ESPN Tennis: Roger Federer

videoIt's quite a way to warm up for a wedding.

Novak Djokovic gave himself a Wimbledon title as a present before marrying longtime girlfriend Jelena Ristic this week at a luxury resort in Montenegro. The two are also expecting their first child, so Djokovic has plenty happening both on the court and off it.

Walking in fresh from holding up the trophy at the All England Club, the Serb had laughed at being asked whether he was going to resume training right away.

"Straight to practice," he grinned, joking about finding some hard courts around Wimbledon.

No, he is instead taking a bit of a break from the game.

"I think I can close the chapter of my tennis career just for little bit now," he said. "I think I deserve that for a few weeks to rest, to enjoy, be with my fiancée -- my wife-to-be -- and my family."

But Djokovic will be something of a different player once he returns to the game. Not only will he be a married man, but he will also be No. 1 in the world again, having returned to the top following his seventh Grand Slam victory. The biggest change, however, might be a mental one.

Coming into Wimbledon, Djokovic talked about the effect of not winning a Grand Slam tournament since the 2013 Australian Open, saying three defeats in Slam finals since then had affected his confidence in big moments. He brought on Boris Becker as a coach specifically to help him play better at those times, but he fell to Stanislas Wawrinka at the Australian Open this year and looked mentally and physically drained against Rafael Nadal at the French Open.

Even during the Wimbledon final against Roger Federer, Djokovic had the match well in hand during the fourth set but was broken three times after going up a break. But this time, he was able to gather himself. Like Andy Murray at the US Open two years ago, Djokovic left the court for a break after the fourth set and gave himself a lecture.

[+] EnlargeDjokovic
Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic has kissed the Wimbledon trophy and his new bride, and is resting up ahead of hard court action.
"I needed some time to refocus and forget about what happened in the fourth set," said Djokovic. "I had these positive words of encouragement to say to myself.

"I managed to have my convictions stronger than my doubts in this moment and managed to push myself the very last step to win the trophy."

That mental victory, combined with Djokovic's statement that it was the "highest quality" Grand Slam match he has played, led him to describe the contest as the "most special Grand Slam final I've played. At the time of my career for this Grand Slam trophy to arrive is crucial, especially, as I said, after losing several Grand Slam finals in a row."

The coaching relationship with Becker is also on better footing. Following the Australian Open, Djokovic's victories at Indian Wells and Miami were both with his long-term coach Marian Vadja, who was expected to be at tournaments only occasionally. Djokovic also asked Vadja to accompany Becker to the clay-court event at Rome, which is where the Serb says he and Becker finally began to communicate effectively.

"We won the tournament, the three of us, and it was actually the time when I started feeling much closer to Boris and when I actually understood what message he is trying to convey to me," said Djokovic.

Both coaches were at the French Open, as scheduled, and Becker was the only one with Djokovic at Wimbledon. Going on to win the tournament will have given the Serb more confidence in the setup, allowing him to be more settled at other tournaments.

He also expects the win to give him a lift for the rest of the season. "I'm going to try to use it in the best possible way and for my confidence to grow," he said.

All that means the new No. 1 will be the player to beat heading into the hard-court season. Djokovic now has the best winning percentage on the tour on hard courts, his favorite surface, having won 82.6 percent of his matches.

There could be other challenges, though. He has also had physical problems this season, injuring his wrist just before his first clay-court tournament and knocking his shoulder during a fall at Wimbledon, along with the usual aches and niggles. Most of the time it has not stopped him from competing, but the wear and tear could start to show as the season goes along.

For the moment, however, Djokovic has reasserted himself, setting up an interesting hard-court season. There is expected to be a resumption of his rivalry with Nadal, who was in dominant hard-court form a year ago but has produced some up-and-down performances this season.

Other Slam champs like Federer, Wawrinka and Murray will also be in the hunt, as will a group of younger players -- like Wimbledon semifinalists Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic -- who are emerging as contenders for bigger titles this season. It is a bigger cast than in recent years, leading to a more competitive field.

But all that will take shape in a few weeks. For now, Djokovic's attention is elsewhere. Specifically, at a resort in Montenegro.

"I’m very excited and joyful about the period that is coming up," he said.
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When a superstar talks about another superstar and compares said superstar to yet another superstar, it creates enough buzz to call pest control.

Such was the case when Andre Agassi, in a recent interview with Singapore newspaper Straits Times, endorsed Rafael Nadal, not Roger Federer, as the greatest of all time.

First, kudos to Agassi for actually having a steadfast opinion and not going all, um, Switzerland on us.

This debate, Rafa versus Fed, has raged on for years, perhaps over a half a decade. You could make the argument that no two players in any sport have ever been pinned against each other in a GOAT debate as much as these two fellows, at least in recent times. For the purposes of this article, let’s save this duel for another time.

I'm actually wondering if there are any compelling arguments to be made that Andre Agassi was a greater tennis player than Pete Sampras.

Hmmm …

To the board we go:

The Case For Agassi

•  A career Grand Slam: And Agassi did it in an era when no one was winning on all surfaces, not even Sampras. Before Agassi, the last player to successfully wend his way to the trophy table at all four majors was Rod Laver, a feat he completed in 1962, when he actually pulled off the even rarer season Slam. Today, Federer and Nadal both have a career Slam, and Novak Djokovic is a French Open title away from joining this elite group. And it must be noted that Agassi won an Olympic gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games, as well, which gives him the Golden Slam.

•  Longevity: Agassi played until he was 36 years old. Today, sticking around on tour into your 30s is more commonplace for a variety of reasons, but in the Agassi era, it was an aberration. Not only was Agassi a viable member of the tour at that dotage, but he was a successful one, too, making it to the US Open final a year earlier, at 35 years old. Agassi won the 2001 and 2003 Aussie Opens after turning 30. Sampras, who at 31, won the US Open in 2001 after a couple of crestfallen years and then called it quits.

•  His getup: One look at Agassi and he was a sponsorship deal waiting to happen. Loud clothes, big hair, just all-around ostentatious attire with an equally large charisma. He perhaps made the tabloids more than he wanted to, whether it was his romantic link to Barbra Streisand or marriage to Brooke Shields or his positive test for crystal meth, which he revealed in his autobiography “Open.” Still, the man made headlines compared with Sampras, who could double for plain Jane in any movie. And that really has nothing to do with anything in comparing their on-court credentials, but still …

The Case For Sampras

•  Success against multiple generations: When Sampras came along and won the US Open in 1990, guys such as Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg were still very much five-star players. Sampras had winning records against them all, young and old. He was 12-7 versus Becker, 8-6 versus Edberg, 5-3 versus Ivan Lendl, and on and on. Then it was on to the next era: 12-6 versus Goran Ivanisevic, 12-4 versus Patrick Rafter, 11-2 versus Yevgeny Kafelnikov, 6-1 versus Tim Henman, and on and on. But against his main rival, Agassi, Sampras won 20 of his 34 matches, simply dominating him in nearly every event they played, except Australia. They played in five Slam finals with Sampras winning four.

•  Time accrued as No. 1 player: Before Fed came along, Sampras set a record for the longest stint as the world’s top player, sitting atop the field for 286 weeks. Sampras finished the year as the No. 1 player on six different occasions, which to date is a record. Agassi reached the top ranking for 101 total weeks.

•  Slam success: Sampras won 14 majors, six more than Agassi. That in and of itself could end this contrived debate without saying a word more. So we’ll leave it at that.

Given Sampras’ overall body of work, including his Slam titles, stint at No. 1 and dominance over Agassi, it’s pretty clear who the more accomplished player was. But it’s fun to talk about, no?

Rafa's losses raising questions

April, 29, 2014
Apr 29
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NadalJulian Finney/Getty ImagesFor the first time in quite some time, Rafael Nadal truly looks vulnerable on clay.

