It seems like the best answer to the question, ”What’s wrong with Roger Federer?” is: a big, fat nothing. That’s the impression I got anyway, after speaking at length with the coach with whom he split a few days ago, Paul Annacone.
Often, such breakups are a signal that all isn’t well in the player’s camp. Either player or coach has grown frustrated, often because communication and common purpose have been replaced by tension and disagreement over fundamental issues.
Speculation about the split between player and coach runs rampant, because tennis is a sport of individuals, not of teams. Tennis player and coach are in a much more intimate relationship than, say, a halfback or left fielder is with his coach -- plus in team sports the credit or blame is usually distributed among a slew of coaches.
The intimacy of the relationship also makes it difficult for the principals to speak freely about it. There’s an assumed confidentiality about the relationship. And sometimes practical issues, like money, become a bone of contention. And who wants to talk about that in public? One thing is for sure: A coach who bad-mouths his client/boss might have trouble finding work with a player of the same or a higher level.
When Federer announced that the formal relationship with Annacone has run its course, he made sure to say it was by mutual consent and after many long conversations. I don’t think he was blowing smoke. He pointed out that the two goals the men had through their three-plus years together have been met: At Wimbledon in 2012, Federer won another Grand Slam (his 17th), and he regained the world No. 1 ranking.
Given the kind of year Federer has had, you have to marvel -- or scratch your head -- at his decision to part with Annacone at this time. The all-time singles Grand Slam champion is down to No. 7 in the rankings, but clinging to the barest of leads in the race for the eighth and final qualifying place in the ATP World Tour Finals.
There’s no way Federer could audition and hire a new coach before the end of the year, and there’s never been a hint of trouble in his relationship with Annacone. The only reasonable explanation for his action is that Federer has no particular need of a coach at this point; the relationship has quietly run its course, and neither Annacone nor Federer thinks there some kind of magic bullet for them to discover.
Annacone and Federer just finished a two-week training block in Dubai. Annacone told me that despite the "bumpy road" Federer has traveled these past few months, he’s in great spirits. He described Federer as "exuberant" and "enthusiastic."
"Roger doesn’t panic," Annacone said. "He never did."
Annacone confirmed that the over the course of the two weeks, the men talked a lot. The sense I got from talking with him is that Federer isn’t obsessed with a particular goal, and when you factor in Federer’s age (32) and his status as a family man, it makes the relationship seem somewhat redundant.
The last time Annacone was in a similar situation, Pete Sampras brought him back into the fold (after releasing him), because he was determined to win another major. The strategy worked, when Sampras won the 2002 U.S. Open -- and then ever swung a racket in anger again.
As Annacone said, "I’ve never seen anyone like Pete when it comes to choosing and focusing on a single goal and doing whatever it takes to accomplish it. Roger is different; he’s a little more into the process.”
Presumably, the process for Federer now is enjoying the rest of his career. This is a guy who went without a coach for long stretches in his glory days and who always took pride in his personal accountability. "In all the time I spent with Roger," Annacone told me, "he never shifted blame or criticized someone else if something happened to go wrong."
Federer has a team, the core of which has been Annacone, Swiss Davis Cup captain Severin Luthi and his trainer, Pierre Paganini. If someone was destined to go, Annacone was the logical choice. It speaks volumes about Federer -- and Annacone -- that that the coach harbors no resentment or ill feelings about that.
"There were never any philosophical differences between Roger and I, and when we didn’t agree on something we just talked about it and eventually Roger decided what he wanted to do and that was that. Pete [Sampras] and Tim [Henman, whom Annacone also coached] are two of my closest friends, and I think Roger will be, too."