Few have held a better seat to observe greatness than Paul Annacone.
The coach of Pete Sampras for the majority of his career until he officially retired in 2003, and, until last week, a mainstay of Roger Federer’s entourage since 2010, Annacone has witnessed firsthand the challenges these overlapping champions faced as age and rivals inevitably whittled away at their dominance.
According to Annacone, even past 30 count them out at your own peril.
“Greatness doesn’t stop,” Annacone told USA TODAY Sports in a phone interview Sunday following the announcement the day before that he and Federer had parted ways after a 3½-year association. “It doesn’t just go away. He’s not all of a sudden now not that good anymore. The problem is that the expectations and the bar are so high.”
Annacone said he would be “surprised” if Federer finished his career without nabbing another major.
“Whenever you start to doubt people like this you kind of set yourself up to get your own foot stuck in your mouth,” he said. “They’re atypical. They’re phenoms. As much as Roger still loves to play, the exuberance he still shows in every practice, his desire to continue to enjoy the game — I can’t imagine anything other than success coming his way. For me, it’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when.”
Federer announced the split on his website.
“When we started together we had a vision of a 3-year plan to win another Grand Slam title and get back to the number #1 ranking,” it said. “Along with many other goals and great memories, these 2 main goals were achieved. After numerous conversations culminating at the end of our most recent training block, we felt like this was the best time and path for both of us.”
Speaking by phone from his home in Los Angeles, Annacone, an articulate and analytical American, protected the intimate details behind the decision to part ways with the 17-time Grand Slam winner from Switzerland. Those discussions began in earnest during a two-week training session in Dubai following Federer’s fourth-round loss to Spain’s Tommy Robredo at the U.S. Open.
“After a number of very good, heartfelt and really thoughtful conversations about what’s best in timing for Roger and also for me” they concluded it was best to move on, Annacone said. “I think we both feel good about it. I know I do.”
He laughed at the idea it had anything to do with the Swiss’ third-round loss to No. 41 Gael Monfils of France at last week’s Shanghai Masters.
“It’s just ironic timing,” he chuckled.
Annacone acknowledged that 2013 had been “a bumpy road” and a “little bit of a slip” for seventh-ranked Federer, who at 32 has endured his poorest season in a decade.
Federer failed to reach the final of a Grand Slam event for the first time since 2002 and suffered a series of stunning losses to much-lower-ranked players. Four of his last six losses, including a second-round exit at Wimbledon to 116th-ranked Sergiy Stakhovsky, have come to players outside the top 40.
Federer juggled his schedule and even tinkered with a larger racket but his best showing at a major was reaching the Australian Open semifinals. His only tournament success was at the small grass-court event in Halle.
His last Grand Slam championship came in 2012 at Wimbledon, his sole major title with Annacone on board.
Annacone went through similar last-career struggles with Sampras and Tim Henman, his other prominent coaching client.
He started working with Henman at 27 when the Brit was outside the top 40. He then reached two major semifinals in 2004 and surged into the top five.
Sampras went two years without winning a title — with many calling for him to retire — before storming back and beating longtime rival Andre Agassi in the 2002 U.S. Open final, his 14th major and last professional match.
Annacone, who worked closely with Federer’s co-coach Severin Luthi and his trainer Pierre Paganini, said he felt satisfied to have helped Federer win a record-tying seventh title at Wimbledon and reclaim the No. 1 ranking, which he has held an unsurpassed 302 weeks, most recently in October of 2012.
But he said he was more pleased with participating in a dynamic team with many moving parts.
“To be part of that equation was very, very rewarding,” he said. “I’m most proud of how everyone acted and reacted to challenges.”
Swiss Davis Cup captain Luthi will now take on a more prominent role and the rest of his entourage is intact, according to Annacone.
“He’s with a guy that’s very understated but does a great job,” Annacone said of Luthi. “I think his team around him is very proficient.”
Annacone is confident Federer will not fade away. He conceded that with rivals such as Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray in their physical primes and his occasionally troublesome back a bigger issue Federer needs things to break his way. Tailoring his schedule to peak at majors is key.
“Roger is smart,” he said. “He is a very objective, thoughtful person. He’ll figure out what he needs.”
“He’s at an interesting time in his career where there is plenty of greatness left,” Annacone added. “He just has to put the pieces of the puzzle together.”
He and Federer remain on “fantastic” terms and remains in contact with him, including a couple of calls from Shanghai last week.
On his website, Federer said: “Paul remains a dear friend, and we both look forward to continuing our friendship. I want to thank Paul for his help and the value he has added to me and my team.”
“I told him I’m always here to bounce ideas of off,” Annacone said.
He might need to dial him up, as Federer is now locked in a tight battle to qualify for the ATP Tour’s year-ending championship in London.
Four slots remain open for the elite eight-player field with three weeks to go. He is currently in eighth place and will need to perform well at his final two events at Basel and the Paris Masters to qualify.
“He’s right in the mix,” Annacone said. “It’s on his racket. We’ll see how next couple weeks go. Indoor tennis is generally good for him so I’d be surprised if he didn’t have some good results in next couple weeks.”
