Commentary

Annacone there to help Roger re-Pete?

Hiring Sampras coach could be Fed's way of learning how to be great-but-older champ

Updated: September 3, 2010, 4:03 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- For anyone who remembers the forlorn sight eight years ago of a fading Pete Sampras reading fortifying mash notes from his wife between changeovers of his shocking second-round loss to Swiss qualifier George Bastl at Wimbledon, seeing Roger Federer hiring Sampras' old coach Paul Annacone -- the same man who helped Sampras rebound just a few months later at the 2002 U.S. Open -- presents some symmetry that is too irresistible to ignore.

Can Annacone work the same magic for Federer? Can any coach make a 29-year-old player, even one as historically great as Federer, play like he was 24 or even 28 again?

Federer -- who meets Andreas Beck of Germany on Thursday in a second-round match at the U.S. Open -- would probably take the form he had when he won the French and Wimbledon in Rafael Nadal's absence last summer, lost the Open final to Juan Martin Del Potro but then won the Australian Open at the start of this year. But it's been a pretty bleak stretch for Federer since: two fourth-round exits at the French and Wimbledon, and a seven-month drought without a second title until he finally held off Mardy Fish two Sundays ago in Cincinnati.

That also happened to be his second tournament with Annacone, who has declined interview requests since Federer announced they were working together.

Even now, Federer won't admit last month's Wimbledon loss to Tomas Berdych was a personal nadir. But Federer was playing to tie Sampras' record of seven titles, and Wimbledon has always been his best tournament after the U.S. Open, which he was won five times.

[+] EnlargePaul Annacone and Roger Federer
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesPaul Annacone (left) represents a rarity: a coach hired by Roger Federer.

Federer was justifiably tweaked for uncharacteristically reaching for an out and mentioning leg and back problems after Berdych beat him. Federer went on a charter cruise with his extended family afterward, part of a six-week, post-Wimbledon break he took overall, and later said it took 10 days for his body to feel better after the tournament -- an admission that didn't exactly buttress his argument that his decline is a matter of perception rather than reality.

"Everyone is spoiled," Federer argues.

But it's not just that.

Federer's hiring of Annacone looks like a tacit admission that Federer knows his problems go deeper.

Sampras was 31 when he quit. Even 29 is old in tennis years.

What Annacone brings to Federer is far more than what Federer has called a "different voice" and calm temperament. Federer has gone long stretches without a coach during his career, and what he shrewdly seems to be looking for from Annacone now isn't so much strategy tips or stroke refinement.

What Federer must want is Annacone's insights into the mindset of being a great-but-older champion -- always a delicate thing. Federer got to witness it from afar in Sampras' case: A year before the Bastl stunner, it was actually Federer who first began to show Sampras the door, upsetting him at Wimbledon in 2001 to snap Sampras' 31-match winning streak there, back when Sampras was still the king of Centre Court. Sixteen months later, his last fig leaf gone, Sampras took the hint and retired.

"We speak occasionally about Pete," Federer says of Annacone, "how he was with him or about his experiences and stuff. I know so much about Pete already that I never try to copy him. I never try to be like him, but I tried to learn from him as a junior because he was my hero growing up. So definitely when I do hear stories from Paul about Pete, it can be inspiring."

Like Sampras at the end, Federer has been accused lately of not being as hungry or devoted to tennis as he used to be. After all, he is now the father of 1-year-old twins.

Federer has looked increasingly overpowered at times against the tour's heavy-hitters like Rafael Nadal or Berdych, but Federer disputes that too, insisting, "I can handle [the pace]." Regardless, there's not a whole lot Annacone can do about that in just two weeks, except perhaps remind Federer to keep attacking and trust his own forehand. It's no longer the best in the game, but it's still a pretty good one.

But what Annacone may be able to provide Federer most is belief -- the main thing Sampras says he got from Annacone between the disastrous loss against Bastl and an out-of-nowhere run to that last U.S. Open title over Andre Agassi just weeks later.

"It may sound like I just wanted to get stroked," Sampras wrote in "A Champion's Mind," his 2008 autobiography with Peter Bodo, "but there was something else in play. ... No matter how selfish tennis players are, it's also true that they spend a lot of their lives playing for others -- for coaches, for parents, for spouses. Paul showed great faith in my game and that inspired me.

"To hear Paul say he wanted me to go and impose myself on my rivals, that I should remember that I was Pete Sampras and they were not, that meant something, too. It meant more than I imagined it would."

Annacone's influence already may be working for Federer, too. Since announcing that he was working with Annacone, nobody has pinpointed any major overhauls in Federer's game even as the Swiss star was rolling to the finals in Toronto -- the first event he and Annacone worked together -- then winning that title in Cincinnati.

The transformation may all be in Federer's mind. But as it was for Sampras once upon a time here at the Open, perhaps for Federer that will be enough.

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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