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The Gilded Cage 03/10/2009 - 6:09 PM

by Pete Bodo

I couldn't help but notice in the Comments on my last post that someone wondered why my first post-Davis Cup post would be about Roger Federer, a guy who wasn't involved in the weekend play. It's a fair question, I guess, but the answer is obvious: Roger Federer matters.

Tmf Some of you will ascribe sinister motives when I say this, but for an Internet journalist Roger Federer also is a gift that keeps giving. The very mention of his name ensures that you can multiply the expected number of comments by at least two, simply because of the unstoppable force (Fed fans) vs. immovable object (Fed "skeptics," if that's the right term) dynamic. If you want to yield to your darker impulses and embrace the idea that this is the only reason I would post on The Mighty Fed, I can't stop you (BTW, did I tell you I get paid by the comment? Just kidding!).

But on this subject, keep these things in mind:

1 - The Swiss are as enthusiastic about Davis Cup as anyone.

2 - Federer is at a stage in his career than can be called "delicate."

3 - Federer just hired a coach, after much discussion of that subject.

4 - Federer until very recently is the world, make that the interplanetary, no. 1 and GOAT candidate.

5 - Some decisions, or missed opportunities, are more costly than others.

With that in mind, let's get rolling here. Incidentally, I'm not going to quote anyone in this story for the obvious reasons. I wasn't conducting official "interviews," just trying to gauge the direction of the winds from insiders - many of them officials and journalists who might be reluctant to speak freely on the record for any number of reasons, including the prospect of jeopardizing their relationship with The Mighty Fed. This admission on my part may create the impression that there's some kind of anti-Federer conspiracy underlying all this, either at this space or even out there in the tennis community. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

At the same time, this underscores something vital about TMF's way of doing business. As an enormous international superstar from a small nation, he has a great deal of personal power. And while TMF is at heart a live-and-let-live guy who's intensely and fully dedicated to his career and tennis self-interest, he also appears to be, to use a direct quote, "a control freak."  A less charitable analyst suggested that Federer is surrounded largely by courtiers or, if you prefer, "yes" men. And in Mirka, he has a unique and powerful gatekeeper.

This may not be stop-the-presses news, and I'm sure you also know a lot of other great, dedicated people who can be described as control freaks. You may be one yourself, although the control freak, like the classic cuckold, is often the last to know.

Anyway, trying to keep control of  "the message" is always a mixed blessing and if doing it through one impulse or another reduces distractions (it certainly did for Pete Sampras), it can also isolate the controller from the world around him, at a time when it might be productive to listen. This has always been the best argument for TMF hiring a coach, and having the wisdom to choose someone who might stretch or challenge him (in a good way).

And let's remember, Sampras avoided the isolation all great players are prone to partly because he had productive relationship with Paul Annacone that was as strong as it was long. And there's another big difference in the two iconic players' situations. Put bluntly, Sampras never had to contend with a Rafael Nadal.

To that end, I learned last weekend that when Federer announced that Jose Higueras would be his new coach, the Swiss media had hoped to interview Higueras. But the Federer camp insisted on a media blackout. That might avert a potential public relations disaster (although it's hard to imagine one emerging from a Higueras interview), or the broadcast of state secrets that TMF might rightfully prefer to keep under wraps. But as one journalist put it, "This was a fifty something year-old Spanish guy with a lot of experience and previous exposure to the media and the fans. All you do by keeping him silent is raise questions and feed speculation and rumor."

Speaking of public relations. . . With regard to the Davis Cup situation, one source I spoke with felt that what controversy surrounded TMF's decision to pull out was created mostly by "poor communication." Federer pulled out of the Davis Cup fairly early in the process, which just made it seem that much more like a cold calculation. But, as this observer noted, "Roger basically pulled out when he did for a good reason. He's a pretty responsible guy, and he knew it would be worse for everyone, including the host nation, if he delayed announcing the decision. He probably made the commitment to play Davis Cup this year too soon. If the team advanced, he was facing maybe away ties at Argentina (the nations haven't played since 1952, when Switzerland hosted)  and Spain (Switzerland hosted the Spanish in 2007). It was maybe too much, and he realized it without saying as much after the Australian Open."

Of course, a Davis Cup aficionado might say such calculations shouldn't really come into it: you're either on the Davis Cup bus or off it. But the impression among many observers is that TMF may have agreed to play Davis Cup under pressure, and a desire to "do the right thing." But it was a moment of weakness that he later came to regret, for a number of reasons including the state of his back.

In a classic case of bad timing, Federer also started working out in Dubai with new coach Darren Cahill while all this was going on. It's legitimate to ask just how badly he's hurt if he can be hitting balls and preparing for Indian Wells with Cahill while the overmanned Swiss are struggling in Birmingham, although lord knows there's an enormous difference between light workouts and potentially grueling five-set Davis Cup matches. How you feel about this is probably determined by how you feel about Davis Cup, and, to some degree, how you feel about the "commitment" issue when a top draw pulls out of an event where (unlike at a Grand Slam) his presence is weighted more heavily.