As Rafael Nadal slogged off the court last week in Barcelona, something seemed somewhat amiss. Perhaps it was that a certain world No. 1 left town without biting down on another winner’s trophy. Gone was his 41-match win streak and a shot at a record ninth straight title in his beloved home-country tourney.

For the second straight tournament -- oh, and on clay we remind you -- Rafa was booted early. How significant is this? Since 2005, Nadal was 276-12 on clay before falling to Nicolas Almagro at the Barcelona Open. Some might say that’s pretty good.

But now after coming up short during the hard-court Masters swing in Indian Wells and Miami, and foundering on the dirt so far, for the first time in his career Nadal looks like he might have feet of clay -- or at least a foot of clay. Unless things drastically turn around in Madrid and Rome, Rafa will enter the French Open with a few question marks for the first time in a decade. Heck, Vince Spadea was more or less a relevant player the last time Nadal wasn’t considered a lock to win at Roland Garros.

With that in mind, here are some burning clay-court questions we posed to ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert before the tour takes off for Madrid next week:

Concerned about Rafa?

Brad Gilbert: “Not going to say any concerns, but Nadal is about to be 28. The expectation is perfection every time, and it’s difficult to do that. Djokovic has started to play a lot better tennis and the emergence of Stan Wawrinka will be factors in Paris. And it’s just so hard to [win the French Open] a couple of times, so to do this like he does every year is amazing. I’ll just say this: Never underestimate Rafa. He’ll find another gear.”

What about the world No. 1’s confidence?

Gilbert: “He’s pretty honest in that everyone thinks he’s a machine. For him, he’s loses a couple of matches -- it’s not like he’s going to win every one and every tournament -- and he feels the pressure, but maybe that’s what makes him play better. For every good athlete, there are no guarantees, but Nadal puts in the work. There are just variables in tennis and sports we can’t control, but that doesn’t mean anything is wrong with Rafa’s game.”

Whom do you have more faith in: Stanislas Wawrinka or Novak Djokovic?

Gilbert: “[Long pause] Djokovic. But Stan is the third-best player in the world -- clearly. He’s shocked me. If you had asked me about his game at the start of the season when he was No. 9, I might have said his biggest upside was only a couple of spots, but he that he might go backwards. But the biggest thing that has surprised me is how much his forehand has improved. We all talk about his backhand, but the forehand was the side that always went away. Now he’s hitting it incredibly big. He’s improved his movement quite a bit. More than anything else, his success has come at 29 years old, and he’s a much better place mentally that he’s ever been. But Djokovic has played great, and assuming his wrist is healed, he has a legit chance to win the French. And we all know how badly he wants it.”

Who’d you put your money on in Paris, Roger Federer or David Ferrer?

Gilbert: “No question, Federer. I feel like Ferrer, at 32 -- I know he beat Nadal in Monte Carlo, which I still can’t believe -- will throw in a match that can surprise you. He lost in the first round of Barcelona to Teymuraz Gabashvili. I just feel that at his age, if Ferrer wakes up and isn’t feeling great, he’s beatable by less-inferior players. He will have an occasional good tournament or good win, but I don’t see him being a factor in a Slam anymore. Federer has figured out how to reinvent his game, how to handle Djokovic, which he’s done twice. He is still passionate about winning. Ferrer loves clay, but I’d put my money on Federer.”

What’s going on with Andy Murray?

Gilbert: “When he gets [to the French Open], he’ll be 27. Murray hasn’t come back from his injury and surgery like Nadal did a year ago. And Murray’s in the process of hiring a new coach. But as long as he’s healthy and starts getting matches soon, he’ll be fine. He’s too talented, and he’ll right the ship. I am not worried about him.”

Any young players catching your eye?

Gilbert: Milos [Raonic] is still young. He showed us a bit in Monte Carlo. A guy I like in the next couple of years is the Austrian, Dominic Thiem. This kid has a one-handed backhand very similar to Stan Wawrinka’s. I like his potential; he’s a string kid. Look, the Big Four wiped out an entire generation of players in the majors, but there’s talent coming.

If you take Roger Federer at face value, his quest for a title was little more than a backdrop to the spectacle of Swiss tennis that was on display in the Monte Carlo finale Sunday.

After his semifinal win over Novak Djokovic a round earlier, Federer wistfully spoke to the moments the Spaniards, French and even the Americans have had on the same court in recent years. Federer's win put him in the title match against fellow countryman Stanislas Wawrinka, marking the first time in 14 years since there had been an all-Swiss final, when Marc Rosset beat a fledgling Federer in Marseille.

“This one is clearly very special, especially with the way he's been playing the last few months, the number of hours we spent together on court either playing doubles or practice, the times we've talked tennis,” Federer told reporters before the final. “It's nice living a moment like this together in a finals. It's really wonderful.”

But the emergence Wawrinka, the Australian Open champ, has altered the order of tennis’ hierarchy, while giving the Swiss a true intra-national rivalry. Now, four months into the tennis season, there appears to be clear order within the country.

Wawrinka climbed his way out of a one-set deficit to beat Federer 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2 to win Monte Carlo, picking up his first career Masters series title. Make that one major and one Masters title for Wawrinka in 2014. MVP so far, anyone?

"Well, it already change last year when I start to first make my first quarter in French Open, final in Madrid, my first semifinal in US Open," Wawrinka told reporters afterward. "I start to realize I be able to beat all the players. That's what I am doing this year and I'm doing well.

"I'm surprised where I am, but I'm not surprised when I see how I play on the court, how I move, the way I'm winning those match."

Wawrinka ended an 11-match losing streak against Federer, just months after he snapped 12- and 14-match losing streaks to Rafael Nadal and Djokovic, in Melbourne. Wawrinka, who is now 6-0 versus top-10 players this season, became only the third player outside the Big Four in the past 37 Masters Series events to win a title.

"I can see that when mentally I'm there and I'm fighting, I can play tennis; I can beat all the player," Wawrinka said.

All four of Federer’s Monte Carlo finals have ended in defeat. From 2006 to 2008, it was -- surprise, surprise -- Rafael Nadal who ultimately quelled the Swiss in those matches. Earlier this week, though, Nadal was bounced by his own countryman David Ferrer, and with Federer taking care of Djokovic on Saturday, the journey seemed a little less obstructed for the 17-time Slam champ.

But behind a barrage of unrelenting groundstrokes, Wawrinka wore down Federer, who, in the third set, looked every bit his 32 years of age. Wawrinka moved closer to the baseline, attacking each shot with aplomb while keeping Federer on his heels. Wawrinka won an astounding 13 of 14 points on his first serve in the final set, while breaking Federer’s serve twice and, ultimately, Federer’s spirit.

"I start to play more aggressive, trying to push him more," Wawrinka said. "Yeah, when you win a match like this, it's only one or two points, especially in the tiebreak. But I think I did a great tiebreak. I was serving big and being really aggressive.

"Then I took the advantage at the beginning of the third set. I saw that he was a little bit tired. Me, I was playing better and better, especially moving better."

Switzerland is a relatively small country, with a population just south of 8 million, and in terms of tennis stardom, the population doesn’t surpass the fingers on one hand. Only four players on both tours are currently ranked in the top 100. Wawrinka and Federer are the third- and fourth-ranked players, while Stefanie Voegele (No. 77) and Belinda Bencic (No. 91) occupy the sub-century mark on the WTA.

A little more than a year ago, it was hard to imagine we'd be speaking of Wawrinka in the same context as Djokovic, Nadal and Federer. He was a solid player with a ranking drifting back and forth between Nos. 10 and 30, but certainly not someone who we'd have picked to win significant tournaments on tour. But after coaching changes and a boost in confidence, Wawrinka is slugging the ball off both wings -- perhaps more ferociously than anyone at the moment.

