Federer and the Field

RogerClownI need to keep this short and as clear as I can.  The last post meant to clarify this but it was lost.  I’m afraid readers thought I was writing about the GOAT debate.  No way.  If anything, I was saying to all of the Djoker GOATers, slow your roll: you have much work to do before you can even say GOAT, let alone sound like a dying goat.

What that means is that the sport has a clear hierarchy of all-timers.  If Djokovic were to retire tomorrow, he would in fact have two of the all-time seasons to speak of.  2011 and 2015 are simply brilliant.  No question. But he has to surpass Nadal, at least, to get into the Big conversation.  Just the way it is.  That’s all I was saying.

Djokovic will always have Nadal and Federer as his closest comparisons.  For the H2H knuckleheads, there’s not enough time left for those to get too crazy.

Some think he’s better than Sampras at this point.  I might even buy some of that stock, but 5 USO and 7 Wimblies are downright scary.

Djokovic is playing just brilliant tennis.  The consistency is the most compelling element because that then reduces any quality of opponent issues.  He wins or reaches the final in nearly every tournament he plays.

So does Federer, these days.  In the last post, I wanted to bring-up Federer’s coaching.  When do you bring-up someone’s coaching?  Generally, when they are underachieving in some respect.  Some might argue, including me, that Federer is over-achieving.  But, listen up.

The Nadal and Murray coaching contexts are interesting.  The former is clearly underachieving and the discussion surrounding his coach/uncle is fairly demonstrative.  Nadal has probably done with his coaching what Federer did with his racquet: too stubborn for too long.  Toni isn’t going anywhere and neither is Nadal.

Andy’s coaching concoction is similarly impotent.  He had a run with Lendl, achieved big-time, and now he’s in the fetal position.  For his sake, let’s hope he leads GB to DC glory?  Actually, I do not want to upset my Belgian readers.  I enjoy Belgian soccer and beer too much, as well, to promote any demise of a Belgian side. 😉

In the end, the coaching is critical.  Federer’s problem is he is still so. . . Federer.  You think that’s not a problem?  I understand, given his career.  But it is.  He’s too convinced of himself, of his tennis, of his incredible legacy resonating like the Fed Express nation of carolers harmonizing outside his front door every evening of the year.  It’s always Christmas in Federer.

Other than his racquet, and perhaps a little S&V, what’s so different about his game since Edberg’s arrival?  Nothing very discernible if you ask me.  And quite frankly, the one issue we all know and love (mental fortitude) has not improved at all. He wins on talent, loses on stage-fright.  Same basic pattern.

What about Djokovic’s coaching?  Do you remember Djokovic as recent as 2013?  After that scintillating 2011, he pulled up lame, essentially, in 2012 and 2013.  He lost big matches.  His losses to Nadal at the French, to Murray at the US Open and Wimbledon, and to Roger at Wimbledon were tragic for the Serb; he was a huge liability in big matches.

Enter Becker.  No doubt, Novak is a different player with Boris at the helm.  Djokovic, perhaps on his way to even more incredible major and Masters achievement, destroying records and opponents along the way, clearly benefitted immensely from a solid coaching change.  The Boris effect is great discussion for another day, but who can deny this tremendous addition to camp Nole?

Wawrinka?  Magnus is my favorite, perhaps.  The fact that he orchestrated Soderling’s demoralization of Nadal at the FO is enough for a standing Oh My.  He’s had the same kind of affect on Stan.  Do not discount the Norman factor when you yearn for the Stanimal.  That’s coaching as much as it is the SHBH and bully charisma.

So, what about Edberg?  Too soft (spoken).  I don’t buy it.  I don’t think Federer really listens to his coaches, anyways. They’re rarely listed in profiles.  I saw one recent Federer profile that listed no coach, but his idols were included: Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg. I’m confused.  Granted, he also has the feedback of Severin Lüthi.  But hasn’t this been, always, an interesting part of Roger’s career.  We have to admit that the clear “lack” of coaching presence has added to Roger’s legacy.  Well, that’s a problem. Sure we could applaud the Maestro’s middle-age run of relevancy or we could say get your shit together because you could actually make something more of yourself in these end times of Federer.  Is making finals enough, only to get routinely spanked by Djokovic?

Sure, in another post I say this is his farewell tour; magnificent doesn’t begin to describe his ethos. But in this post I suggest he make even more change to his tennis time machine.  And the time is now! Roger needs less of Roger, if that makes any sense.  

