Out with Fedberg, in with... Ljuberer?
Does this move come as a surprise? Does it feel like a step down? At first, the answers to both questions would seem to be "yes".
Edberg and Federer made a strong and seemingly natural team; their polished styles and demeanors appeared to dovetail perfectly. While they never won the big one—i.e., a major—the Swiss stabilized and sharpened his game with the Swede in his corner. It’s hard to remember now, but when Edberg was added to the team at the end of 2013, a 32-year-old Federer was coming off the most disappointing season of his career. His ranking had dropped from No. 2 to No. 6, and the inevitable signs of late-career decline—injuries, equipment changes, shock losses, early-round exits—seemed to have set in for good.
Now, at 34, Federer is back up to No. 3 and coming off a six-title season. With Edberg’s help, he stopped the rot, went back to his roots at the net, and found a way to win without the otherworldly physical gifts of his youth. Advanced age or not, no one is talking about Federer’s decline at the moment. According to Chris Clarey of the New York Times, Federer wanted the partnership to continue. But Edberg, who had never coached before, doesn’t seem inclined to make a second career of it.
Is Ljubicic the man to continue his work? If Federer fans were looking for another super-coach, Ljubicic isn’t their guy. As a player, he wasn’t in Edberg’s league, though he certainly wasn’t a journeyman, either. In a 14-year career that ended in 2012, Ljubicic won 10 titles, went 429-296 and reached No. 3 in the world. He also beat Federer three times, before losing their last 10 meetings.
Ljubicic isn’t going to inspire Federer the same way that Edberg, his childhood idol, did. He isn’t going to help add an element to his game, the way the the net-rushing Swede did; Ljubicic, despite being 6’4” and having one of the game’s best serves, was content to spend most of his time patrolling the baseline. Ljubicic isn’t going to have much insight into how to win the biggest matches, the way Edberg, a six-time major winner did; Ljubicic reached one Slam semifinal, at the 2006 French Open, and had a combined 11-21 record against Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka.
But Ljubicic does offer one important thing that Edberg didn’t: He has played many of the opponents that Federer will face next year, and, in his time with Milos Raonic, coached against virtually all of them. In that sense, Ljubicic is closer to the Brad Gilbert coaching model than he is to today’s superstar mentors. When Andre Agassi hired Gilbert as his coach in 1994, BG had yet to officially retire as a player (he would call it a career the following season). Gilbert had spent his career trying to figure out how to beat the same guys that the much more talented Agassi had been facing for years.
Ljubicic’s own track record as a coach is hard to measure. He started working with Raonic in 2013, and during their time together the Canadian cracked the Top 10 for the first time. In 2015, Raonic underwent foot surgery in the spring and dropped to No. 14 in the rankings. Still, as Montreal tennis writer Stephanie Myles points out, judging by the wording of Raonic’s break-up announcement, it was the coach, rather than the player, who put the kibosh on their partnership.
“The decision has been made,” Raonic wrote on Instagram two weeks ago, “that we will not continue our professional relationship in the coming year...”
The decision, it seems possible to surmise, was made by Ljubicic so he could coach Federer instead. Can you blame him?
Federer and Ljubicic already know each well. Both men have been involved in ATP governance, and Ljubicic has called Federer the “leader” of men's tennis. Presumably, they won’t need too much time to get to know each other, an important consideration in a year when Federer will turn 35.
But it might not be as easy for Ljubicic to get to know the rest of Federer’s small army of family and advisors, an army that already has a general in Federer's longtime coach and friend, Severin Luthi. A decade ago, José Higueras was briefly brought on to counsel Federer, but apparently had trouble finding his niche on the team. And while another coach, Paul Annacone, did establish his place in the Federer universe, he told the New York Times this week that doing the same will take some finesse from Ljubicic.
“Ivan knows what’s going on,” Annacone said, “But the thing that makes it tricky is not even really the tennis knowledge. It’s the dynamics of the environment. And Roger’s environment is very complicated. It’s great, but it’s complicated.”
Let the Ljuberer era begin. It’s hard to imagine that it will look all that different from the Fedberg era. Why fix what isn’t broken? Why not continue to attack and make rallies shorter? Federer’s only show of weakness in 2015 came against Djokovic in the biggest finals, at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the ATP World Tour Finals. Those losses appeared to be as much as about Federer’s self-belief, and sudden lack thereof, as they were about his game; after all, he beat Djokovic on three smaller occasions. We’ll see if Ljubicic, who was 2-7 against Djokovic, has come up with any ideas on how to beat him. His last player, Raonic, has won just one set in five matches against the world No. 1.
How will we remember the Fedberg era? The Swiss and the Swede have a place together in tennis’s good-hair Hall of Fame, and they set a cool and polished standard for coach and player. Overall, they’re act was a success. What I’ll remember most, though, was the moment when Edberg briefly lost his cool at the end of this year’s U.S. Open final. When Federer mounted a last-ditch, fourth-set comeback, Edberg, who says he’ll “always be part of the Federer team,” stood with Federer’s wife, Mirka, to urge him on.
Whether you’re a player, a coach, a friend, or a family member, you can’t win them all.