No Coach, No Issues

Thursday, October 17, 2013 /by
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

It’s hard to say what Roger Federer is doing right now, but easy to speculate about what he is not doing. The 17-time Grand Slam singles champion most decidedly is not sitting in a hotel room with the curtains drawn to block out all light, gnawing his fingernails as he tries to figure out how to reverse his recent slump. 

I feel confident saying this after having had a nice, long conversation with Paul Annacone, who on paper was Federer’s coach for over three years. I write “on paper” because Team Federer has always been something of a communal operation, wildly successful because none of the individual parts—including Annacone, Swiss Davis Cup captain Severin Luthi, and fitness trainer Pierre Paganini—ever imagined himself greater or significantly different from any of the other parts. 

This break-up between Federer and Annacone, who had also coached Pete Sampras through the second half of his career as well as Tim Henman, has been about as dramatic and stressful as making a change in your cell service carrier. 

“Roger isn’t desperate, or panicking,” Annacone told me at one point. “We just finished two weeks work in Dubai, and this is just a guy who loves to play tennis. I’m standing there, sweating through two shirts without doing anything, and he’s working—laughing, kidding around, practicing with enthusiasm and still absorbing information. But that’s nothing new, either. The way he goes about things, his exuberance and relentless pursuit of excellence is like that of a 23-year-old. He never panics. Never did.”

What happened, according to Annacone, is just what Federer said when he announced that their formal relationship had ended. The two men had wide-ranging conversations about many things, none of which revolved around grand schemes or potentially seismic changes that theoretically might help Federer recapture his once unparalleled luster. There were no conflicts in how either man perceived Annacone’s job or, or for that matter, Federer’s.

“There are no big philosophical differences,” Annacone said. “We’ve never really had those anyway. Any time we didn’t agree on something, we just talked about it, and eventually Roger decided what he wanted to do and that was that.”

Like the other members of Federer’s team, Annacone has been like a loyal executive who not only responds well to the CEO, but who has the utmost respect for him. He said, “In all the time I spent with Roger, he never shifted blame or criticized someone else when something happened to go wrong—not Severin, not Pierre, not me.”

It may not be very sexy to look at Team Federer though business-school eyes, but it might be the most accurate way. These don’t appear to be people who get all wrapped up in blame-and-credit (when has Luthi sounded off—on anything?), nor do they act as mouthpieces for Federer. They don’t drop ideas or opinions that get people stirred up, in the manner of a Toni Nadal, nor do they fight proxy wars on behalf of their boss.

When you look at it that way, and keep in mind that nobody in his right mind would up and walk away from a gig as the coach of Roger Federer, you can see how Annacone’s job basically dissolved. Federer was never reliant on a coach to begin with and, as the Swiss himself wrote, the two men had accomplished the main goals they had set—to win at least one Grand Slam event and regain the world No. 1 ranking. 

“This is an individual sport, so things like changes in the coaching situation get looked at extra closely. And that can generate lots of speculation,” Annacone said. “But sometimes there’s nothing wrong, it just comes time to do things a little differently. 

“There’s an evolutionary aspect about anyone’s career, and the thing is we all refer to the benchmarks that were set. So the initial reaction to how things have been going this year may be to ask, ‘What’s wrong with Roger?’ But look—he won Wimbledon in 2012, he won the year-end championships twice and a bunch of Masters 1000 events. So what’s really wrong is that initial reaction. Roger Federer actually is doing great.”

That, in fact, may be the main reason Annacone has become redundant. Federer put on big-boy pants a long time ago; he doesn’t need to be coddled, he doesn’t need anyone holding his hand or carrying his racquet bag. If there’s a major takeaway in this turn of affairs, it’s that Federer knows things aren’t hunky-dory, but he still enjoys what he’s doing and is committed to working through his problems. 

“It would be arrogant of me to think this is somehow about me, or what I can or can’t do,” Annacone said. “Roger has hit a bumpy patch. Now it’s up to him to decide how to deal with adversity, and what he can do to get over that hump.”

The last time Annacone went through anything like this, his client was in considerably more desperate if well-concealed straits. Near the end of his career, Sampras badly wanted to win one more Grand Slam title. He was so eager to do it that he jettisoned Annacone and tried the guidance of a few other coaches. Eventually, he realized his mistake and asked Annacone to come back on board—which the coach did.

“Pete was tired (in 2001 and early 2002), he didn’t want to grind it out as much,” Annacone recalled. “He wanted one more Slam, though, and I’ve never seen anyone like Pete when it comes to choosing and focusing on a single goal and doing whatever it takes to accomplish it.

“Roger is different, he’s a little more into the process. With Pete, it was like, ‘I want one more Slam and then I’ll decide what to do.’ I said, ‘Okay, sign me up.’ 

“But Roger is different. He’s a student of the game. He also loves other cultures. People may ask, ‘Why’s he still playing?’ Does Roger really need to go to Shanghai, or Rotterdam?’ The answer is easy; he goes to those places because he likes them, he enjoys the whole experience of being there.”

Of course, nobody can predict just how much that joy will be dampened if Federer’s results don’t improve. But that’s really a personal reaction and decision, one that doesn’t require the input of a coach. And Federer has a family, so it isn’t like he needs somebody with whom to have dinner every night. 

It seems clear that Federer doesn’t feel a need for intensive coaching input. If he did, wouldn’t it make sense to keep Annacone on the payroll through at least this final leg of the 11-month tennis year?

But here’s something else, and I wouldn’t discount it—Federer may also not want to take on the obligations that come from having a full-time coach on his team. For a thoughtful and responsible player wants to do well for his coach as well as himself, to affirm the confidence and satisfaction a coach also wants to feel. And that changes the conversation a bit, and brings a certain amount of pressure as well.

Roger Federer may want to do what all great players say they want, but often have a lot of trouble accomplishing: He may want to finish his career happily, feeling little stress or drama, go out owing no one, and with no one owing him. That would be very much like him, and we haven’t really seen his likes before.

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