Grounded Federer not reliant on anyone's guidance

7/5/2008 - Tennis
Roger Federer, a win away from a sixth straight Wimbledon title, has no formal coach by his side. ADRIAN DENNIS/Getty Images

WIMBLEDON, England -- Roger Federer is an anomaly when it comes to his approach to tennis.

He's the best player in the game, yet he seems to desire no hand-holding, no special privileges. Take away Federer's unbelievable ability to stroke a tennis ball better than others and he's just a regular guy, albeit one with a penchant for a European designer wardrobe.

Public adulation is not something Federer seeks, but he politely handles his starring role with an effort to be considerate to fans. For instance, following his 6-3, 7-6 (3), 6-4 Wimbledon semifinal win over Marat Safin on Friday, a few people on the players patio approached him. He shook hands and said hello, then started to make an exit when an elderly couple approached -- the wife was looking to pose for a photo with Federer.

"You made someone's grandmother very happy," a reporter watching the scene unfold said to Federer.

"I need a double," said Federer, smiling, clearly aware that no snap of a finger would produce a look-alike willing to take up the burden of being a legend in his own time. His fate is to remain the well-mannered, considerate tennis star.

And maybe that's why in the big picture, Federer seems to like to go it alone when it comes to coaching.

In today's game, most players -- top stars as well as journeymen -- put great stock in having a full-time dedicated coach as an appendage. The role of a coach can vary from tactician and strategy expert to psychologist, travel agent, babysitter, substitute parent and best friend, and often is comprised of all those facets.

But Federer is self-reliant, most especially feeling capable of eschewing an outside voice while effortlessly scampering over blades of grass.

Federer has a stunning 65-match winning streak on grass heading into the Wimbledon final for a third consecutive year against Rafael Nadal. He has won his last 40 matches played at Wimbledon -- that accounts for five consecutive titles and counting.

No coach, but confidence galore.

And that's all Federer required to secure a sixth successive Wimbledon final berth, a position he attained without dropping a set. A pretty magnificent achievement considering that this year Federer has battled mononucleosis as well as some disappointing results.

"It' s been, a perfect way to the finals," said Federer, emphatically.

At the outset of his career, Federer did maintain a close coaching relationship with Peter Carter and Carter's death in a car accident in 2002 while visiting his native South Africa devastated the talented young Swiss.

In 2003, Federer worked with Swede Peter Lundgren, but the relationship did not last beyond the year. Loud whispers accompanied Federer's firing of Lundgren, but clearly he knew himself better than any outsiders. Guided by no coach in 2004, Federer won a tour-best 11 titles, including three Grand Slam titles, and amassed a stunning 74-6 winning record managing his own game.

A part-time arrangement followed for a two-year period with Australian Tony Roche, who had previously worked with Ivan Lendl and Patrick Rafter. Roche, the 1966 Roland Garros champion, was assigned the responsibility of delivering to Federer what still remains an elusive French Open title. Even though Roche proved a valuable Svengali in leading Federer to six of his 10 Grand Slam titles under his tutelage, there was no victory in Paris and their commitment ended in May 2007.

A brief 2008 interlude with clay-court impresario Jose Higueras didn't deliver success in Paris either, ending with Federer humiliated during a straight-sets drubbing by Nadal in a third consecutive French Open final contested between the two.

At the moment, in an informal bonding, Federer has Swiss Davis Cup captain Severin Luthi at Wimbledon, but it is clear that nothing should be read into the arrangement.
The burning question: Why is Federer different from other players when it comes to coaching?

Interestingly, those around the game are not surprised by the Swiss master's atypical behavior.

"He's won plenty of Grand Slams without a coach so he's doing just fine," said Darren Cahill, a former player and former coach to Andre Agassi, after Federer's semifinal victory. "It just goes to his ability to understand the game and problem solve. He's one of the great guys of doing that going into a match or midmatch, and I think he'll win many more Grand Slams."

Kevin Curren, who sat in the assigned players' seats, often chatting with another former player, David Wheaton, watched Federer's victory over Safin unfold. A Wimbledon finalist in 1985, Curren wonders whether Federer might need a coach's guidance when it comes to cracking the code to his closest nemesis, Nadal, who owns an 11-6 winning record over the world No. 1.

"He understands the game," Curren said. "But he may need someone to help him understand Nadal with the way Nadal has closed the gap. I think Nadal's in with his best shot ever to win here this year."

Peter Fleming, a four-time Wimbledon doubles champion with John McEnroe, and BBC commentator, comprehends why going without a permanent coach works for Federer.
"He's one of the most grounded people I've seen in this game," Fleming said. "He just knows what he wants, he knows what he's about, and knows what's best for him it seems. Sometimes a coach might be a distraction."

And while Australian Davis Cup captain John Fitzgerald indicates he doesn't know Federer that well and is "just an admirer from afar like a lot of people," it's not a stretch for him to see that Federer is qualified to go it alone.

"He doesn't seem to need a crutch as much as some players," Fitzgerald said. "Some players these days are looking in the [friends] box like every point and it's always a worry to me when you see somebody doing that. You have to be able to think for yourself.

"I think it has to do a lot with your personality, he's a relaxed, happy sort of guy who's having a great time. He just happens to be amazingly talented as well. And with his personality he's decided maybe it's not as important to have a full-time coach."

For Federer it seems that tennis is an individual sport where the individual should predominantly call the shots. But if he walks off court on Sunday with his first grass-court defeat since 2002, a lot of tennis pundits will opine that Federer needs to know there are times when he needs to hear a coach's voice offering advice.

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.