Federer's adjustments paying off
Paul Annacone was a pretty fair tennis player.
He served and volleyed his way to a career-high ranking of No. 12 on the ATP Tour, as well as three titles. He reached the singles quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 1984; his only major title came in 1985, when he won the Australian Open doubles with Christo van Rensburg.
But his greatest impact on tennis came as the coach of Pete Sampras. The combination of Annacone's intellect and Sampras' athleticism resulted in a flurry of Grand Slam singles titles. Sampras won eight majors (and reached three more finals) in their seven seasons together, from 1995 to 2001. When Sampras was winding down his final year, Annacone returned for one more run. It ended with Sampras' fifth U.S. Open title -- and record 14th major -- at the age of 31.
And now, after a nearly four-year stint as the Lawn Tennis Association's head of British men's tennis, Annacone is at it again, attempting to conjure a few more majors from the man who broke Sampras' Slam record, Roger Federer.
"When you have his skills, his drive and his discipline, there is not much that cannot be achieved," Annacone wrote ESPN.com in an e-mail. "It think that is shown by his record. Personally, it has been terrific for me to be part of the team and be involved with a great player and more importantly terrific person.
"I am really enjoying it."
Federer, heading into the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals that start Sunday, seems happy with the results. Which, considering how the first half of the year went, is something of an upset.
He came out of the box fast, as he usually does, and won the Australian Open, but there were troubling early-round losses to Marcos Baghdatis, Tomas Berdych, Ernests Gulbis and Albert Montanes in his next four tournaments. When he lost in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon (to Robin Soderling and Berdych), the end of Federer's record of 23 consecutive major semifinals left some people wondering how much he had left.
Quite a bit, even at the age of 29, as it turned out. Federer has won 29 of 33 matches since Wimbledon -- significantly better results than the past two years. He lost to Novak Djokovic in a spirited five-set semifinal match at the U.S. Open but came back to beat him in the Basel final -- winning 6-1 in the third set. Federer held five match points against Gael Monfils in the recent Paris semifinal, but lost two of three tiebreaker sets.
ESPN tennis analyst Darren Cahill said he sees some new tricks in the old dog.
"A lot of people think Roger's best tennis is behind him," Cahill said recently. "I disagree.
"To me, it looks like he's trying to come in on every ball, looking for every opportunity to be more aggressive. He's already got one of the best offensive games in the world and now he's got more of an attacking mindset. He's not wasting time looking for opportunities."
Annacone, understandably, is a bit more circumspect.
"Roger has been playing terrific tennis," he allowed. "He is a great player with great perspective, so he really understands what is going on and why. This gives him a great ability to adapt and adjust."
But is he consciously playing more aggressively?
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"Roger is a great player with a large variety of tools in his tool kit, so to speak," Annacone wrote in answer to the specific question. "Much of the challenge is figuring out when to use which tool. This is a great asset and as great players do, Roger reads the situations and puts the best plan into place to reach his goals."
Cahill, who coached former No. 1 players Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt (and, very briefly, Federer himself), said he sees the fingerprints of Annacone all over Federer's game.
"Before, Roger would problem solve as he went along," Cahill said. "Now, he's going out there with a specific game plan. There's more structure."
Federer, who complained of back and leg injuries after Wimbledon, was upbeat after losing to Monfils.
"I feel good physically," Federer said last week. "In a way it is a relief that I was able to finish the [Paris] tournament in good physical health. I'm fresh mentally, too. This is the most important thing.
"Victories are important, but when you're not fit and when you're injured, it's bad. So I think I'm going to recover quite fast after that loss. I think I have good chances maybe in London for winning."
Annacone likes what he's seeing and, going forward, it appears Federer will have the best strategic support of his career. For that reason alone, 2011 should provide some compelling theater.
"It is a luxury to have such diversity," Annacone wrote, "but more importantly it is a skill and talent to know how and when to implement each [weapon]. And it is a process, so each day is a new challenge and a new opportunity."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.