The ATP is pretty decimated at this point.  Roger might just win another major, not because he’s playing better than he ever has (ha ha ha ha ha); but because Novak is sure to have some kind of lull and Roger will see the light of day.  Unless a Cilic run gets him or Stan wakes-up grumpy and faces him on clay.

The field, in other words, as of 2015, is a wasteland.  We are waiting for the young Aussies to extend themselves, or some young Euros to catch wind.  The Americans are a few years away (not Sock and Co.).  You’re going to tell me that there are real threats to the top of the sport right now?  Who?

Tell me, oh wise readers: how does Roger not need a coaching change, and/or how is the current ATP not a low-budget film, lacking any major leading actors other than the obvious duo?

11 thoughts on “Federer and the Field

  1. Sorry, Matt, I didn’t have time to write an answer so far.

    I thought myself a lot about coaching. I worked today with my son — he’s progressing, but he’s deaf when I try to advise him. But at the end, my lengthy explanations seem to work, or he finally discovers by himself what I was explaining all along.

    This summer, I worked with a girl who came from a big city, where she was working for four years at the academy of a famous coach. She fared well, because she was very athletic, but his technique was simply awful. With my son’s coach, we worked on his FH, his BH, his positioning, and in less then a month and a half, she was a completely different player.

    It’s the same at any level. There are players who are simply uncoachable — they do want they want and the way they want. There are also bad coaches — who were lucky to work with a great player, and made a name for themselves somehow, I wonder really how.

    Let’s review some cases.

    One: Rafa. He made it despite his coach, who knows less then nothing about coaching. It goes from basic shots to court positioning and shot sequences.

    Two: Murray. He has an excellent technique, but his strategy is a problem. He seems to refuse to listen to male coaches — and he worked with some really excellent coaches, from Mark Petchey to Brad Gilbert. The only one he seemed to have listen to was the one he couldn’t fire, Ivan Lendl. At the end, Lendl left.
    Three: Federer. Fed refused to do the basic physical training when he got back working with Tony Roche. He then proceed to be coachless for some time, before hiring Annacone. Both Annacone and Edberg fitted well in the kind of game Fed wanted to play. I always suspected that Fed was the one that chose the overall direction of his work. Edberg helped him with net strategy — he has always have the cleanest, most logical behaviour at the net, and when I wrote in a post that Sampras was a second fiddle there, I was thinking about Edberg. He really helped Roger improve deep volleys, while the transition game was already OK. The work on the backhand started earlier, in 2010/11, but it became visible only when Fed changed his racquet. Unfortunately, it seems that he lost a few years here — 2008/9, and the results came too late, when his legs were slowly starting to betray him.

    Four: Tsonga. Jo also had an excellent coach, and a glaring weakness — his BH. Winogradsky was aware of that, and he insisted working on movement, on backhand, and, as it usually isn’t very productive at the beginning, Jo fired him. But a few months after that, things came to their places, the puzzle was completed, and Jo made his first GS semi after a while. He thought he could continue without a coach, until his results dropped down. He’s 30 now, and without a good solution. He hired Rasheed, in vain. Then he tried with French ex-players, but they obviously don’t dare make him work what he doesn’t like. So, he remained where he was. Nothing changes.

    Five: Monfils. The guy is not only totally uncoachable, but his main problem is that he was not able to find a good physio. There are a lot extremely competent in the East-European countries, where school is a bit more serious. He continued to be injured for most of his career.

    Six: Wawrinka. He found a good coach, and he also works with Paganini. It’s overall a very good choice. Results are here. But you can’t make of him a rabbit — he’s rather a tank. His team understood it well, and he usually peaks for slower tournaments, while playing without much effort on faster surfaces. It seems wise.

    Seven: Djokovic. Novak was lucky with his coaches. He worked with Petrovic, who is a good coach but a terrible person. He left in time. He tried with Piatti, but he soon understood that he was only Ljubicic’s sparring partner, and the training was not streamlined for him. He found Vajda, then hired Woodford to help him with his serve, while Marian completed his b aseline game. You can find a good interview of Vajda with Ubaldo Scaganata on yt. But he knew that it wasn’t enough, and that he had to improve his game. He made a big error and lost a year. Then, he changed his attitude and Vajda could complete his ideas in 2010/1. The progress on the forehand was visible. When other players began to catch up, Vajda and Pilic came with the idea to hire Becker. They knew he would accept, and Pilic believed he could be a good coach — Boris was there to chose the direction, Marian to work the details. It still works, and Novak continues to improve. What is remarkable here is that he embraced a style of play that was against his habits.