"I think he served better," Federer said. "He definitely found his range. As the match went on, he started to feel more and more comfortable. I struggled to put him under pressure enough. I think it was a bit of both players: him raising his game, me maybe going down a notch. I think it's a big match, regardless of the opponent, because it's a finals. Playing Stan just adds to the excitement in some ways."

When Wawrinka finally finished off Federer on Sunday, he raised his arms in victory but with a muted celebration in deference to taking down the player who has meant so much to tennis, Switzerland and himself.

"Today it was a personal challenge," Wawrinka said. "Playing against Roger is always very special. He is the one who is really able to mix it up. For me, winning a match is already complicated, but against him it's even more difficult."

With the French Open starting exactly one month from today, based on the way things have gone so far, there’s little reason not to believe Wawrinka won’t be doing some more arm-raising when all is said and done.

"It's normal that I would be a favorite for the French Open, but I don't think so because I'm very far from players like Rafa, Novak and Roger," Wawrinka said. "Anyway, I will not change anything in the way I approach the tournaments."

Good call.

He's 32 years old now, and it's been nearly two years since he won a major, but Roger Federer still has a powerful hold on those of us who care about tennis.

His 2014 results have defied what we all supposedly knew. Coming off a shoddy season a year ago, one with losses piling up against garden-variety players, Federer has produced performances reminiscent of his dominant days. Of course, they’re not quite as frequent or consistent, but he’s fully entrenched himself back into the game’s inner circle of champions.

Apparently, we just didn't listen to Federer when he spoke of his resolve, that this season would engender bigger and better things. Our bad. Federer’s stellar play has continued this week in the first clay Masters Series event of the year. So it comes as somewhat of a surprise that after he was done knocking off the hottest player in the game Saturday, Federer wasn't the central focus in the postmatch shenanigans.

After Novak Djokovic's 7-5, 6-2 loss to Federer in the Monte Carlo semifinals, the Serb announced he was going to take time off from tennis to heal his ailing right wrist. This is by all accounts a pretty big blow to Djokovic, given he is coming off back-to-back titles in Indian Wells and Miami. More so, Djokovic is one a steadfast mission to win the French Open, the only missing chunk in his Grand Slam memoir.

“This injury that has been present for last 10 days,” Djokovic told reporters, “and I tried not to think or talk about it; I did everything I could, really; I was on the medications every day; I was doing different therapies, injections, so forth.

“But in the end of the day, the end of the tournament, semifinals is a good result. But I'm disappointed that I could not play as well as I could have. From the end of the first and the whole second, every shot was pain, especially with the serve.”

This setback could go one of two ways for Djokovic: Perhaps the break will give him a breather, one he could use after playing as much tennis as he has. The downside to success is the amount of time spent on the tennis court, running, laboring and taking violent swings at tennis balls day after day. Djokovic played 10 matches between Indian Wells and Miami and, including his loss to Federer on Saturday, another four in Monte Carlo. Clay courts, more than any other surface, demand fresh legs and a fresh state of mind. Djokovic is one of the fittest players on tour, so his laborious schedule could be a moot point. But if we're breaking the season down into four parts, the clay schedule is clearly the most taxing of them all.

On the flip side, you can’t Google wrist injury and tennis without the plight of Juan Martin del Potro monopolizing your screen. The Argentine has been plagued by recurring wrist ailments since winning the US Open in 2009. That’s nearly five years ago, which speaks to the grave nature these injuries can have on players.

“Well, the good thing is I don't need to have a surgery,” Djokovic said. “I don't have any rupture or something like that. I'm going to go see doctors tonight and then tomorrow again have another MRI, see if anything changed in this seven days since I had the last one.

“I just rest now. I cannot play tennis for some time. How long, I don't know. It's really not in my hands anymore. I'm going to rest and see when it can heal 100 percent, then I will be back on the court.”

On Friday, Djokovic needed more than two hours to finish off Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, which at the time seemed like nothing more than a rare bad match from the Serb. But, obviously, something more severe was going on.

During his presser, Djokovic said the transition from hard courts to clay could have played a role in his injury. He also mentioned he “started too strong,” meaning he didn't give himself a chance to properly adjust to the strenuous nature of dirt.

“Listen, I don't regret anything I've done in my life,” Djokovic said. “I thought that at the certain moment it was the right thing to do. Last year, I played with an injured ankle, but I won the tournament. This is the only time I won this tournament that is one of my favorites.”

He went on to say that these injuries just happen, that there is no way to predict something like this popping up. Sadly, he’s right.

But the concern now isn’t exactly how Djokovic contracted his injury, but whether he’ll be healed in time for Paris.

If Stefan Edberg believes in the theory of threes, he might consider swapping out his flashy blue, yellow and gold Swedish threads for something a little more camouflage.

On Thursday, Andy Murray split with coach Ivan Lendl after two-plus years, leaving the Scott coachless as he attempts to defend his Sony Open crown.

And now, Boris Becker is taking a hiatus after undergoing surgery to repair both of his hips, leaving world No. 2 Novak Djokovic without the guidance of his most recent mentor.

Not that Roger Federer needs any advice or anything, but if we could indulge him for a moment, he should ante up whatever protection he and his camp have, assuming they subscribe to the threesome conspiracy, and shield his merger with Edberg from the wrath of whatever evil is headed his way.

But the question is, how’s this going to play out?

Well, the obvious answer is for Murray to swipe Edberg. If you haven’t heard, he’s in hot pursuit of a new mentor. And why not Edberg? Unlike the Lendl-Murray marriage, one fraught with upside-down smiley faces, the genial Edberg would add welcome sunshine on a day-to-day basis.

Now, looks can be deceiving, of course. Lendl has always maintained that he and Murray had a fun working relationship and that ubiquitous scowls were misconstrued, but c’mon, we’re talking about a coach with eight Slams on his dossier and a student who ended a seven-plus decade of British futility at Wimbledon. Smile, people!

With the caustic Murray and Edberg, a gentleman if there ever was one, joining forces, this can’t be anything less than a successful alliance.

What about Rafael Nadal? Could he pilfer the serene Swede? How cruel would that be? Not only has Rafa singlehandedly wrecked Federer with all those ruthless forehands to the Swiss’ one glaring weakness, his backhand, but imagine if the two met in the Sony Open final and Edberg and Uncle Toni we sitting cheek to cheek in the stands donning matching “Vamos!” t-shirts?

Awkward.

There are a multitude of reasons why Edberg and Federer could dissolve as swiftly as they were united earlier this year, but none that make very much sense. Perhaps something as simple as a passport issue could prevent Edberg from traveling. Maybe he wants to attempt a doubles comeback a la Martina Hingis, and doesn’t have time to pull off double duty.

According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report last year, over eight million people have simply vanished from the U.S. workforce. I don’t know what that number is worldwide, but a simple extrapolation means a whole lot more have suffered the same fate.

No matter how you slice it, there is something to the theory of threes, even if just anecdotally. People like to see things in patterns, and in general, we’re all a victim of superstition.

It may all be just a cruel fallacy, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about Edberg-Federer somehow breaking bad.

You know what they say across tennis circles: Every once in a while an Ivan Ljubicic comes along. Never did that maxim seem more appropriate than in the desert of California four years ago.

Ljubicic was a gifted player who reached as high as No. 3 in the world. But he wasn’t exactly a guy who regularly turned lemons into lemonade, if you know what we mean. But the Croatian’s title at Indian Wells in 2010, which included wins over Rafael Nadal in the semis and Andy Roddick in the final, was possibly his career moment.

Not only that, it kind of came out of nowhere, at least when you look at the recent line of Indian Wells winners. You may have heard of the last three: Nadal in 2013, Roger Federer in 2012 and Novak Djokovic in 2011.

