If Paul Annacone is bitter about losing his roster spot on Team Roger Federer last week,he is doing an Oscar-worthy job of hiding it. It could be an opportune time for him to hear a new voice; it really could be, Annacone said of Federer on Tuesday.
But however smooth the breakup appears to have been after three and a half years,the prickly tennis questions remain.
While Federer is likely to hear that new voice by hiring another coach to join forces with his longtime confidant Severin Lüthi,it seems clear that he will need to change more than his pit crew. Federer is 32 and nearing the end of his worst season as a tennis superstar. His only tournament victory came on grass in Halle,Germany – an event that,as a World Tour 250,is on the lowest rung of the ATP tournament ladder.
His only win over a top-10 player was in January,when he beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and lost against opponents who would have trembled when facing him earlier.
To sum up,the now seventh-ranked Federer has lost in the majors and the minors this year and has lost confidence and the intimidation factor along the way.
So where does he – where can he – go from here?
One school of thought is that his big-game hunting days are over,that Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray and new waves to come will simply be too fresh,too fast and too hungry for an aging Federer,who already has a record 17 Grand Slam singles titles and 302 weeks at No. 1 to keep him warm.
That remains the most likely outcome,but Annacone,even on the outside looking in,still favors the genius theory – the one that says extreme talent with sharply defined goals will eventually find a way (again).
Three weeks ago,we were in Dubai and it’s 125 degrees on the court,and I’m sweating through shirts standing there, Annacone said. And I’m watching this guy laughing and having fun,doing drills,doing his physical fitness,and I’m sitting there going,’Wow,how does this guy still love to do this this much?’
If Roger wants no regrets,it is streamlining time,and he is leaning in that direction. He has no exhibition matches scheduled in November and December,and will focus on returning to the tour in Brisbane,Australia,in January. This is not yet a man resigned to his tennis fate. He is still adjusting,still searching,still taking risks,such as the unsuccessful experiment with a bigger-headed racket. The coaching change is one that Annacone said had been made in part because both men felt that Annacone had said what he wanted to say.
Roger is open to new ideas, Annacone said. When you prove something to him,he’ll go,’God,you’re right,’ and he’ll adapt. Great athletes tend to be really strong,and that’s one of his biggest assets – that he does listen and he does communicate and he does debate.
The consensus is that he should play more,not less,in 2014 to regain his timing under pressure. All of this is,of course,predicated on the chronic back problems and on his love of the game remaining intact if he continues to take blows to the aura.
Federer’s greatest tennis years are clearly behind him,but Annacone is convinced that,despite the odds and plenty of recent evidence,greatness is not. What will be the catalyst? Annacone said. Will it be a new voice? Will it be a streamlined team without me? Will it be a change of his life? I don’t know,but when I look at the skill sets and the talent level and the way he goes about things,I find it really hard to believe he’s not going to be contending for major titles.