When Roger Federer hired ex-Pete Sampras coach Paul Annacone following his disappointing 2010 summer season, it was met with near universal approval.
Something just hadn't seemed right with Fed since his Australian Open triumph over Andy Murray, and it appeared that his game was in dire need of some fine-tuning.
Many also viewed the famously stubborn Federer's decision to retain a big fish like Annacone as evidence of his hunger to improve, and continue playing for years to come, a welcome and comforting thought for tennis fans all over the world.
However, with the praise came uncertainty.
How do you teach a natural genius like Federer?
What tools are there to add to an already limitless toolbox?
How long until they butt heads and Fed remembers he's had plenty of success without Annacone?
But after a brilliant end to Federer's season, which included a record-tying fifth Year End Classic championship, a hometown win in Basel, and significant victories over Murray, Nadal and Novak Djokovic, all of these questions have boiled down to one—
How did Annacone do it?
Many have credited Annacone with cleaning up Federer's ground-strokes, installing a more aggressive approach to his game and honing Roger's sometimes troublesome serve and backhand.
While these parts of Fed's game did improve greatly as the year wound down, these were hardly never before seen developments in the great one's game.
Federer has always operated with a suffocating, yet controlled aggression, and despite the prognostications of many, we have yet to see Annacone infuse a consistently effective "chip and charge" hyper-aggressiveness to Roger's game.
Nor is the concept of Fed returning to form, after an extended period of sloppiness, with a reinvigorated backhand, more consistent serve and crisper ground-strokes unprecedented, as these lynch pins of Federer success have fluctuated time and again since the beginning of 2008.
However, there is one novel enhancement to Fed's game that has an unmistakable Annacone-imprint on it—an increased willingness to attack second serves with all or nothing returns.
After the U.S. Open, Federer repeatedly mowed through Top Ten opponents with ease, thanks in large part to ruthless and penetrating second serve returns that instantly tilted the scales of points in his favor.
The best example of this came in the WTF final versus Nadal, where Federer started the first set with several errant second serve attack returns, but stuck with the risky strategy until it began paying off as the match progressed.
Federer's unrelenting siege eventually caused Rafa to uncharacteristically falter in the third set, and he rode off into the sunset of 2010 with a crucial win over his long-time tormentor.
But while Federer's "all-in" returns were brilliant, the most noteworthy aspect of the strategy (not just vs. Nadal, but throughout the fall) was his willingness to keep firing away at those second serves even after his first few cracks sailed out of bounds in frustrating fashion.
It is well documented that Federer, the perfectionist that he is, hates missing returns and granting opponents free service points. This antipathy goes a long way in explaining why, in the past, Federer has refused to consistently attack second serves for full matches at a time, often reverting back to his conservative, slice return game when the fruits of the risky all or nothing approach were not immediately apparent.
Roger stubbornly stuck to this safe, yet vanilla return game despite the majority of the free-living world constantly telling him that the march towards toppling Nadal began with swinging away at Rafa's slow, spinning second serves.
Federer's reluctance in this respect has been understandable, though. This is a guy who has lived his whole life knowing that, once a point is on equal terms, or close to it, he has the upper hand.
However, the strategy of just slicing backhand returns into the middle of the court began to falter badly for Federer as the summer of 2010 wore on.
It became predictable, and opponents started to realize that if they simply spun a second serve towards Fed's backhand, they would get a slow chip return to tee off on in their second swing of the point.
Robin Soderling and Tomas Berdych blasted these chip returns for winners time and again in blowing Federer off the court at Roland Garros and Wimbledon respectively, and Djokovic took advantage of these tentative sitters in aggressively saving match points in his U.S. Open semifinal triumph.
A harsh reality became evident—Roger had lost just a split second of defensive quickness as he neared the ancient tennis age of 30, and he needed to start treating looks at second serves as precious opportunities to seize control of points, not just float balls back into the court and begin running.
Further, it is not as if these conservative returns came with a 100 percent accuracy rate, especially in big spots.
We've seen Federer puzzlingly flub these chip returns time and again at crucial moments against Nadal, and saw him net a forehand version at the most agonizing time possible against Berdych at Wimbledon—break point at 4-5, down a break and a set in the fourth set.
Couple this with the fact that Federer does not even necessarily have the upper hand in neutral rallies against the uber-consistent ground-strokes of Nadal, Murray and Djokovic anymore and it had become clear that Roger needed to diversify his return game considerably.
Presumably, this is where Annacone's impact has emerged.
Though a technical mastermind in his own right, Annacone has developed a reputation for making positive psychological headway with his clients, most notably Sampras. Perhaps Annacone, in citing the warning signs detailed above, finally overcame Federer's stubbornness and convinced him that the constant conservative returns were not going to cut it anymore.
Maybe he drilled an aggressive return game into Federer's head, affixed with the instruction to not abandon it even if he badly overcooked his first few attempts.
While it is possible that this emphasis on attacking second serves could have originated with Federer, a pretty good problem-solver in his own right, all signs point to Annacone digging in on this issue and essentially requiring that Federer fire away at those batting practice serves early and often.
Now, no one is saying Federer is too old to play great defense anymore, or that his defensive returns have become obsolete.
The man is still one of the fastest in the game, and can buy himself time with that chip response better than anyone.
But, as he gets older, and the big hitters and younger generation remain in hot pursuit, it is obvious that he needs to seize control of those precious break points a little more often, all while keeping his opponent guessing as to the velocity of those second serve replies.
Under the gaze of the newcomer Annacone, the Great One's return game looks to be up to the challenge of another run at greatness in 2011.
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