And before Ljubicic in 2010, in descending order, were Nadal, Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, Federer, Federer, Lleyton Hewitt, Hewitt and Andre Agassi -- players who won a combined 46 majors. Not bad, eh? The recent history in California is pretty clear: Only the elite players have mastered the biggest tournament on the tennis calendar after the Aussie Open. Unless you’re Ljubicic, of course.

Life has been more than comfortable for the Big Four, as if you didn’t know. And it probably won’t come as much of a surprise that in the past 34 Masters 1000 events, they’ve won 32. If you’re doing the math at home, that’s a pretty favorable ratio. But not as absolute as last year’s results in last season's Masters events, which were swept by Nadal (five), Djokovic (three) and Andy Murray (one).

And why should anything change this year? After all, Nadal is your world No. 1 and well-rested. Djokovic whiffed in Dubai -- but his loss came against a rejuvenated Roger Federer. And even though Djokovic hasn’t yet won a title this season, he’s still very much the dynamic player he has always been -- at least there’s little indication he won’t turn things around.

The only major concern is for Murray, who has a middling 12-4 record in 2014 and who is just a few months removed from minor back surgery. He hasn’t advanced past the semifinals this season.

The majors, of course, are what we all pay attention to, but the nine Masters Series on the ATP calendar are eminently important, especially when you consider the guys who have triumphed the most in any season dating to 2006 (with the exception of 2007) have ended the year ranked No. 1 in the world.

The bottom line is that Indian Wells, if nothing else, is a catalyst for the top players to set the tone, to give someone momentum heading into Miami, then the taxing clay season in April. And though Ljubicic, who was one of the game’s premier workhorses, was a wonderful story and won a lucrative tourney he was deserving of, the desert in California is (news flash!) all about the Big Four and which member masters the year’s first Master.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- It was a match between familiar faces as top-seeded Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer met for the 32nd time in their career, this time at the Dubai Duty Free Championships.

Federer came from behind for a 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 win and will be playing on Saturday for his sixth Dubai.

This rivalry is the seventh-most-contested matchup in the Open era, and Federer came into the ring -- er, the court -- with a 16-15 edge. Interestingly, they were in a dead heat on wins on hard-court surfaces at 12-12 before this semifinal broke that tie in Federer’s favor.

Coming into the match, Djokovic had won three straight over Fed, and nine of the last 12 dating back to the 2011 Australian Open semifinals. Djokovic twice had three consecutive wins over Federer during that span but had not beaten him four matches in a row, and that streak remains intact.

So what did we learn on Friday? Here are five things:

1. Federer never gives up: One trait Federer prides himself on is never giving up. Whether he’s leading or trailing, he keeps on going, believing if he hangs in long enough he’ll find an way to get back in the match. That’s exactly how he played it against Djokovic. Fed watched the first set go by fairly easily, surrendering his first service game in the match to give Djokovic an early 2-0 lead. But Federer dug in his heels after that, and after he broke Djokovic’s serve in the sixth game of the second set, the momentum shifted.

He solidified that shift when he broke Djokovic’s serve in the opening game of the third and added a bonus break in the fifth game. When Federer went jogging out to his side of the court with a 5-1 lead and Djokovic waiting to serve, he was sending a clear message: Even at 32, he's still spry and able to turn a match around against a high-quality player.

2. The Federer-Edberg partnership is working: Federer appears to be listening to the advice part-time coach Stefan Edberg is giving. That message is likely a strong suggestion that Federer needs to establish a better relationship with the net. Federer spoke a number of times this week about interesting conversations with his new mentor.

Edberg must be promoting the benefits of the serve-and-volley, as well as the best way to transition from a defensive position to an offensive one. Fed can volley -- and volley well -- but too often spends time hanging back behind the baseline. Why work so hard if you don’t have to? And at age 32, playing catch-up is probably not the best strategy. Once Federer started to approach and volley in the match he had the advantage and forced Djokovic into a more defensive position. It’s a strategy Federer should stay with to help him remain relevant. (On a side note, Edberg is not here in Dubai this week.)

3. Djokovic failed to adjust: Djokovic was clearly comfortable when Federer offered him the early lead. He likes to be a front-runner, which he was throughout the first set. But once Federer rebounded in the second set, Djokovic didn’t change his game to counter the strategy changes Federer made. Djokovic hired Boris Becker with the hope Becker can help him mentally close out matches he should win, and this semifinal match against Federer was exactly the type of match Djokovic had in mind. Djoker had the early edge and gave it away. Maybe Djokovic should try to steal some Becker tips on being aggressive, being comfortable coming to net and when at the net. It might be a better use of Becker’s salary and time.

4. Tennis and home life are meshing for Fed: Federer has made a habit of separating his home life mode from his tennis life, whether here in Dubai (where he maintains an apartment) or at home in Switzerland, when playing a tournament he normally checks into a hotel and lives a tournament lifestyle. He spoke earlier in the week about it helping him to put his game face on.

This time around, however, he’s done something unusual by staying at his own place, saying his twin daughters seemed settled at home and he didn’t want to disrupt that by packing up and pulling into the hotel. While many players are addicted to routine -- hello, Rafael Nadal -- Federer seems to be able to adapt himself to new situations, something that fatherhood probably has had a hand in. With a new child on the way, that can only be a continued plus.

5. Dubai belongs to Federer: Any way you look at it, both Federer and Djokovic enjoy playing here at Dubai. Federer’s won this title five times and Djokovic has been champion four times, including just last year. They came into the match having played in Dubai twice before to a split decision: Federer won their quarterfinal outing in 2007, while Djokovic won their meeting in the 2011 final. Their individual records in Dubai: 41-5 for Federer, 30-4 for Djokovic.

Still, Dubai remains Federer's domain. He spends a lot of time living in the city, trains here often, and the fans who sometimes run into the Federer family in local restaurants were clearly in his corner in this matchup with their constant “Roger, Roger, Roger” chants. There’s nothing like having a stadium in your corner. There were Djokovic fans, of course, but Federer was the clear favorite, and that helped him find the winning side.
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They gathered together at the Australian Open, but since then the Big Four have been doing their own thing, from rehab to Davis Cup to vacation. They've also scattered in the rankings -- though Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic remain No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, Andy Murray has fallen to No. 6 and Roger Federer to No. 8. But they remain the most closely followed players in tennis, so here's a look at what they've been up to as they prepare to return to tournament play over the next week or two.

Rafael Nadal

After nearly a year without injury interruptions, Nadal again experienced physical problems at the Australian Open -- most significantly when his back acted up partway through the men's final against Stanislas Wawrinka. Though it severely hampered his play during much of the second and third sets, medical examinations later showed the problem was only a strain that would recover with a few days' rest.

Since then, the world No. 1 has also revealed how difficult he found the situation. "I knew I had no chance of winning, but I had no intention of retiring,” Nadal said to a Spanish radio station last week. “It was the worst hour and a half that I have spent on a tennis court," he said, adding that the loss had lingered longer than most.

Nadal resumed physical training last Tuesday and was scheduled to begin hitting again Thursday. Later that day, however, he announced that he was pulling out of this week's event in Buenos Aires because of a stomach virus. "It makes it impossible for me to arrive with the adequate preparation to compete in such an important and demanding tournament," he said in a video message.

He is still entered in the inaugural Rio event next week.

Though his start to this season has been disrupted, Nadal continues to receive accolades for his remarkable achievements last season, when he won two of the three Grand Slams he played, a record-tying five Masters events and reached the final in 14 of 17 tournaments. Those achievements saw Nadal awarded for sporting excellence at the annual Mundo Deportivo Gala, following similar recognition in 2007 and 2008. Last year, Nadal was voted the best Spanish athlete ever by readers of Spanish sporting newspaper Marca.