Of course, there is the team aspect to consider. Pull out of a tournament, you hurt only your own chances of winning. Pull out of a team event, and you damage the entire squad's chances and, in the case of Davis Cup, an entire effort mounted on behalf of your country. That resonates more with some people than others, and I don't think either side is "right" or "wrong."

On that subject, sure there's an unavoidable jingoistic element to Davis Cup. But remember that the intent of Davis Cup is to foster understanding and friendship between nations. In a subtle way, the patriotic overtones of Davis Cup are vital to the mission because Davis Cup often shows that nations can compete, with a fair amount of chest-pounding and flag waving (and wearing), without the shivs and brass knuckles coming into play. A paucity of this national "pride" would ultimately be a detriment to Davis Cup, begging the question: So what's the point? The best ties are the ones in which national pride and an appreciation and embrace of the visiting squad are displayed in equal measure.

Anyway, the Swiss establishment is allegedly angry at Federer, although it's in no position to vent its frustration. That's one of the great strides the game took when the players wrested control of their own destiny from the federations. But the federations always have a whole lot riding on the Davis Cup effort, and Federer pulling out was an embarrassment to the Swiss - especially, but not exclusively, for the functionaries and swells who like to parade around at these ties like bantam roosters.

In the end, though, Davis Cup is also about grow-the-game efforts in every nation - not just in terms of prestige, but financially as well. TMF has grown the game a thousand-fold more than any program or initiative of the federation suits, but you can see why they're bummed out and simmering. The Davis Cup decision also impacted Federer's popularity at home. As one scribe so colorfully put it, "Roger still has the wind of the Swiss people at his back, but that wind is now a little colder."

That wind, of course, could warm up pretty quickly should Federer re-establish his sovereignty, and especially if he continues to add to his impressive Davis Cup credentials. Whether he does or not may hinge partly on Cahill. So everyone is wondering: Is Cahill the magic bullet Federer needs to gun down Nadal? Will Cahill bring the only ingredient that may be missing to Federer's quest for ultimate status in tennis history? I have mixed feelings on that score.

One friend/lurker emailed me to say that she wasn't sure Cahill was the right choice. Let me quote her:

I think Cahill likes to school someone regarding point construction and such, so to speak.  That's why Andre and Lleyton are perfect pupils. Would Federer's personality be suited to that? No! I see Pete and Fed as more intuitive players - they like to practice the basics etc., but less is more when it comes to talking about what to do on the court, if you know what I mean..

I think there's some truth in that. On the other hand, at the time he hired Cahill, Andre Agassi was already a fully developed, mature player, as well as a towering personality and wonderful analyst of the game - his own and that of others. Yet he freely admitted that Cahill brought a lot to the table. So we can be pretty sure that Cahill isn't going to drive TMF nuts by nit-picking his technique or boring him to tears with complicated strategic theories over breakfast on the morning of the Wimbledon final.

On the other hand (I have three, as you've probably noticed in the past), Cahill hasn't entirely convinced me with his analysis/commentary, and I buy into my friend's doubts on that score. It's not that I've disagreed with his observations as a commentator, it's more like they've left me more inclined to shrug than to smack my forehand and exclaim, "Of course!" And I'm fully aware of how perilous it is to take that position, given Agassi's endorsement. I guess we'll see how it works out with Federer, because there probably isn't a trickier coaching assignment in tennis.

I think TMF needs a "big picture" guy and, first and foremost, a wingman. Therefore, I place the "emotional" component of coaching ahead of the technical aspect. We're not just talking about support and seeing eye-to-eye here; sometimes, a great coach doesn't see eye-to-eye with his protege. A big part of the coach's job is to secure the confidence of the player and to figure out just how to dissent in a constructive way. Pete Sampras used to drive Annacone nuts, because he liked to show that he could beat anyone at his own game (the legendary Alex Corretja match was a great example). Annacone's mantra, meanwhile, was: You're Pete Sampras, the dominator. Go out and dominate them.

That back-and-forth didn't hurt the relationship because Paul knew how to make his view clear without seeming to be at loggerheads with Pete, and the two men had built up enough mutual trust and confidence to disagree comfortably.

This is an especially important consideration for Federer, because he's coming to this coaching game awfully late (so late, in fact, that the Sampras-Annacone model may be valid in only a limited number of ways). But it's also important because of this "control freak" issue. A fair number of people out there suspect or even fear that Roger Federer has imprisoned himself in the gilded cage of his own perfection, and any tennis player out there will tell you that the hardest thing to break or change are your own habits and convictions - that's especially true if your way of doing business has wrought enormous success and rewards.

It's up to Cahill to penetrate TMF's Inner Circle and distinguish himself from all the others camped in there. It's tough, but not impossible, assignment.