    Becker was the pupil of Ion Tiriac, an exceptional personality that was a visionary in tennis in many aspects. He brought Tiriac’s experience, and his own toughness in critical situation.

    There’s another thing to write, in relation with my previous sentence. Coaches usually are unable to predict the development of the game. Some are fast to learn — Mark Petchey is an example — but some don’t. A player has to be lucky with his choice — it’s not only character, motivation, but also the finesse in the changing of the game that the coach brings with him. Just a few really do it.


    1. Thanks, M4. We know this is a very “delicate” situation with coaching, visions, programs. All of sports (and family for that matter) have this balance of character, chemistry, etc.

      I want to bring-up Roger’s case because it’s a big flaw, this lack of coaching. He gets credit for being an “orphan” but we can see this is hurting him, like it hurts Nadal.

      I know this is odd to say when those players have 17 and 14 majors respectfully, but the lack of leadership, of a nurturing tennis family is apparent.

      Federer is so careless on the court. Too much confidence if you ask me, not enough humility coupled with urgency. You can see it. Part of Roger’s glory is his effortlessness, his majesty. But this is a flaw. Plain and simple. Pete, Andre, JMac, Borg, Nadal, Novak (seemingly everyone) may have had to develop more physical/mental strength because of their opponents. Once Roger learned to control is immaturity/emotions, he became this kind of effortless, majestic tennis player. His talent took him a long way.

      I am over-simplifying, sure. But I don’t really see the growth in Roger at all. That’s part of why I can’t see your point on his 2015 form vs. 2006-8. He’s hitting BH better, let’s say, but he’s just an older version of his greatness. Andre changed late to stay relevant and win. Look at Andre’s work-ethic, his expressions on court. Not the gifts of some of his rivals. But he battled. Roger is not the battler that many of these guys are. Coaching is part technique and strategy and part “parenting.” Murray is a great example. He’s a mess now.

      Coaching-wise, Djokovic is in great shape. Sure Boris could see his tenure expire in a few years, but for now this relationship is working quite well. And we know (you shared that anecdote from Wimbledon ’14) that Boris is more than just a swing/strategy coach; he’s teaching Novak about the culture of the game. I think this reflects in Novak’s character now. He’s a gentleman on and off the court. More than just tennis. Transcends the sport.

      But as you point out (to clarify some of my references), there are many cases where coach and player don’t work. It’s a shame, seems like a waste of talent and opportunity.


  2. blackspy

    I guess a necessary supplement/explanation your previous article Matt, to clarify a few points.

    There is maxim which goes like that: Federer plays for the magic points, Nadal plays not to loose, Djokovic plays to make you loose. Although pretty reductive, some basic truths are hidden in there.

    The Federer game has never changed. Not when Nadal beat him and he should cut down topspin backhands and come to the net (as he does now, ironically), not during the 2008, 2013 seasons where he should preserve some strength to recover his health, not when he should have changed his racquet (2008) to compete with his temporaries, not now that he looses to Djokovic regularly because he lacks the grit to go toe with toe in critical points. Well, perseverance was never developed as a trait of his character or athletic education/armoury and he lacks the grit to play the big points a few times (US open final an easy example). Some say it’s his vanity, some attribute it to his talent which led him to win on it alone, some say it’s the fact that he’s uncoachable (Annacone hinted to his difficulty to coach him at times). Although there must be some truth to all of these claims, he has learned to take his opportunities, when presented, (see Shanghai 2014 vs Mayer) but against a top player he can’t handle the constant pressure- be it age or coaching, I’ll let more knowledgeable readers or our host to comment.

    Nadal had always this working-class mentality, as Matt has repeatedly highlighted. His talent is not that stellar, his movement seems a bit unnatural for a tennis player and his shot options feel at times limited (maybe a coach problem there?) but as long as his body held, his heavy training covered those weaknesses with relentless running and power returning with extreme spin. Now that the physical abilities seem diminished the depth of his game must emerge or he will fade. As he’ll reach his thirties in six months, last chance saloon orders should be placed not a moment too soon.

    Djokovic’s game has evolved from the top defender in the game to a complete player with few weaknesses. He obviously has benefited the most by coaching, maybe because he searched for a long time for answers next to Federer and Nadal. His serve is now reliable and fast, his net game is more consistent (although I guess he’ll never become a net player or resort to S&V even in five years from now) and to stretch him an opponent must produce something extraordinary. Yet again, he won’t try to blow you out of the court or send you unreturnable shots; instead he’ll let you despair at the futility of trying to winning a point without trying something special while at the same time offering you plenty of opportunities to go wrong.