Roger Federer

Although Nadal has been making headlines for pulling out of a tournament, Federer caused an even bigger stir by making a surprise appearance in one. As usual, the 17-time Grand Slam champ had implied he would be skipping the first round of Davis Cup, having played at that stage only once since 2004. But a day before Switzerland was due to take on Serbia in the team competition, news broke had Federer would be joining his new fellow Grand Slam champ Wawrinka and the rest of the team for the contest. "Look who I found in Novi Sad ..." Wawrinka wrote on Twitter alongside a photo of him, Federer and team captain Severin Luthi shortly after Federer's participation had been made public.

Wawrinka had known in advance that Federer would be there, having been involved in the discussions during the days leading up to the tie. For most, however, it was a surprise. The story goes that at the airport, Serbia's team captain approached a recently arrived visitor and told him he looked remarkably like Roger Federer, only to discover that he was talking to the tennis legend himself.

It all culminated in Switzerland posting an easy win against the Serbs, who were missing Djokovic and their next two highest-ranked players. Federer then announced he would also take part in the quarterfinal tie against Kazakhstan in April, strengthening the impression that he has fully committed to his country's Davis Cup campaign this year. His return, combined with the emergence of Wawrinka as a Grand Slam force, means the Swiss team is now a heavy favorite to lift the Cup for the first time.

After an exhilarating but exhausting month, Wawrinka pulled out of this week's event in Rotterdam with a leg injury, while Federer is scheduled to be back on court at Dubai in two weeks' time.

Novak Djokovic

Had Djokovic also been playing for the Serbs against Switzerland, it would have been a blockbuster tie. But like Federer, Djokovic had announced his intention to skip the tie, and unlike Federer, did not change his mind. It was an understandable decision. Even with Djokovic, the undermanned Serbs would have been underdogs, and he also took part in last year's November final when the team suffered a frustrating loss to the Czech Republic.

But he kept himself occupied in the meantime. After being upset in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open by Wawrinka, the Serb headed for the hills -- or rather, the mountains. An avid skier, Djokovic hit the slopes in southern Serbia after returning from Down Under, and judging from these photos, he had a lot more success than he did in Australia. The Serb also paid a visit to a childhood court, posting a picture that showed scattered marks on the walls from the days of the Belgrade bombings. And when a snowstorm hit northern Serbia, leaving cars stuck roadside, he delivered supplies to stranded passengers. All in a few days' vacation for the world No. 2.

It looks like he may have even bigger off-court plans for the rest of the year. Last week, Djokovic also appeared on a Serbian talk show, where he suggested he and fiancée Jelena Ristic may be getting married shortly. "Jelena, enjoy it while you can. In a couple of months you will be changing your last name to Djokovic," he said.

On court, Djokovic has resumed training in Monte Carlo with his longtime coach Marian Vajda. Boris Becker, who is now coaching Djokovic at tournaments, does not appear to be present. The Serb's next outing -- like Federer -- is expected to be in Dubai.

Andy Murray

Meanwhile, scratch the wedding announcement for Murray. The Scot offhandedly mentioned during a Twitter Q&A that he and longtime girlfriend Kim Sears would be getting married after Wimbledon, and then quickly had to clarify he had only been joking. Other questions Murray was asked included whether he ate the grass after winning Wimbledon last year (“No, I smoked it,” he replied) and how often he's wanted to kill Nadal and Federer (“It's a daily occurrence,” was the answer).

Later, he posted, "3 things ... I don't smoke grass, I'm not getting married (yet) and I don't want to kill Rafael Nadal."

The impromptu session had been in honor of Murray defeating Davis Cup teammate James Ward 8-1 in Pro Evo, the soccer video game for PlayStation. Clearly, Ward bounced back quickly from that humiliating defeat. In the Davis Cup tie between Great Britain and the U.S., then-world No. 175 Ward beat No. 45 Sam Querrey -- a victory that, along with Murray's two singles wins, secured Britain the tie. It also saved Murray from perhaps having to play doubles during the tie, a welcome respite for someone starting their return from back surgery at the beginning of this season.

Murray had also been worried about how his back would feel playing on clay so soon after Australian Open hard courts. But it must have held up well because soon after he added another tournament to his schedule by taking a wild card into this week's event in Rotterdam. His entry helped boost the tournament field following Wawrinka's withdrawal.

Murray is also scheduled to play two weeks later in Acapulco, which switches to hard courts beginning this year.

Perhaps nothing speaks to the proliferation of cutting-edge technology more than that small child who wanders over to a window, presses on it and waits for an app to pop up. It might sound comical, but it’s the world we live in. Modernization has skewed their poor little minds. Heck, my kid knows cloud better as data-syncing storage space rather than the white stuff in the sky.

In the tennis world, Babolat has recently manufactured a racket with built-in sensors that measure power, impact and spin. We are a technology-dependent society, which means we have to keep up with the latest advancements to have any shot at a competitive edge.

Roger Federer has always been on top of his tennis game, but history shows he has been a little late to the digital-world dance. Not until May 23, 2013, did he have a Twitter account. Keep in mind there already were more than 500 million people registered at that point. And not until just a few weeks ago did the 17-time Slam champion decide to finally make the permanent move to a larger, more powerful, present-day racket.

“I've wanted to change for a number of years, but I kept on playing well in the Slams, kept on playing well on the tour,” Federer told reporters in his pre-tournament presser. “Things were just going so well I only did minor changes to my racket. Since 2002, I haven't fiddled around the racket-head size.”

First, give the man credit. Even after his days of dominating day in, day out ended, Federer still was one of the best players in the world, even with that underperforming relic. Until this past Wimbledon, he had reached 36 consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals, a remarkable display of consistency on the biggest of stages.

But the bottom line is that he was being outhit and outmaneuvered by not just the Nadals and Djokovics (both of whom have been using advanced rackets for some time), but the likes of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych were making Federer look every bit his three-plus decades of age.

After an experimental run last summer with a larger head, one that produced mixed results, Federer felt that bigger was the only way to get better.

“Now I've really been putting in a lot of hours on the racket,” Federer said. “It feels good. I'm really looking forward to playing now with that racket here at the Australian Open as well after playing Brisbane already.”

Federer played well in Brisbane until a barrage of shanks for a set and a half against Lleyton Hewitt in the final ended his run. But it was an auspicious start for a guy who is trying to sweep away last season’s doldrums.

Certainly the foundation of any great champion doesn’t start with only his equipment, but in a game in which spin, rapid-fire exchanges and response matter, every nanosecond counts. Federer was at a fairly large disadvantage, and by the time he made a concerted effort to catch up, he wasn’t in the right frame, so to speak, of mind.

“After Wimbledon this year, I finally had a bit more time and I'd like to do an initial test,” Federer said. “I was going to do some more after the US Open, but I wasn't in the mood for that, so I waited for the end of the year and did some more testing there.”

There’s an arms race between companies to innovate and produce the best performing equipment out there. Terms like ESP, Graphene and Amplifeel are now commonplace in the racket business. Though it might be too convoluted to dissect the various ingredients that make up today’s sticks, they do account for the unprecedented power and control in today’s game.

For Federer, whether we’re talking 140 characters or 98 square inches, technological awareness might not be his greatest gift, but he can adapt quickly. After joining the Twittersphere, Federer was pulling in record-setting traffic with more than 24,000 new followers an hour. Today, he is a social media star.

As for his on-court success? The truth is we don't know how much it will factor into his 2014 results, but he's certainly committed. And if he finds himself exiting tournaments early again, there's at least some small consolation: more time to tweet.

It’s a good omen when a new season begins and the biggest names in the game are already monopolizing the headlines. Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal won tuneups two weeks ago, while Roger Federer reached the Brisbane International final.