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Posted by Vincent 03/11/2009 at 03:24 PM

It's 2009, and people still haven't understood that Federer doesn't stand a chance against Nadal on clay. Sigh. As if it was only a matter of finding some super clever game plan and voilĂ  ! Federer tunes Nadal in straights in the final of RG.

It's simple : Nadal's brand of game cannot be beaten on a slow surface. He's too fast, and he's got so much spin on the ball, that : 1. You can't get past him, i.e. aggressive play won't work and 2. Defensive play won't work either, because Nadal puts more lift on the ball than anyone else, which gives him more options and more security than anyone else.

In other words, you can only beat Nadal by out-Nadaling him, and no player on the tour has his physical abilites. So, mathematically, unless Nadal injures himself, he will be the favourite at RG, on clay, at wimbledon and on slow HC until a better, younger version of him appears.

Alas, it's as if it was too plain an explanation, so many people need to concoct a romantic scenario or imagine that Nadal's superiority is grounded in incredibly technical aspects, as if Federer could suddenly find a way to pierce Nadal's armour, and all that... I won't mention that most tired trope of all, namely, that Federer should attack more. Deadest horse of all. In other words : the Federer-Nadal rivalry has been discussed to death, and it's highly unlikely we will see any developments, barring a serious injury for one of those two players.

Posted by Alice 03/11/2009 at 05:50 PM

I disagree with the comment that several others have discussed, that Sampras never had to contend with a Nadal. Agassi was an all time great player, 8 slams and a career Grand Slam to his credit. It increases Sampras credentials on the GOAT list that he had a winning record against Agassi, and theirs was a classic rivalry that produced some great matches - maybe not quite as epic as Fed-Nadal or Borg-McEnroe, but definitely good stuff.

All the major GOAT candidates had a legitimately great player to contend with. Laver had Rosewall, Borg had McEnroe and Connors, Sampras had Agassi, and Federer has Nadal. The difference is that Federer is the only one who allowed his rival to become a nemesis - the rest all had equal or winning records against their top rival.

Posted by Alice 03/11/2009 at 06:15 PM

For all the analysis of Fed's losses to Nadal, one thing stands out to me that's real simple - Fed needs to play better on the big points. This year he blew several break chances in the Aussie final third set. At the 2007 French he blew 9 break chances in the first set. At the 2006 French he blew Nadal off the court in the first set but couldn't follow up for the rest of the match. He also gave up a match point in one of the Rome finals.

Of course Nadal's toughness had a lot to do with this, but still tennis like any sport has crucial turning points and Fed has been losing most of those. It's notable that the last time Fed beat Nadal in a major was 2007 Wimbledon, and there it was Nadal who blew some 5th set break chances.

Posted by lynney62 03/11/2009 at 08:29 PM

So...Cahill has declined. Hmmm. Family 1st, he says. Guess TMF truly is uncoachable.

Posted by 03/11/2009 at 11:51 PM

@ 4:29 am

'What amuses me of Pete's piece most is NOT that he dislikes TMF, it is the effort he makes to hide his dislikes.'

well said. i often smile when i read some of his circular statements/arguments and somewhat dense prose that is at times used in writing about federer -- some of it occasionally not making a great deal of sense.

dare i write my name and incur pete's wrath (i've seen some his comments to other people who sometimes disagree with him). of course he could dismiss you as a deluded fed 'kad' (awful term - cultish flavour). some of those fans are on roger's website, granted, but that does not apply to many other fans who simply are great admirers of his game. if rafa calls him a 'great guy', as he did in his blog during the us open, i'm inclined to take him at his word and view him as a credible source.

Posted by 03/11/2009 at 11:51 PM

@ 4:29 am

'What amuses me of Pete's piece most is NOT that he dislikes TMF, it is the effort he makes to hide his dislikes.'

well said. i often smile when i read some of his circular statements/arguments and somewhat dense prose that is at times used in writing about federer -- some of it occasionally not making a great deal of sense.

dare i write my name and incur pete's wrath (i've seen some his comments to other people who sometimes disagree with him). of course he could dismiss you as a deluded fed 'kad' (awful term - cultish flavour). some of those fans are on roger's website, granted, but that does not apply to many other fans who simply are great admirers of his game. if rafa calls him a 'great guy', as he did in his blog during the us open, i'm inclined to take him at his word and view him as a credible source.

Posted by 03/12/2009 at 12:06 AM

@ 4:29 am

'What amuses me of Pete's piece most is NOT that he dislikes TMF, it is the effort he makes to hide his dislikes.'

well said. i often smile when i read some of his circular statements/arguments and somewhat dense prose that is at times used in writing about federer -- some of it occasionally not making a great deal of sense.

dare i write my name and incur pete's wrath (i've seen some his comments to other people who sometimes disagree with him). of course he could dismiss you as a deluded fed 'kad' (awful term - cultish flavour). some of those fans are on roger's website, granted, but that does not apply to many other fans who simply are great admirers of his game. if rafa calls him a 'great guy', as he did in his blog during the us open, i'm inclined to take him at his word and view him as a credible source.

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