    My whole point is that the core game of these players is unchanged by their coaches; they just accepted or ignored what was offered and benefited or passed by the possible improvements of their respective abilities when they had the chance.

    I have already consented to the fact that Djokovic rules supreme at this point – may it be because of the recent progress of conditioning which requires funds or simply a weaker field, I can’t tell. And I agree with Matt and a couple of journalists that claim that what Federer needs now is a good draw in a major. But I doubt that a) Federer will bother to do what he needs in time, for a change, to become a regular serious threat, and b) we’ll have a change in scenery before 2017 or a serious Djokovic slump. Until then the tour seems a bit flat as the August “ATP 2015” Matt’s article has already underlined.

    Well, I believe after all that analysis both Matt and his readers (the writer of this comment included) can rest their tennis thoughts for a month, before 2016 begins. See you then.


    1. Sorry for the delay, blackspy. Excellent comment. I needed that 🙂

      “There is maxim which goes like that: Federer plays for the magic points, Nadal plays not to loose, Djokovic plays to make you loose. Although pretty reductive, some basic truths are hidden in there.”


      Don’t go too far; the discussion will continue over here and we need more of blackspy. Cheers.


  3. Utsav

    Hey Matt! Good to be back. 🙂

    Have to disagree with a couple of points about Roger as a competitor. No one makes the argument that Roger is the best competitor. No one has, in years. But here’s my addition to the discussion. As you recall, Novak double-faulted down match point against Nadal in consecutive years at Roland Garros. Nobody calls him a poor competitor. I don’t know what choking is, if not that. In Federer’s case, citing Tsonga W’11, Novak USO’10’11, Nadal AO’09 to argue that Roger is a mental midget while ignoring the scores of occasions where RF has battled like a cornered tiger is a bit weak. Let me do a quick recap. Season-ending Championships ’08 against Murray: saves 7 MPs in one game with a throbbing back; loses ultimately, but drains Murray. W final in the same year: you know what happened. Del Potro FO’09, Benneteau W’12. Scores of examples. Add to this the fact that Roger has come back from 2 sets to love down more often than anybody in the Big 4, in the past 5 years. All this, in the twilight of his career.

    Here’s what we agree on – Roger Federer is not a “blood and guts” competitor. That’s part of the reason why he is Roger Federer – the sport’s greatest ambassador at this point. Sure, it’s frustrating, but it’s also part of his appeal. It’s, as you put very succinctly, always Christmas in Federer-land.


  4. I don’t think of Roger as a choker. Find where I’m saying that. There seems a clear course of strategy that he might employ to put more pressure on these opponents. Novak and Nadal seem more able to add to the pressure a player feels, forcing them into mistakes. Roger needs to employ a bit of this kind of strategy. Clearly, one can discuss and practice this, which amounts to safer, more defensive tennis, something like that.

    This is not about choking matches. That Roger/Novak FO final in 2011 would seem another example of Novak’s vulnerability to which you refer.

    I have argued on this site how the perception of Roger, especially from biased lame brains, doesn’t reconcile reality. 2009 is a perfect example. Some have you believe Roger is terribly flawed.

    Watching the finals he’s had with Novak this year have been so anti-climactic because Roger fails to make small adjustments. That’s what I’m talking about.


    1. Utsav

      Nah, you’re getting me wrong here. Most of my commentary is on the “Roger is a choker” crowd. You’ve made your position pretty clear on that time and time again, and you definitely don’t agree with that cabal. Only thing in your post that I’m expressing disagreement with is that Roger’s casual or something along those lines. For every 1/17 BP conversion, there are 5 or 6 instances where he has been clutch. I completely agree about Federer not being very receptive to coaching though. This has really let him down over the years.


      1. My concerns about his coaching and Edberg (“Where do we go from here” and “Federer and the Field”) turn-out to be somewhat prescient, no? 🙂

        Ivan Ljubičić replaces Edberg.


      2. Utsav

        Hahahaha yes, as always. 🙂 How much Big Ivan can bring to the table should be interesting to see.

        He happens to be a good friend of Roger’s too. Is that dynamic going to make Rog more receptive? Unlikely, since Luthi’s a pal too.


      3. Yeah, who knows. I’ll probably write about it since I have been. Ivan is definitely not Stefan.

        Roger needs strategy/psychology help as much as anything.


  5. Pingback: A Little Vinci and Raonic | Matt's Blog

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