Now for the next two weeks, we’ll be snuggled in our sofas, watching the stars take a few swings at the Australian Open. But before they do, here are 10 predictions we absolutely know won’t go wrong (cough, cough) this season.

1. Serena Williams will not, under any circumstances, lose to Sloane Stephens, not at the Australian Open, not in 2014

Little did we know that last year’s Down Under shocker would devolve into such acrimony. The short story short goes something like this: Stephens upset Williams in the Aussie Open quarters. Soon afterward, Stephens claimed she had been ignored and then, in what is a far more heinous move, she was de-Twittered by Williams. Yikes! Both players later brushed off their feud, but the damage was done. Anyway, the bottom line is this: Sloane won’t beat Serena at the Aussie this time around. Of course, it’s a fairly easy prediction considering they’re on opposite sides of the draw. And you can tell all your Twitter followers you heard it here first: Sloane won’t beat Serena at all in 2014.

2. Rafael Nadal will end the season ranked No. 1

This isn’t to say he will be the best player in 2014. But Rafa simply has very few points to lose (with the exception of Indian Wells) until the clay season begins. And Novak Djokovic is the defending Aussie champ and played a full schedule last year. Plus, Nadal lost his Wimbledon opener, and with even a modicum of success in 2014, he’ll pile on more points. Even if Djokovic outplays Nadal for the entire season, he’s not going to make much of a move in the rankings until the summer hard-court season, and by then, it might be too late.

3. Novak Djokovic will be the best player in 2014

If you watched Djokovic in the year-end championships last year, you saw something different, whether it was a chip on his shoulder, vengeance or just exasperation for losing his No. 1 ranking. He was crisper, quicker and more determined than Nadal. Of course, you can read what you want into this, given it was the end of the year, and Rafa had already secured his status atop the tennis world. But Djokovic has always said that while losing is part of life, it’s what motivates him. And, oh by the way, his hiring of Boris Becker likely means we’re going to see some pretty sweet service improvement and aggression. Pair that with his already unequaled all-court game and, well, you get the picture.

4. Victoria Azarenka will get medical attention

Rhetorical question: What better way to quell the ultimate choke job than by calling a suspicious timeout? Give Azarenka credit, though: She isn’t afraid to stoop to any level to win. Stephens, who had just beaten Serena in Oz, was mounting a comeback against Azarenka in the semifinals when the Belarussian took a 10-minute T.O. while Stephens sat on the bench and waited -- and waited. Apparently, Azarenka needed assistance dislodging whatever was caught in her throat. Don’t think Azarenka won’t pull this stunt again in 2014.

5. Maria Sharapova will reach a Grand Slam final, try really hard -- and lose

In so many ways, Sharapova is a stark reminder of Andy Roddick. She tries hard, really hard. She wends her way fairly successfully through most draws but just doesn’t quite have the capacity to win on the biggest stages. In the past five seasons, Sharapova has but one Slam title. But she won’t stop trying, that’s for sure. She hired a new, proven coach in Sven Groeneveld. But the problem with Sharapova’s problem, aside from her serve shortcomings and heavy footwork, is that she will eventually have to get by Serena and/or Azarenka. Just doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen.

6. Roger Federer won’t finish the season ranked No. 1

Well, duh. The question is whether he’ll finish in the top 10. Federer finished outside the top five for the first time in a decade last season. Federer claims he’s healthy and determined. But he has a few problems: Djokovic, Nadal and his advanced 32-year-old body. The Aussie Open will be a strong indication, but even if he does well there, what’s to say he can hop into Miami and Indian Wells circa 2004-2007 and whip through the fields? So the question is: What’s a respectable year-end ranking for Fed? Top five? Top 10?

7. The ghost of Andy Murray will plague Great Britain for at least one year

You know it’s going to happen. Murray will say he’s under less pressure to win at his home in Wimbledon. But the reality is that although he thinks he believes that, he really doesn’t. Who among the British faithful will be sitting in front of his telly, thinking, “Eh, it doesn’t matter if Djokovic takes down our hero; he won last year”? The nerves and burden will be just as amplified as they’ve always been. But this time around, Murray isn’t going to give his people any kind of satisfaction.

8. Simona Halep will pass Caroline Wozniacki in the rankings

As it stands, Wozniacki is 10th and Halep 11th in the standings. Halep won six titles last year while Woz’s most notable headlines came from her very public relationship with Rory McIlroy. Wozniacki already lost in the second round of Sydney last week. Hey, don’t feel too bad for her. She’s sporting around a new five-carat rock these days.

9. Milos Raonic will make his breakthrough

For like a gazillion years, we’ve been waiting for someone to join, if not suppress, the seemingly impenetrable stranglehold the big four has created. It hasn’t happen. Not by Richard Gasquet back in the day, not by Grigor Dimitrov, Bernard Tomic or Ryan Harrison. Raonic has very much been a part of that group. Someone has to break through, no? Federer is aging, Nadal has cursed knees and Djokovic, well, never mind, he’s just stout. But there seems to be a window, albeit fairly narrow, for another player. Maybe it’ll be Juan Martin del Potro. But how can you hit as hard as Raonic, ace at will and not make some kind of move? It has to happen. It just has to.

10. John Isner’s season will look a lot like 2012 and 2013

Make no mistake, that’s not a bad thing. Isner finished 2012 ranked No. 14. Isner finished 2013 ranked No. 14. Good for him. The dude can leverage his cannon of a serve better than anyone. But you can’t teach returns, and footwork and shot selection, not at least to the level Isner needs to improve. He may very well unleash ace after ace for a few rounds at a major event. But eventually his ceiling will catch up to him. It’s just the way it is. Finish 2014 ranked No. 14, Izzy. And be proud of that.
We could be wise and resist reading too much into the first week of ATP and WTA tour play for 2014, but what fun would that be?

Besides, since the offseason in tennis is short, we can expect the players to be in pretty good fighting trim for the start of the New Year. The postseason holiday break and the whole "Auld Lang Syne" thing encourages everyone to hit the reset button, psychologically. But does anyone really expect that things have changed that much?

Not Serena Williams, that’s for sure. And she proved it by busting out her whooping stick and beating No. 3 Maria Sharapova and No. 2 Victoria Azarenka in back-to-back matches to win Brisbane.

For all the hype that surrounds Sharapova, it was Williams’ win over Azarenka in the final that was truly noteworthy, for as ESPN’s Howard Bryant was the first to emphatically argue, Azarenka is 32-year-old Williams’ true rival -- at least in terms of the quality of the matches. It may all be splitting hairs to Serena though. The real takeaway is: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

That brings us to Auckland, and a much more newsworthy event if you believe the old definition of “news” (“dog bites man” is not news; “man bites dog” is news). Venus Williams, now 33 and ranked just inside the top 50 when the week began, lost a tight three-setter to French Open champion and former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic. Will she make one more push in 2014? Could it be that Williams’ will can help her raise Cain this year?

Another pair of 32-year-olds played the final in the ATP Brisbane event (how many 32-year-old tennis icons can the ATP and WTA support, anyway?). Like the other two men’s events last week, Brisbane is an ATP 250, but the promoters obviously didn’t open up their wallets the way the oil-rich sheiks of Doha did. Federer, ranked No. 6, was top-seeded. The No. 2 seed was No. 17 Kei Nishikori.

Despite being the odds-on favorite, Federer found a way to lose a three-setter to multiple Grand Slam champ and former No. 1, ATP No. 60 Lleyton Hewitt (who’s also 32).

Hewitt was 8-18 against Federer going in, but had been unable to beat the Swiss between the Australian Open of 2004 and Halle in 2010; in fact, Federer probably was the main reason Hewitt never won his native Grand Slam (although a number of players might challenge Hewitt for that honor). But Hewitt has won two of their past three meetings, which suddenly makes this something unbelievable: a real, hot rivalry.

