When it comes to his parting with Paul Annacone a few days ago, Roger Federer said the decision to split was made jointly with his coach of more than three years, and that “this was the best time and path for both of us.”
You know how it is nowadays, nobody except that schmuck Donald Trump actually stands up, points a finger, and yells: “You’re fired!”
These days, it always seems to be separation by mutual agreement, nice and clean, and each party wants to wish the other “the best of luck in all future endeavors!” Now I suppose it’s entirely possible that the Annacone, a full-time coach (and one of the best of this era), is sick and tired of all this losing Federer has been doing. Can’t you just see him flinging up his hands in disgust at those shanked backhands and wild forehands and thinking, “I gotta get out of this gig!”
Of course you can’t.
Okay, then try this: Annacone might very well be sick and tired of traveling and growing weary of being at Federer’s beck and call. Or try this: The pushy parent of an astonishingly gifted prodigy has convinced Annacone to bolt from the Federer camp. Or this: Annacone wants to get out of the rat race and become a fly-fishing guide on the rich waters of his Long Island home in Southampton.
All possible, all unlikely.
The most probable explanations for this unexpected break are that Federer feels he’s been poorly coached, or that he’s confused and perhaps a little desperate. Annacone knows how that works. In his first go-round as the coach of an iconic player, Pete Sampras dumped Annacone when advancing age and faltering powers left him mired in a late-career slump. Sampras later took a respite from his inevitable, ongoing decline to re-hire Annacone, then went on to win the U.S. Open—after which he quit the game, cold turkey.
Given how close Annacone and Federer had grown after three years together, Roger must be aware of the irony in all this. But he’s fallen on hard times, swiftly and unexpectedly. Last year at this time, he was still the No. 1 ranked player in the world; presently he’s No. 7 and in danger of failing to qualify for the ATP World Tour Finals. He may believe that Annacone’s advice in recent months has put him on the wrong course—that’s a real possibility, knowing how strongly Annacone advocates for the attacking, aggressive game.
But it’s also possible that Federer just doesn’t want to face the music being played by Father Time. He may feel a need to shake things up, and after all, how many ways can he do that? Maybe it’s “something/anything” time for Federer. That doesn’t sound very Federer-esque, but never underestimate the great human emotions—like love, or fear—or the roles they can play in our decision-making and lives.
Federer has, characteristically, made all this sound extremely rational and clear in his signature Swiss manner. He announced the split on his website, writing: “After numerous conversations culminating at the end of our most recent training block, we felt like this was the best time and path for both of us.”
Sheesh, Roger, who are you trying to kid?
This isn’t about “both” of you. This is entirely about you, and that’s as it should be. You’re the champion, he’s the coach. I can see you trying telling Annacone that the relationship just isn’t working anymore, or that you need to throw him under the bus. And I understand your determination to handle the break with utmost dignity and consideration. But can we get a little more clarity and detail here?
Federer’s use of the words “numerous conversations” is interesting. It suggests that there was a real disagreement about the right strategic course for Federer to take for the future. I imagine those chats were more about the size of the racquet Federer should use, or how often he serves and volleys, or how many tournaments he needs to play to remain a factor than mutual grousing sessions over what a drag it’s become to travel so much.
The way Federer handled this, it seems that the two men agreed to disagree. And this leads to the obvious question, “What does Roger Federer do now?”
There are really only two logical answers to this one:
A: He hires a new coach with a different, fresh voice—someone who might re-invigorate Federer’s career and halt what appears to be the inevitable decline brought on by advancing age (Federer is 32).
Those who see age as the main culprit in this stage of the Federer saga will undoubtedly scoff at the Swiss if he chooses option A. But. . . why not? Don’t we love the warriors who will stop short of nothing to win just one more match, one more tournament, one more Grand Slam title? But we also know Federer’s career-long aversion to Svengali-like coaches. The problem with option A is easily summed up: Just try to come up with a short list of the people who could actually help Federer at this point in his career.
That brings us to option B, which should not be discounted. Federer may understand that it’s all on him now, that he’s in a place where no coach can do much for him. And keep in mind that this guy never paid anybody to just hang around and tell him how great he is. He’s gone it alone plenty of times, at more critical moments in his career. His team has also included other steadfast aides, like Swiss Davis Cup captain Severin Luthi and his long-time trainer, the magnificently named Pierre Paganini.
Perhaps Federer just feels it’s time to cut back, trim the budget, and prepare to ease out of the game. He may want to clear all those voices out of his head return to those wonderful days when he didn’t feel a need for a coach, when his own skills and understanding of the game seemed more than sufficient. Of course, doing so would discount the glaring reality of his age, but he wouldn’t be the first great champion to do that.
Then again, maybe he’ll do as Sampras did—re-hire Annacone after a break, and go on to win one more major before he throws in the towel.