All aboard the Federer Express
All aboard the Federer Express
Friday, 13 June, 2008
Written by Christopher Bowers
Roger Federer is human after all. When the Swiss lost in the French Open final to Rafael Nadal in 2007 and 2006 there was little speculation that this heralded a sea change in men’s tennis.
But such was the nature of his 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 defeat to Nadal at Roland Garros, combined with the evidence of his form this year, that Federer, for the first time since his maiden Wimbledon win, is considered fallible.
Of course clay and grass are two very different surfaces. But when a player is one victory away from a career Grand Slam that would confirm in most people’s eyes his status as the greatest ever player only to lose in one of the most crushing defeats a world No 1 has ever suffered, it increases the feeling among the chasing pack that the leader is catchable.
To keep ahead of the pack, though, Federer has kept moving. He was victorious on his first match at grass post-Roland Garros, at Halle in Germany — a tournament he has won prior to four of his Wimbledon titles. He spoke of being in “good shape” and “very happy” ahead of the grasscourt season, but question marks remain over his health.
His early-year problems have been put down to a short and mild bout of mononucleosis, the strength-sapping virus that is very seldom as mild as Federer appears to have had it.
Federer says it was over by the time he realised he’d been affected by it, and at the French Open was adamant it was in the past. “It’s over, something I want to forget now,” he said. “I started feeling much better a month ago.”
Despite that, keen observers will be able to spot the scar on his right cheek from a boil that got infected and needed specialist treatment — of course it can happen to anyone, but the infection is a sign perhaps that Federer’s immune system has been suffering in recent months.
Yet his overall fitness remains supreme, even if his elegance of movement means few appreciate just how fit he is. He seldom gets injured and is phenomenally quick around the court.
Much of the credit for that goes to his fitness trainer Pierre Paganini, a 51-year-old former decathlete and football player, who has been working with Federer on and off for more than 10 years.
They met when Paganini ran the physical side of the Tennis Études academy for promising young players in Lausanne, where Federer went as a 14 year old.
In 2000, feeling the need for some professional back-up to help him to the top of the game, Federer enlisted Paganini’s help for 100 days a year.
Paganini only agreed to work with Federer if he was allowed to shape the player’s tournament schedule and diet, as well as run the physical fitness sessions.
Paganini normally takes Federer out of the tennis circuit for three blocks of three weeks each year, doing gym work, on-court exercises and specific physiotherapeutic training to prevent injuries.
This year, they worked slightly differently, with Paganini taking Federer for four blocks of four days in December, February, March and April, with the aim of having him in peak fitness for the final weekend of the French Open.
Much as Andy Murray’s win over Federer in Dubai in February was a great achievement, Federer probably viewed it a bit like a football friendly — a useful exercise in leaving the training camp, but an exercise nonetheless (he is, of course, too polite ever to say that).
There are others in Federer’s corner who make him a stronger man. No-one is quite sure what Jose Higueras’ status in Team Federer is, now the claycourt season is over, because Federer doesn’t need a coach.
Those close to him say he wants someone to bounce ideas off, and he and Higueras just love chatting. With the Spanish former world No. 6 now living in California, Federer can get a lot of value from just picking up the phone and having half-an-hour’s chat exploring tactics and other aspects of tennis.
Also in the front line of Team Federer are Mirka Vavrinec, his partner a and former player; Severin Lüthi, the Swiss Davis Cup coach whose role in bringing peace and harmony into the Swiss Davis Cup team previously known for its internecine warfare has clearly been valued by Federer and Reto Staubli, a friend from Roger’s childhood in Basel who brings a sense of normality to Federer’s tournament existence.
A mixture of the remnants of the mononucleosis plus Nadal’s brilliance on clay scuppered the overall aim of Federer being in optimum condition for the French Open final, but there’s no doubt that he is in prime shape as he comes into Wimbledon.
His confidence may have taken a knock in Paris and his immune system may take another few months to fully recover, but it will take a mighty performance from someone to prevent him winning a sixth successive title in 2008.