Commentary

Federer confident he can halt season-long drought during clay season

Instead of amassing more trophies, Roger Federer has been the subject of a player with waning confidence and increasing anxiety. And as the world No. 1 embarks on the clay-court season -- including the elusive French Open title -- it's time to regroup.

Originally Published: April 17, 2008
By Ravi Ubha | Special to ESPN.com

Roger FedererAP Photo/David VincentPast pros are optimistic about Roger Federer's clay chances despite a season of turmoil.
And so it begins. Again.

For the fourth straight year, Roger Federer seeks to complete his Grand Slam collection at the French Open, something standouts Pete Sampras, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker all can relate to. They were bamboozled by the red clay and ultimately failed in Paris.

For the second consecutive year, Federer entered the dirt season in turmoil, having, remarkably for him, failed to win a tournament in four tries in 2008 and trying to overcome the aftereffects of mono. He showed up in Estoril, Portugal, last week with a new coach, Jose Higueras, which some might consider a sign of vulnerability. You'll recall he was sans coach for almost a year since parting company with Tony Roche.

Don't forget about me

Jose Higueras will continue to serve as Robby Ginepri's "primary coach" for the rest of the year despite teaming up with world No. 1 Roger Federer, according to Kelly Wolf, the Georgia resident's agent.

Ginepri sought the help of Higueras towards the end of last year as his career unraveled, and the two worked together in the offseason. His ranking has risen from outside the top 170 in late January to No. 88, thanks largely to successive semifinal appearances in Delray Beach, San Jose and Las Vegas.

"Jose is really concerned and committed to making, to giving as much to Roger without sacrificing his relationship with Robby, which for me, is great to hear because as an American and friend of Robby's, I think it was great for him to get involved with Robby last year,'' said retired two-time Grand Slam finalist Todd Martin, coached by the Spaniard throughout his career. "It stands to be a great addition to Robby's career, to be sharing the same space with Federer more often. If there's anybody that can manage multiple personalities and do his best by everybody, it's Jose.''

Though rare, it's not unheard of for elite coaches to collaborate with more than one pro at the same time. Dutchman Sven Groeneveld, for instance, handles an array of Adidas-sponsored players, who include Serb Ana Ivanovic and Indian Sania Mirza.

"I think tennis coaching at the pro level is way too individualized,'' Martin said.

Ginepri, seeking to regain the form that saw him reach the U.S. Open semifinals three years ago and crack the top 15, had no problems with the set up.

"I'm extremely fortunate to have Jose as my coach,'' the 25-year-old said. "He's not only the most knowledgeable coach I've ever met or had the opportunity to work with, but someone who I can always count on. I'm not surprised Roger is turning to him now for a bit of support."

Ginepri heads to Bermuda for a challenger event on clay next week after losing to Israeli Dudi Sela in the opening round of the U.S. Clay Court Championships in Houston on Monday. Bounced in the opening round of Australian Open qualifying, he's earned a spot in the main draw at the French Open.

-- Ubha

Meanwhile, his top rival on the surface, three-time French Open champ Rafael Nadal, embarks on his favorite part of the season seemingly with a bit of momentum, after reaching the semifinals at the Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells, Calif., and going a round further at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami. Add to the mix Novak Djokovic, whose confidence, never waning, got more of a boost when he won the Australian Open, and it makes for a particularly interesting next month and a half.

According to some, this is the world No. 1's (yes, he's still the top dog) last chance to win in Paris. Jim Courier, one of the few American men to prosper on clay in recent decades, isn't so gloomy.

"He is not at the age where he will be physically declining, so assuming he gets back to full strength and has some good training weeks, he will continue to be the favorite on clay -- apart from Rafa,'' said Courier, the two-time French Open winner and founder of the Outback Champions Series, which hit the Cayman Islands this week. "But his health certainly must be priority one.''

Federer said in Miami he was 95 percent fit. Still, his 11-match winning streak against Andy Roddick came to an end after a startling collapse late in their quarterfinal. More than a week earlier, Roddick's former housemate, Mardy Fish, who'd never taken more than a set off Federer in five previous meetings, pummeled the 26-year-old in an hour in the Indian Wells semis.

Combustible Scot Andy Murray ousted Federer in his second home of Dubai in the opening round, and Djokovic, of course, eliminated him in the semifinals in Melbourne. Given Federer's later disclosure he was suffering from mono at the time (he told reporters in Estoril he was "sick like a dog'' early in the year), it didn't appear to be a bad result and explained why his movement was off.

"The hope is that he doesn't lose his confidence and that it will just take a little time for him to regroup, which is what I suspect,'' said Peter Fleming, an analyst for Britain's Sky Sports and John McEnroe's former doubles partner and coach. "I think he's going to, at some point in the clay-court season, get his game to where he wants it by the time of the French.''

Todd Martin suspects his former mentor Higueras will remain with Federer past Roland Garros. They're testing things out in Estoril, the small seaside resort near Lisbon.

Martin wasn't surprised when the California-based Spaniard, an astute clay-courter in his day, joined Federer's team. Higueras broke the news to him in a phone call late last week -- the 55-year-old asked Martin to guess who'd called him, and the first player Martin thought of was Federer.

A two-time Grand Slam finalist known for his attacking style, Martin has sensed some "anxiety'' in Federer's game. That was evident in his defeat to Roddick.

From 3-3, 30-0 up on Roddick's serve in the third set, Federer dropped the next 11 points, most on unforced errors. Roddick broke to take a 5-3 lead when Federer rushed a routine forehand and sent it into the net.

"I've been of the thought of Roger needing some input for a little while now,'' said Martin. "He's, in my opinion, exhibited some anxiety on the court, not behavioral. I think he's just pulled the trigger on some points earlier than he has been over the years.

"You would think with Jose's playing background, if anybody had any anxiety in their game, he could quell that because of the way he played -- bide your time, bide your time, bide your time. At the same time, from my conversations with Jose and my own opinions of Roger's game, Jose is going to encourage him to be more aggressive than in the past, but understand when and how to pick his spots, and how to impose himself with margin as opposed to risk.''

Martin started working with Higueras, whose client list has also included Courier, fellow French Open winners Michael Chang, Carlos Moya and Sergi Bruguera, and more recently Robby Ginepri, weeks before turning pro in 1990. No one was better at teaching him how to play at the net.

"That was the question most asked about my relationship with Jose -- 'It doesn't seem to be a good fit, he was this type of player and you're this type of player,''' Martin said. "But the beauty of Jose's skills as a coach is that it doesn't matter what your style is. He coaches and teaches the game very well. And I don't know anybody that doesn't enjoy his company. He's one of my favorite people in the world.''

No one in their right mind would forecast the success of their relationship based on a single match, but Federer's first under Higueras was nervy. He trailed by a set to good friend Olivier Rochus on Tuesday and got back into it only when the Belgian put in a sloppy game in the middle of the second, delivering consecutive double faults and an errant backhand from 30-15 to lose serve and fall behind 4-2.

Federer dictated proceedings and was dominant in the third.

"I disagree with those who say I'm playing bad,'' Federer told reporters. "I'm totally not playing bad. I think I'm on the verge of playing great again.''

If Federer's title drought extends to five tournaments, there's no need to panic, Courier added. The priority is clear.

"He will want to prove to himself that he is going in the right direction, I'm sure, but at the end of the day the only event on his mind right now should be Roland Garros,'' Courier said.

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.