to happen. I'm down.