by Steve Flink
So what should we make of the news that Jose Higueras is coaching Roger Federer this week as the Swiss maestro opens up his 2008 clay court campaign in Estoril? Will Higueras take over that role for the rest of this year, and perhaps beyond? Does this move signal that Federer believes he needs a man of stature in the coaching community to help him pull out of a recent slump? Is this an indication that, for the first time in a long while, seeds of real self doubt have been planted in the Federer psyche?
We won’t know the answers to those significant questions until the clay court season unfolds. I strongly suspect Higueras will be at Federer’s side at least through the U.S. Open. He is, after all, one of the leading coaches in the business. He joined forces with Brad Stine to help Jim Courier reach No. 1 in the world in 1992. He worked with Mary Joe Fernandez in the 1980’s, had a brief stint coaching Pete Sampras in 2002, and is known in the cognoscenti of the sport as one of the brightest and best minds in his profession. Higueras, who peaked at No. 6 in the world as a player and twice reached the semifinals of the French Open, knows precisely what he is doing. His breadth of tactical and technical knowledge is incontestable.
My feeling is that Federer is not by any means in a panic mode after failing to reach a final in his first four tournaments of 2008. But he is surely deeply concerned that he has not been able to jumpstart his season, and realizes that he has a considerable challenge ahead of him as he attempts to turn his year around in the immediate weeks ahead. This is not to say that he is uncomfortable going out on the clay. He has reached the last two French Open finals, and only Rafael Nadal has beaten him at Roland Garros over the last three years. He has won Hamburg four times in the last six years, including a year ago when he ended Nadal’s phenomenal 81 match winning streak on that surface.
Clearly, Federer can play beautifully on that surface. But he is unmistakably more vulnerable on clay than is the case on any other surface. A wide range of top notch slow court players would much rather compete against the world No. 1 on the clay than on any other kind of court. My guess is he is cautiously optimistic at the moment about what he can achieve in the weeks leading up to Roland Garros. Be that as it may, he has turned to the right man at the right time if he does indeed elect to hire Higueras as a full-time coach, or anything along those lines.
The notion that Higueras could only help Federer on the clay is fundamentally flawed. Higueras knows the game inside out, understands all of the surfaces, realizes what it takes to win everywhere. If this trial in Estoril works out, Higueras could provide crucial insight for Federer across the board, and help him build better strategies for combating the likes of Nadal, Djokovic and Murray. What will be most interesting about this possible union between coach and player will be how willing Federer is to listen. He has been so self sufficient for so long that he has grown accustomed to hearing only an inner voice. He has figured things out for himself during big matches remarkably well. He has shaped his own destiny for large chunks of his career. That has made Federer inordinately obstinate, which has mainly worked well for him but has maybe sometimes been detrimental.
Look at the facts. He turned pro in 1998 and was coached initially by the Australian Peter Carter, who died tragically in a car crash. Sweden’s Peter Lundgren— who shared the coaching responsibilities for Federer with Carter, took over and guided Federer through the 2003 season as Federer captured his first career major at Wimbledon and finished at No. 2 in the world. Federer parted ways with Lundgren and played the entire 2004 season on his own, collecting three of the four majors that season without a coach, taking over at No. 1. He hired Tony Roche in 2005 on a part time basis. Federer sealed two more majors in 2006 and won the Australian Open at the start of 2007. Roche remained with Federer until May of 2007, when the Swiss decided it was time to end the partnership. Federer did just as well in 2007 as he had with Roche in his corner the previous season, reaching the French Open final, winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
What does all of that information suggest? The way I look at it, Federer has flourished on his own and shined when he has had the benefit of a coach. It can work either way for him. He has a calm, orderly mind and is excellent at problem solving on the court. He also has the ideal temperament, seldom of ever choking away matches, almost always making his rivals work hard to finish him off. He is a champion through and through, and a match player of the highest order.
Nevertheless, he has arrived at a crucial juncture in his career. He had built up an astonishing aura around himself from 2004 through 2006. In those three seasons, he suffered only nine defeats. His adversaries never felt they had him beat, and frequently walked on court against Federer half-convinced they would lose. But his fortunes changed in 2007. Although he won three Grand Slam events for the third time in an unimaginable four year span, he did lose nine matches over the course of the season. He remained supreme, but some vulnerability had set in.
That was why I was not that surprised when he got off to an uncertain start in 2008.Novak Djokovic upended him in the semifinals of the Australian Open. In my view, Djokovic is on his way to finishing 2008 as the No. 1 ranked player in the world. Andy Murray toppled Federer in the opening round at Dubai. Murray had beaten Federer the last time they had met in Cincinnati two years ago, and he should finish this year at least among the top ten in the world and perhaps in the top five. Mardy Fish clipped the world No. 1 in the semifinals at Indian Wells. Fish was in the zone that afternoon but Federer was incredibly ordinary and listless. Then Andy Roddick defeated Federer for only the second time in 17 career head-to-head appointments at Miami. What was striking about the loss in Miami was how apprehensive Federer was in the crunch. Serving at 3-4 in the final set, he was broken at love, failing to knife away a backhand volley, and then committing three flagrant unforced errors in a row. Until then, Federer had not lost his serve in the match, and had played reasonably well. A grateful Roddick served out the match.
No one could have envisioned Federer not winning a tournament in four attempts on hard courts as he opened his 2008 season. Who would have believed four different players of such varied playing styles would beat Federer in that span? Federer announced before Indian Wells that he had been told by doctors in February that he had been battling mononucleosis. The feeling then was that he had the mono originally last December, and his subsequent health struggles could be traced to that. Presumably, he is all right now, but any long clay court matches will test his stamina thoroughly and give us a better reading on the state of his health. I don’t believe his losing streak can be attributed much to his health; the evidence was there in 2007 that he was more beatable. But no one, not even Federer, really knows how debilitating his problems have been, or how much his health has weighed on his mind.
Federer has wisely elected to play four clay court events— Estoril, Monte Carlo, Rome, and Hamburg-on his way to Roland Garros. Considering the recent trajectory of his record, the health problems, and his declining self conviction, reaching out to Higueras is a sensible and appropriate move for Federer to make. He can’t expect to dominate on the clay, and he needs to make his progress step by step. But his goal should be to win as many matches as possible before Roland Garros. The 55-year-old Higueras can help Federer do that, and give him the best possible chance to resume his winning ways and get back to believing in himself again.
The timing is perfect. Federer needs to listen not only to that inner voice but to someone who would be willing to offer candid and creative advice. He needs to open his mind up to an individual who might just tell him a few things he does not necessarily want to hear. Jose Higueras has impeccable credentials. Roger Federer has an opportunity to learn from a master of the coaching craft. In the end, Federer will determine the outcome of this alliance. In the mean time, it will be fascinating to see how it all plays out.
Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com
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