For those of you who may have been away on an extended flight outside the ozone of this planet, Roger Federer has hired coach Paul Annacone, and he will be working with the American for the first time at the Rogers Cup in Toronto, Ontario.
The two have been sighted in the English-speaking Canadian province, where they will begin their trial coaching enterprise.
If you are new to tennis, you may not be aware that Annacone served as a coach for Pete Sampras, who held the No. 1 ranking during much of the 1990s. Annacone worked with Sampras primarily from 1995-2001.
As a result of his phenomenal reign, Sampras currently owns the record for the most weeks ranked at No. 1, 286 weeks—a mark Federer was within one week of reaching and two weeks of surpassing back in June of 2010.
No one can deny the importance of Federer’s move to hire a coach. The man from Switzerland has fallen from being one of the top two in tennis for the first time since 2004.
The media has moved to the side of optimism, although his move might be regarded as inspiring or desperate, depending on your point of view on the current state of Federer’s tennis.
In order to assess the impact of his decision on those nearest and dearest to the Swiss maestro, all you need do is visit Federer’s website, where his fans carry on a never-ending conversation about every aspect of Federer’s life—from his life as a father to twins to the color of his on-court tennis attire or to his ominous fate in the ATP rankings.
There is currently an 81-page thread, built upon a previous 260-page thread, discussing the hiring of a coach, his qualifications, his fit with Federer, and what it all ultimately means to Federer in terms of continuing his dominance at the top of the men’s game.
Irrevocably, the consensus is that hiring Annacone was exactly the right move for reasons that vary—but are highlighted by Annacone’s known points of view on the game.
First of all, Annacone believes that the serve and the return of serve are the two most important parts of the game. While this offers no real surprise, Annacone admitted without equivocation that what he admired most about the Pete Sampras serve was not the speed and accuracy as much as Sampras’ ability to deceive. There simply was no way to read the Sampras serve until it was upon you. In that respect, Sampras was a true artist of the game.
Connoisseurs of the Federer game realize that his offense is built upon the same serve premise—deception—because it is impossible to read Federer’s serve. The Swiss does not blow opponents off the court with his serve like many of his contemporaries, but it remains vital to his success—to Federer’s ability to win.
Furthermore, without a great serve, it will be impossible for Federer to make it back to the very top of the game. It will require continued accuracy as well as deception to build a foundation for the rest of his game.
Annacone believes that one of the most effective weapons of a great server is the serve into the body. That truly keeps even the good returners back on their heels and honest, according to Annacone. This is another element Federer could incorporate more into his game under Annacone’s tutelage.
Regarding the return of serve, Annacone felt there were two kinds of returners. There is the Andre Agassi type—the big hitter who can punish you off the return—and then there is the player who uses the return to get into the point.
Annacone reminds us of the important aspect to keep in mind during the return of serve: Use the pace of your opponent’s serve, keep the backswing short and compact and keep the ball out in front of you. Most of all, you must work to try to make the return offensive whenever possible. Be ready at all times to return that first or second serve for a winner if your opponent invites it.
Many feel that Federer could attack the second serve, and they hope working with Annacone will help Federer recognize and utilize these opportunities more often than he does now.
Annacone is quick to point out that what many players fail to do is get their bodies where they need to be to hit the ball. Their footwork remains suspect, and in order to be a great ball striker, great footwork is required so that you are not reaching for the ball. You are prepared to hit the ball with adequate time for your backswing and follow-through.
This has always been one of Federer’s strengths—his excellent footwork—but what his critics have been laboring to point out during 2010 is that because Federer seems a step slow, often he appears to be reaching for the ball, late in getting to it, and therefore not set when he hits it.
His fans wish to know and understand—if this is indeed the point, then what can Annacone point out to help Federer get back to his previous level built upon excellent footwork?
Another Annacone observation is that it is important as a player to make the court bigger for yourself and smaller for your opponent by dictating play from the baseline and constructing points based on your strength, either forehand or backhand.
You need to force your opponent further behind the baseline while you station yourself closer so that his target becomes very small while yours expands. Agassi, Annacone reiterates, was a master at doing this. It is based on pure aggression and always seeking the advantage.
Federer’s inclination to out-wait the opposition often leaves him in neutral on the court. Many feel that in order for Federer to take that next step, he needs to employ constant aggression and stop waiting for his opponent to fall short. Federer needs to force his opponent to fail by pressing the action.
This is an artful lesson for the Dodger. Federer, long a master in the transition game, may need to carry it one step forward. Annacone believes that the transition game remains the ability to turn defense into offense, as well as the ability to know when an opportunity arises to take the offensive in a point.
For Annacone, the coach, the thing to remember as you move forward is to keep it simple. Whenever you hit the ball, that is the direction you run, making the opponent hit the most difficult shot. Learn to follow the ball and recognize what is given to you instead of trying to force what is not there.
Volleying has always been part of the Federer game. True volleying ability comes from the core—from the thighs to the stomach—according to Annacone. Stefan Edberg exemplified this in his volleying. He had balance and was always set. Being in position to hit the volley is the key. Core strength, being set, and using your opponent's pace to reflect the ball back are keys to great volleying—head still and the ball out in front.
The chance to move forward to the net to end the point quickly is difficult in this modern baseline game, but there are opportunities to use the volley more often and more effectively. Most anticipate that Annacone and Federer will look at how the Swiss can use the volley more in a retooled game plan—just as Federer learned to incorporate the drop shot as an offensive weapon.
The tennis world breathed a mighty sigh of relief when Federer announced he would “try out” Annacone to see if they might be able to work together. It meant that Federer was not giving up on his tennis career and that he was still fighting to retain and enhance his skills on the tennis court. His mind was open to new ideas and insights.
Most of all, it meant that, perhaps, we would all be treated to many more matches where Federer would be competing against the current top players, including current No. 1 Rafael Nadal.
At the moment, all eyes will be focused to see if and when Annacone’s influence will be apparent in retooling the Federer game for more glory. For all of you who worried and wondered—it looks like Federer will be around for a while.
Annacone remarks come from an interview in High Performance Coaching, published by USTA, Vol. 2, No. 4/2000.