Roger Federer and Paul Annacone ended a three-year relationship that saw the Swiss champion claim the 2012 Wimbledon title and 17 weeks with the No. 1 ranking.
Federer must now make several decisions about ending his career and will likely be seeking a new kind of direction with his choice of coach. Tennis writer Jon Wertheim goaded speculation with humor:
But in all seriousness, does Federer really need a coach?
Coach Federer in 2004
It’s been a decade since young Federer took over the tennis world. He dismissed coach Peter Lundgren late in 2003 and then proceeded to dominate the ATP tour with three Grand Slam titles in 2004. He did it without a coach.
Indeed, times were different in 2004, most noticeably for Federer, who had a 22-year-old body and everything to gain. He and girlfriend Mirka Vavrinec did it their way, managing the scheduling and travel demands, Federer’s training regimen and even the media. All they did was win 11 titles and establish the groundwork for one of the greatest careers in tennis history.
Though Federer has had plenty of coaches and assistance before and after 2004, he has always shown the capacity to understand his objectives. He is a problem solver on the court and with making career adjustments.
He learned to benefit from every source he tapped into, but he also has a strong, independent determination to succeed and knows what he must do, coach or no coach. Nobody is going to give him a magic formula to turn the tables on Rafael Nadal or push aside Novak Djokovic. Could a coach rejuvenate a new kind of energy in him for 2014?
What’s in a Coach?
How much effect does a coach have on a player’s success? Does a coach have the most impact on a player’s training and the X's and O's of strategic adjustments? Is the coach primarily there for guidance and motivation? Is he more strategist or psychologist?
There are countless layers to any player-coach relationship, depending greatly upon the player’s needs.
In 1994, Brad Gilbert was lauded for helping Andre Agassi to be more patient with Gilbert’s “winning ugly” mentality. He was also a stable influence for his talented but erratic pupil.
Pete Sampras had his greatest career results with Annacone, who constantly directed Sampras to use his serve and volley to pressure opponents. Near the end of his career, Sampras had separated with Annacone but struggled with his game and personal confidence. They reunited, and they had a fairytale ending with the 2002 U.S. Open title.
Recently, former superstar Ivan Lendl was praised for helping Andy Murray find greater toughness and a more aggressive offense to win two Grand Slam titles.
So a coach matters, or at least we would like to believe so. But does it matter for Federer at age 32?
New or Old Direction?
When Federer dominated tennis from 2004-07, he did not need to radically change his game. He always looked to improve with tweaks and strategy counters against specific opponents, but as the best player in the world, he needed only to stay the course for as long as he could dominate.
Now age and injuries have taken a toll on Federer for what has been a difficult 2013. He has not been able to play at full strength very often. Younger players no longer fear his past legacy.
He experimented with a larger racket in the summer but returned to his familiar stick for the U.S. Open. It’s unclear what his plan will be with his racket; maybe now is the best time to sort through any ambiguities and find his own course.
Federer may not be ready to pick up another coach. He will need the right fit, someone who can work with a veteran superstar to provide the confidence and adjustments necessary to compete at the top one more time.
Maybe the right fit is Federer teaming with Mirka, who is now his wife. She has been with him since the beginning and has studied everything there is to know about Federer’s matches. Would they prefer to do things their own way, find hitting partners and throw themselves at the world with their own attack?
If Federer were to hit the tape without a coach, it wouldn’t be the most unusual move in his career. Coach or no coach, tennis outcomes will still come down to Roger Federer.