So here’s my first prediction for 2014: Federer will draw Hewitt (who’s jumped to No. 43) as his first-round opponent in Australia.

Li Na won the tournament in Shenzhen, China. Her final–round victim was fellow countrywoman Peng Shuai, who’s ranked just No. 42. But Li is under a lot of pressure when she plays at home, and has been known to turn her back and walk away from pressure rather than embracing it. So it’s a good sign for her that she handled the field so competently.

Doha had the most competitive field -- by far -- of all the first-week ATP events, and the way top-seeded Rafael Nadal was forced to fight to earn the title, surviving a three-set match in three of his five outings was ominous -- not for Nadal, but for his rivals.

Apparently, it never crossed Nadal’s mind to write off the desert sojourn as a nice chance to hit a few balls and collect a huge appearance check. While the likes of No. 2 seed David Ferrer, No. 3 Andy Murray, No. 4 Tomas Berdych and No. 5 Richard Gasquet all fell by the wayside without much fuss, Nadal once again gave his peers a lesson in competitive zeal -- and all-around brilliance.

In Chennai, Stanislas Wawrinka, the newest member of the ATP Top 10 club (he ended 2013 at No. 8) rolled like thunder through the field to bag his first title -- and perhaps show that he’s not done climbing the rankings ladder. One persuasive undercurrent last week is that while Nadal and Novak Djokovic (who doesn’t play before the Australian Open) may be untouchable, we could see a shake-up in slots three through 10.

Murray may round back into form after back surgery forced him into the long layoff in the fall, and No. 5 Juan Martin del Potro looks stable -- as does Wawrinka. But Ferrer, Federer, Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gasquet all appear vulnerable -- albeit for different reasons. Are you ready for a game called top-10 musical chairs?
Another tennis season has begun, and what's the hottest new accessory for guys heading back on tour?

A former legend as coach. Everyone who's anyone is getting one, it seems.

Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have officially made it all the rage, hiring former Grand Slam champions Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker, respectively, during the offseason. Edberg and Becker were two halves of an iconic rivalry in the 1980s and '90s, and will now face off from the sidelines for the first time.

[+] EnlargeStefan Edberg
AP Photo/Rusty KennedyRoger Federer is looking to Stefan Edberg to help open up specific areas of his game.
Federer announced last week that childhood idol Edberg would be joining him for a 10-week stint that will start at the Australian Open. The pairing, already dubbed "Fedberg," will add even more interest to Federer's attempt to rejoin the top ranks this season after a difficult 2013.

"I thought if we could do a few weeks together, maybe 10, maybe 12, it would be something fresh, new, inspiring," Federer explained in Brisbane while preparing for his first tournament of the season.

Six-time Grand Slam champ Edberg was known for his legendary volleys, particularly on the backhand side, something the 32-year-old Federer may be hoping rubs off on his own game as he tries to keep to up with heavy groundstrokes from rivals like Rafael Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray.

Federer's former coach, Paul Annacone, also specialized in an attacking game; the two parted ways in September after more than two years together. Severin Luthi, Switzerland's Davis Cup captain, remains the mainstay of Federer's coaching setup.

The 17-time Grand Slam champ also recently announced that he and his wife, Mirka, are expecting a third child in the coming year, making it a busy time in the Federer household.

"Being the legend he is and someone I look up to so much, anything he will say will mean very much to me and my team," said Federer of Edberg's impact.

"It will be interesting to see what he thinks, if it's possible to do serve-and-volley on the slower courts we see all around the world these days, or if there are different ways for me to find my way to net."

Speculation about a possible pairing began when Federer announced Edberg had trained with him for a week during the offseason, after which Edberg expressed interest in trying to do more during the year.

"The idea of the camp was that I would give my views and come up with some feedback. He wants to try some new things," Edberg told Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagblagets.

Djokovic's decision to begin working with Becker came more unexpectedly, even to the new coach himself.

"I was approached by Novak and his manager while he was playing Beijing," Becker told the BBC. "I was surprised -- I didn't expect the phone call."

[+] EnlargeBoris Becker
Ineke Zondag/AFP/Getty ImagesBoris Becker never won the French Open as a player, but Novak Djokovic hopes Becker's coaching will get him over the hump at Roland Garros.
The pairing has produced some head-scratching, because Becker has not elevated his reputation of late. He has become the subject of ridicule in the tennis world for his less-than-insightful commentary on BBC. Becker's latest book, a salacious tell-all, has caused regular scandals in Germany as excerpts have been reprinted in newspapers and magazines.

It also led to a distasteful Twitter and television war with German comedian Oliver Pocher, which began over comments Becker made in the book about an ex-fiancée who eventually married Pocher.

All that aside, what is it Djokovic is looking for Becker to provide? The Serb dropped both the Wimbledon and US Open finals in what he called "emotional losses," and seems to be searching for guidance in big matches.

Becker was known for his competitor's instincts, and the six-time Grand Slam champion also played a serve-and-volley game that Djokovic has long been trying to incorporate into his repertoire.

"Speaking to [longtime coach] Marian [Vajda] in the last few months of the year, we came to the conclusion that I needed another legendary player who can eventually help me understand what I would like to do in situations like the Grand Slam final stages," Djokovic said at the exhibition event in Abu Dhabi last week.

Djokovic has tried bringing in other figures to supplement Vajda before, with mixed results. Australian doubles great Mark Woodforde was tapped to improve Djokovic's volley in 2007, and a stint with two-time Grand Slam finalist Todd Martin between 2009 and 2010 ended when Djokovic began struggling with his service motion.

It appears Vajda will be taking more of a backseat than before, though, with Becker serving as Djokovic's main coach at most big tournaments. How well this latest arrangement works out will be judged largely by Djokovic's results at the Grand Slams, particularly the French Open, the only only major he has yet to win and one he freely admits is now most important to him.

The wave of former stars joining the coaching ranks is a relatively new phenomenon -- in the past, big names rarely signed up to go back on the road with another player. The trend could be traced back to Andy Murray, who began working with eight-time Grand Slam champ Ivan Lendl at the beginning of last season and went on to win the US Open few months later, followed by victory at Wimbledon in 2013.

Just as Lendl never won Wimbledon but got Murray over the hurdle there, the sport's newest big-name coaches will also be trying to help their players do something they did not manage themselves. Edberg retired relatively early in his career, while Becker never won a clay court title of significance.

Their presence also means more of Lendl's contemporaries around on the practice courts, though Murray maintains that he doesn't expect old rivalries to be reignited from the coaching box.

"I personally don't think there will be a renewal of the rivalry," Murray was quoted as saying in the Gulf News during Abu Dhabi. "Once you step on court, the coaches can do very little to the outcome of a match. It is in the preparation where the coaches can make a really good difference."

[+] EnlargeAndy Murray
AP Photo/Kirsty WigglesworthAndy Murray now has two Grand Slam titles with Ivan Lendl behind him.
Of course, Murray then attempted to stoke just such a rivalry by tweeting, "How great is it to have all these legends of the game coaching? Absolutely loving it. #mycoachisbetterthanyoursnanananana"

One member of the current Big Four who won't be getting on the bandwagon is world No. 1 Rafael Nadal, who is sticking with his coach and uncle, Toni.

"It will be great to have Ivan and Boris around next season," said Nadal during Abu Dhabi. "However, I will stick to my team. I always feel when I play bad, it is my fault and when I'm winning I'm doing the right things. I had success in my career with the same team."

Rafa's Spanish compatriot David Ferrer also opted for a low-profile choice after recently splitting with longtime coach Javier Piles.

The top women also seem to have eschewed the movement. Maria Sharapova did take on Jimmy Connors for a few weeks after Wimbledon, but then opted for a more seasoned coach in Sven Groneveld. Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka have continued to work with established names -- Patrick Mouratoglou and Sam Sumyk, respectively -- while Caroline Wozniacki opted for Thomas Hogstedt, who had most recently been with Sharapova.

