Commentary

Does recent Aussie loss amplify Federer's need for a coach?

Since a semifinal loss to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open semifinals, Roger Federer has been the face of scrutiny. And the perpetual pressure the world No. 1 endures is unlikely to subside. Perhaps a full-time, devoted coach is in order.

Updated: January 30, 2008, 6:44 PM ET
By Joel Drucker | Special to ESPN.com

Does Roger Federer need a coach? Or is even asking this question a form of heresy? Federer has dominated tennis so regally and comprehensively over the past four years that he has come to be regarded as an avatar of tennis' code of self-reliance. Goes the thinking: He's so good, he doesn't need a coach. Federer, so many note, is a throwback to the days when the great Australian champions such as Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall autonomously traveled the world without entourages.

But maybe that's more a projection of desires than reality. The Aussies not only had Harry Hopman helping direct their training routines, but they also had each other. Many would willingly offer themselves up as practice partners and scouts for their mates.

Federer made a comment in Australia that revealed touches of insularity. "I usually concentrate on my own game," he said. "I used to concentrate much more when I was younger. Right now, it's all automatic. I don't actually have to necessarily change my game a whole lot."

Had Federer won the Australian Open, the comment would have passed by unnoticed. But he didn't, and such events as his third-round struggle versus Janko Tipsarevic and subsequent semifinal loss to Novak Djokovic have revealed more vulnerability and tactical passivity than we are used to seeing from the mighty Swiss. With a younger generation nipping at his heels -- as Nadal has since 2005 -- it's likely Federer will not approach future high-stakes matches unaware of how his opponents play."Every few years, guys improve, and you better have what it takes to handle those adjustments," Andre Agassi told ESPN.com last year. "If you don't, you'll be left

This is not intended as a suggestion that Federer's decline is about to commence. Although he certainly is more likely to feel the wind at his back over the next two years, the business of predicting a champion's descent is a dangerous one.

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
AP Photo/Rick StevensRoger Federer entered and completed his fourth straight Grand Slam event without the guidance of a coach.
But why shouldn't Federer have a coach? Last spring, he fired the deeply respected Tony Roche, perhaps frustrated by Roche's unwillingness to travel full time. Or maybe the fault was Federer's -- the natural stubbornness you might expect from such a dominant champion.

Although Roche did not appear to micromanage Federer too much, it is notable that soon after jettisoning Roche, Federer played a miserable French Open final. And although he won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, he fought through bad patches of play in both finals.

An extra voice -- if it's one the client respects -- can be quite valuable. Ernest Hemingway cherished his editor, Maxwell Perkins. Muhammad Ali hung on the words of cornerman Angelo Dundee. In tennis, such heavyweights as Martina Navratilova, Jimmy Connors and Pete Sampras leaned on others, too.

"I always felt it was my job to remind Pete of what he could do as a player in a way that was pointed and simple," said Paul Annacone, Sampras' former coach."When we got back together in 2002, the message as we geared up for that year's U.S. Open was very clear: Use your athleticism. That may seem obvious, but sometimes just planting a basic idea in a player's mind can accomplish a lot."

What idea might work for Federer? Consider this one: Bring even more of your variety to the table. If you want to win the French Open, stop trying to go toe to toe with Rafael Nadal by hitting topspin backhands to Nadal's forehand. Use the slice backhand more. Hit down the middle. Vary serves and returns.

But in the world of pro tennis, the messenger is even more important than the message. There are probably 100 teaching pros who could share these kind of insights with Federer, but they likely would not command his attention. This has less to do with any form of arrogance on Federer's part and more to do with the dynamic of professional tennis -- an insular world in which the true inner sanctum is the locker.

So what kind of coach would work for Federer? Probably not an excessively vocal type such as Brad Gilbert or Larry Stefanki. These two are brilliant but gung-ho in a way that would impinge on Federer's low-key disposition. Nor would he benefit from the paternalism of a Nick Bollettieri or the technical proficiency of a Robert Lansdorp.

The criteria for Federer's coach: Unobtrusive, kindly devoted, familiar with the rituals of the men's game, but willing to bring a few new ideas to the table in ways Federer hasn't thought of before. Annacone would be excellent, as would other wise minds such as Mats Wilander or Jose Higueras.

But the nation Federer most reveres is the one he just left: Australia. His primary coach through his teens was an Australian, Peter Carter. Carter imbued Federer with that nation's work ethic and no-nonsense approach to competition. Carter's sudden death in a car accident in 2002 was the spark that triggered Federer's shift from promising boy to champion man. It was Australia that heavily drew Federer to Roche.

And perhaps, should he seek a new coach, Federer might well join forces with another Australian, Darren Cahill. Having previously worked with Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi, Cahill knows about the game at its highest levels. Equally important is his ability to keep counsel. Although always kind, during his terms with each player, he was notorious for rarely giving interviews or doing anything other than look after his player. But the ball is in Federer's court. How could having a coach hurt him? Even a Ferrari needs a mechanic.

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.