When it comes to assessing the new relationship between Jose Higueras and Roger Federer, let's first clear up one major misperception. Yes, Higueras is from Spain, where he learned to play the game in Barcelona on red clay. Yes, Higueras had his best results as a player on clay, reaching two French Open semis and twice winning in the exceptionally thick conditions of Hamburg on his way to a career-high ranking of No. 6 in the world. And yes, two of Higueras' most notable charges, Michael Chang and Jim Courier, won the French Open under his tutelage.
But he is in no way a clay-court specialist. Says another of his prominent past players, Todd Martin, "Jose understands the entire game. He sees the whole picture. He knows what it takes to help you improve."
At 55, Higueras -- who for the past 25 years has lived in the Palm Springs area -- remains trim, alert and most of all, as he puts it, someone who "loves talking tennis with just about anyone." Whenever he walks onto the court with a student -- and Higueras has worked not just with Grand Slam champions but also with dozens of juniors and recreational players -- he will say, "I am going to share some ideas with you. If you agree, that's great. If you don't, that's OK, too. Tell me why you think I'm full of it and maybe we'll learn something new together."
It's a remarkable mix of candor, curiosity and security that at first can be disarming but in short order reveals a rich, textured understanding of the game that goes beyond the mere act of striking balls or even the more nuanced but neglected art of grasping tactics.
"This is a game of errors," says Higueras. "That's as true for the pros as it is for weekend players. So what you've got to do is understand how to minimize yours and force the opponent to miss. I think in America, for example, there's too much emphasis on pure offense over the ability to play intelligent defense."
In this country there's a tendency to polarize offense and defense -- as if it was a matter of either playing guns-a-blazing, a la Pete Sampras, or hunkering down, like Michael Chang. Higueras sees a yin-yang relationship between the two, a mind-set that may certainly value patience but also views the game as far more subtle than it's often taught. As Higueras recently said, "You need to able to adjust the ball, and that requires a lot of work and repetition. In tennis you must learn how to give to the ball and take from the ball."
Which naturally leads to Roger Federer, a man whose commanding ability to balance defense and offense has earned him 12 Grand Slam titles and put him on a pace to be regarded as the best player in tennis history. It's an honor he likely would clinch conclusively should he be able to win the only Slam that has eluded him, the French Open. It's only in Paris, and only versus Rafael Nadal, that Federer's smooth game has become unglued.
So even if Higueras can indeed aid a player on all surfaces, everything from his roots in clay to his calm, understated manner has brought him into Federer's orbit in the buildup to Roland Garros.
What can we expect to see? Try this seemingly counterintuitive concept: A defensive shot can put Federer more on the offense. The shot at hand is the slice backhand. This may be a stroke that's rarely seen in professional tennis, but Higueras over the years has spoken frequently about its neglect -- and the genuine opportunities its adroit use can create.
Think back to the three matches Federer has lost to Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros. In all of them, the deal-breaker shot was Nadal's forehand, a shot that because he's left-handed he can hit up and away from Federer's backhand. All too often, Federer has stubbornly replied with a topspin drive. When hit up near his shoulders, driving a topspin backhand does little but bounce just high enough to give Nadal another friendly whack at his forehand and eventually splinter Federer's backhand.
But as Higueras points out, "When you slice, the ball stays lower and you force someone with Nadal's grip to hit up on the ball rather than drive through it. This means there's more spin and less pace." A ball that's less forceful could give Federer time to step in and drive his own powerful forehand.
Even beyond that tactical play, the slice backhand can be used as a foil -- knifed through the middle of the court, to a sideline, a drop shot or as an off-pace, low service return. All of these shots can help move Nadal away from the figurative trench he digs behind the baseline, where his defense is extraordinary. Make Nadal move forward into the court and perhaps he will not always be as effective. At the pro level, the key to an effective slice backhand is not just to hack the ball the way recreational players often do, but also to drive through it and generate forward motion. It's a shot Federer has, but has not deployed as much as he might.
But the slice backhand is only one part of what Higueras will bring to Federer. Most of all, Higueras is enthusiastic and can bring Federer a fresh pair of eyes. Even if he's not always needed or cared much for constant input, surely Federer will benefit from someone as wise as Higueras. His manner is also a good fit for the low-key Federer, hardly in-your-face, eager but not desperate for the job. "I don't want to create dependence," Higueras once said. "I want the player to learn how to be independent."
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.