But plenty of ATP players have joined in, recruiting former top players for their team. Richard Gasquet has added two-time French Open champ Sergi Bruguera to his roster, Kei Nishikori recently announced he will be working with French Open champ and former No. 2 Michael Chang this season, and Marin Cilic has Wimbledon champ Goran Ivanisevic working with him.

Earlier this year, Milos Raonic took on former No. 3 Ivan Ljubicic, while Nicolas Almagro began working part-time with former No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero when the former french Open champion retired towards the end of last year.

In an interview with the Brisbane Courier-Mail, Ivanisevic noted that the amount of talent in the stands could begin to rival that on the court.

"They should have a tournament for the coaches," he joked.

These days, some of those coaches might pull bigger crowds than their players.

The day Roger Federer retires

November, 21, 2013
11/21/13
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Everything seems to be going in slow motion at the moment, but the reality is that it’s all happening far too fast. The camera gradually pans from one side of the famed Wimbledon Centre Court to the other. It reveals grown men unable to fight back their despair, while others applaud in both deference and sadness -- for they have lost royalty. The camera slows even more before stopping to focus on its target. Roger Federer looks up and waves one final time before fading into the bowels of the All England Club.

This time he is gone for good. The brilliant moments have suddenly been relegated to DVDs and rain-delay fillers. His stats are final, but his place in history is very much up for deliberation.

Of course, this scene hasn't taken place yet. We don’t know when Federer will retire. We don’t know how. Will he just segue straight into domestic life to help raise his two young daughters or will he leverage his emeritus status and stay on as a central figure in some capacity? Pete Sampras waffled for nearly a year after winning the 2002 US Open before announcing a former farewell in front of a few cameras. Andre Agassi’s departure four years later was far more public and emotional.

No matter when that inevitable day comes (and, for the record, Federer has said he has every intention to compete in the 2016 Olympics, even if he plays a limited schedule), what kind of vacuum is it going to leave? The tour’s viability isn't likely to be affected in any real tangible way, but the question becomes which players, if any, can fans really latch on to in the same mythical way?The Rafael Nadals, Novak Djokovics and Andy Murrays of the world carry an enormous amount of star power. In the past four years, that trio is responsible for 14 of 15 Grand Slam titles with Federer, who won his seventh Wimbledon title in 2012, the player to break through.

It’s no secret the 32-year-old Swiss has struggled this season. He won just a single title and fell out of the top five. Not until a pretty solid showing at the Paris Masters did Federer officially qualify to make the ATP World Tour Finals -- where he made the semifinals. And though he vows he’ll have a better 2014, we finally saw his human side, the guy who conceded he wasn’t on par mentally with his rivals.

I've seen Federer play plenty: in Miami, Paris, Wimbledon and New York. There’s something unique in the air when he’s on the court. And no matter how you feel about his place in history, his groundswell of support is unmatched from a global perspective. He’s beloved and cherished. Even today, while he struggles in lesser events, he’s still the head-turner, the guy you want to see succeed, whether it’s just out of adoration or pity.

Federer was a tremendous talent and 15, 16 years old, but his rise to the top of the record books didn't begin until years later, in 2003, when an unassuming, 22-year-old kid finally met the ambitions he had set out for himself: Wimbledon champ. From there, he utterly dominated, all the way to the tour’s Grand Slam high-water mark of 17 titles. And the scary part is a lot of those championships came without much resistance.

Perhaps he is so widely respected because of the respect he has shown the game. From his granular insight to his macro knowledge of the game, Federer has always loved what the game means to him. And there very well might be a lot more we’ll see from Federer, but based on his results this past year, 2013 was the first time we could legitimately start asking about retirement.

And when that day does come, the tour will go on just as it always has and people will watch -- even if that means dusting off those old DVDs.

Who needs more help? Fed or Sharapova?

September, 19, 2013
9/19/13
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With the Slam season now behind us, what better time to debate things we really don't need to debate. But that's just what we do. So without further ado, a few burning questions for this fall:

More impressive US Open title run, Serena or Nadal?

Serena Williams was expected to win -- and she did. Rafael Nadal was expected to win -- and he did. So the two players who have dominated much of the 2013 season strolled into New York, beat their archrivals in the final, snagged another Grand Slam title, and further etched their names into the greatest-of-all-time discussion. Predictable, eh? Perhaps, but consider this: No one in his right mind could have predicted Nadal was going to win the US Open, never mind string together an infallible 21-0 hard-court season. For a guy who had long been pigeonholed as a clay specialist, his latest feat is remarkable, knowing full well that cement can’t be anything but an impediment to the world No. 2’s health. This surely doesn’t diminish Williams’ run to a 17th Grand Slam title, especially the mental fortitude she showed against a determined Victoria Azarenka in the final. But anything less than a title for Williams would have been considered a failure.

Advantage, Nadal

Better success story in New York, Pennetta or Wawrinka?

What’s it like to play in relative obscurity? Stanislas Wawrinka, who has fought for any back-page real estate with Roger Federer, knows better than anyone. No further explanation needed. But at this year’s US Open, the unthinkable happened. Federer found himself reeling in another early-round defeat while Wawrinka played the tournament of his life, crushing defending champion Andy Murray in the quarters and then taking Novak Djokovic into a fifth set before finally conceding in the semis. Flavia Pennetta, on the other hand, helped put Italy back on the tennis radar after winning her much-ballyhooed match against countrywoman Roberta Vinci in the US Open quarterfinals. Pennetta cracked the top 10 four years ago but fell into the middle-of-the-pack matrix, never really making a name for herself until her latest Slam exploits. But considering she is 31 years old and entered New York unseeded and ranked 83rd, her accomplishment is pretty amazing.

Advantage, Pennetta

Who needs fall success more, Federer or Sharapova?

Roger Federer has been free-falling from mere mortal to ordinary since losing in the second round of Wimbledon. He played a couple of low-tier clay-court events after the All England Club, experimenting with a larger racket. That didn’t work out so well. He reverted to his 90-inch-square head for the US Open, and after a few seamless matches, Tommy Robredo, who was 0-10 against Federer entering the match, eviscerated the Swiss in three swift sets. If nothing else, it only validated what we all were thinking this summer: Federer is inexorably headed toward a life of drivers and putters. For Sharapova, her past couple of months have been marred by off-the-court histrionics. There was the Jimmy Connors coaching drama, the purported name change to “Sugarpova” and her withdrawal from the US Open with a right shoulder injury. The good news for Sharapova, though, is that as long as Serena is not staring her down, she can still beat anyone. Right now, Sharapova has an image issue. Federer’s problems lie in the wild ground game he showed against Robredo, which appears to be as much a mental challenge as anything else. Only match play will fix his summerlong mess.

Advantage, Federer

More important for Djokovic, Davis Cup title or year-end championship?

Here’s the thing: No matter what Djokovic does the rest of the way in 2013, he’s not going to be able to hang on to his No. 1 ranking -- unless Lukas Rosol and Steve Darcis conspire to kidnap Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard has zero points to defend, and for all intents and purposes, he just needs to show up and he’ll garner enough points to usurp Djokovic. But after another loss to Nadal, in the US Open final, the year-end championships would be sweet retribution for the Serb. But Djokovic is a team guy through and through. It was Serbia’s 2010 Davis Cup championship that propelled Djokovic to the force he is today. He rode that momentum into the Aussie Open a few months later, won, and then absolutely bludgeoned the field that year, going 70-6 with 10 titles and finishing both 2011 and 2012 as the top-ranked player. So though that streak is bound to end, he will lead his country into another Davis Cup final, this time against the Czechs. And if the Serbs win that championship again, well…

Advantage, Davis Cup

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