What’s next for Annacone? A former top-12 player, Annacone has had a long career in tennis and called himself an “industry lifer.”
Besides coaching Sampras, Henman and Federer — all of whom remain close friends — he has been in charge of player development for both the USTA and the British Lawn Tennis Association.
“I’ve been really lucky,” the 50-year-old said.
The husband and father of two grown children is not sure where he will land and joked that maybe he could join the journalistic ranks. That would be one hat he has not worn.
A prominent role with the U.S. Davis Cup team would be another, though current captain Jim Courier has signaled no desire to relinquish his post.
At least for the immediate future, Annacone will have to watch greatness from a few rows back instead of within spitting distance.
“I’m going to be really excited to watch him hold up all his subsequent trophies from here on in,” he said of Federer.
Pretty uplifting article I thought if you are a Fedfan. It’s been a tough season and it’s good to see that at least Annacone is not writing Roger off yet. The part that I bolded is probably the most promising and interesting part of it all. The way things are going right now and how they went this year, one can’t be blamed for being very hesitant to believe that Roger can win another slam. His best result at a slam was a semi at the start of the year after all, and he lost twice before the quarters. I don’t want to just repeat what was said in the article, but one can’t help but draw the parallel to Sampras who struggled a lot at slam level between his 13th and final slam titles. He went through a period of more than 2 years where he kept losing before the quarters of all the slams aside from the US Open, where he lost in the final for 2 consecutive years.
Roger’s slam results have taken a dive since the Australian Open this year where I thought he was still playing at 2012 level. Since then it has been all downhill. We shouldn’t think that puts him out of the running for slams though. It’s been the first year that his results at slam level have been less than good by his own high standards. And he did after all say 2013 was going to be a transition year. He has always taken the long term view. Now, I admit 2013 went even worse than I thought it would, but I can’t write Roger off. The loss to Monfils was hard for me to digest, but I felt better after seeing the way Monfils played against Djokovic. Monfils is a very dangerous player and his serve was unusually clutch against Roger. Every time there was an opportunity Monfils made an unreturnable serve down the tee.
So I am definitely not ready to give up on this year yet. The real indoor season only gets going now, and if there is one surface left where Roger can still win a few matches it is indoors. Roger decided not to play Vienna which at first I thought was a mistake, but then I realized he would have had to play 4 weeks in a row which is too much. Playing 3 weeks in a row will be challenging enough as it is. It was the right decision as long as Roger goes absolutely all out in Basel, Paris, and the Masters Cup, if he qualifies for it. And I’m positive he will. A lot of people seem to think he has already kind of ‘given up’ on 2013. I think that’s total nonsense. We all know what he recently said about how important London is for him. Fair enough there are just 2 or 3 events left and it may not make or break him, but there is every reason why he should try and end the year on a positive note.
Not just because 2013 has been so disappointing, but also looking forward to 2014. Basel has always been good for Roger and he can surely make semis there. OK the field is pretty strong and nothing is a certainty with Roger these days, but once he gets a couple of wins under his belt it should boost him. In Paris he can maybe have a couple more wins and make quarters or semis. Then if he qualifies for London it would give him some more confidence and he could make semis there. Relax, I’m not setting myself up for disappointment again. Roger can still start over in 2014. All I’m saying is that this part of the year has been the most successful for him in the last few years, and it only comes along once a year. So he may as well try and take advantage of it and get some wins and confidence under his belt.
Look what it did for his confidence in 2012 to win Basel, Paris, and London consecutively in 2011. It is part of the reason he had such a good season in 2012. Even this year it helped him to do well in Australia after he looked burned out toward the end of the year in 2012. He took some bad beatings to Berdych at the US Open and Murray in Shanghai but fought his way back to make the final of Basel and London, after beating Murray in the semis. Even though he didn’t win the Masters Cup he came very close and left 2012 on a confident note, helping him to have his best result at a major in Melbourne. I still think 2014 can be a very positive year because for one thing Roger will have very few points to defend, but I’d like him to get a bit of a head start already now. As for the coaching situation I would have liked to see him hire Gil Reyes if he is available at all.
Reyes worked with Agassi in his 30’s and was in charge of his physical fitness. Roger already has Paganini, but if he can get rid of Annacone he can get rid of Paganini as well. Whatever puts him in a better position to extend his career and keep him in touch with the top guys. Agassi had a back problem as well so Reyes knows all about that. I have said before that I think Roger should bulk up in his upper body and become stronger, and Reyes is an expert in that field. Gil Reyes is a great guy and would fit in well in the Federer camp, but he works for Adidas and may not be available at all. I just thought I’d mention it anyway. I thought Roger should get rid of Luthi as well because his role never seemed very well defined to me. He looked more like a convenience who carried Roger’s teddy bears. Annacone seems to have faith in him though so maybe he is not that bad after all.
Ps. I have changed the comment settings on my other blog for those of you who wanted to leave a comment but couldn’t. You should be able to now without any problem.