Just when the talk is all of Roger Federer’s decline, his failure to get beyond the quarters of two Grand Slams, his slip to his lowest ranking in six-and-a-half years—all the way to No. 3, no less—he plays the tactical equivalent of that zippy off-forehand that leaves his opponent rooted to the spot.
Just as his fans are gazing adoringly at photos of Roger, Mirka and assorted family members on a luxury yacht in the Med, and of the four starfish hands of his twin daughters on their first birthday, he is—metaphorically—planning that between-the-legs killer of a shot that takes the wind right out of their sails.
For Federer, with his usual economy and via the usual medium of his own website, has made an unexpected announcement. Addressed “Dear Fans,” it says:
“I've been looking to add someone to my team and I've decided to spend some days with Paul Annacone.
"As Paul winds down his responsibilities working for the Lawn Tennis Association, we will explore our relationship through this test period. Paul will work alongside my existing team and I am excited to learn from his experiences. See you soon, Roger.”
He has, of course, done this before. Last spring, it was briefly announced—neatly timed between news of impending fatherhood and his wedding—that he was exploring an arrangement with Darren Cahill. The year before, it was a part-time relationship with Jose Higueras who remained ‘on trial’ from Estoril through to the Spaniard’s migration to the USA to coach its elite players.
In a nice mirroring of the Cahill story, which broke just as Cahill retired as assistant coach to the Australian Davis Cup Team, Annacone is to leave his post as coach for men’s tennis and the GB Davis Cup team.
Annacone’s contract with the LTA does not end until November, but this latest development, on the back of the resignation of John Lloyd and the appointment of Leon Smith as the new Davis Cup coach, suggests he will not be hanging around the LTA for very much longer.
Most interesting, however, is what the new relationship with Federer tells us about the ambitions of Federer himself.
The wording of the announcement suggests that this is not a formal "coach-and-player" agreement. It is an exploration, very much as the Higueras relationship was an exploration of how to pick a clay-court expert’s brain and develop the tools to win the French Open.
So it’s worth looking at the strengths and skills of Annacone to find a clue to the Federer mindset.
The American was a serve-and-volley exponent, a player who would attack the net even on his opponent’s serve. He won just three singles titles but was a highly successful doubles player. Indeed, he won the Australian Open doubles title in 1985.
As if that wasn’t clue enough, look at the Annacone C.V. between 1995 and 2002: He was full-time coach to Pete Sampras, one of the greatest serve-and-volley exponents of recent years. Annacone subsequently moved on to coach Tim Henman, another excellent serve-and-volley player.
Federer has always shown a willingness to approach the net—even in beating the great Sampras himself in their only meeting. That was Wimbledon 2001, a glorious five-set battle of champion versus challenger. The stats on that day were remarkably similar, not least the tally of aces, 26 to 25.
And Federer has constantly claimed as his idols Sampras, Stefan Edberg, and Boris Becker. The common thread in all this, as if it needed spelling out, is an enthusiasm and a talent for attacking the net.
Federer has shown more enthusiasm for all-court play in the last year or so, and a willingness to try new game plans: The drop shot on clay and the wide swinging serve from the deuce side on hard and grass courts both spring to mind. He also has touch to die for and the light and fast footwork necessary to reach the net and make quick adjustments.
The added input from such an experienced tutor as Annacone could add the variety and tactical edge that have thus far stopped Federer from being a truly great serve-and-volleyer.
This all throws up the thrilling prospect of a fully rounded, fully committed, full-blooded net attacker: Federer as the complete tennis player.
One big question remains. Just how far can Federer put himself into a new pair of hands? Annacone will have to be both tough and velvet-gloved to handle such a self-contained athlete.
But if it works, it shows that Federer believes his game still has some evolving and improving to do. It also shows he’s deadly serious about staying at the top of tennis for a little while longer, and for that we should all be mighty grateful.