AO men's trophy
Twenty-nine years after Stefan Edberg won the first of his two Australian Opens, the Swede will return to deliver the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup to the men's champion of the first Grand Slam event of the 2015 season. He will share presenting duties with the great Martina Navratilova.
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At the end the agreement was done. Just the time to unwrap the Christmas presents and Roger Federer gives his millions of fans the most awaited confirmation tweet that Stefan Edberg will be part of his team. For "at least 10 weeks" - those of the season start - the former number 1 from Sweden will follow Roger trying to give a different angle to his game.
These are a few of Federer's words, just pronounced in Brisbane, waiting to be on court for the first match of 2014: "I ended the season with Severin Luthi and we asked ourselves a question, whether our team was in need of a new presence... Edberg was my idol as a kid, but having been out of the game for over 15 years, I did not think he would accept to return. I tried to contact him personally, he said he was surprised and flattered at my request. After a period of reflection he has agreed to meet me in Dubai, where we spent a good week of training together. Even in the following days we met and we talked a lot. I've been trying to figure out if he was actually happy about this opportunity to work together, and we found an agreement that satisfies both of us... We do not know how it will end, but I'm sure Stefan will bring an important contribution to my game, a different angle. He is not only a coach, he is a legend of tennis, so he will be a source of inspiration for me with which to explore all the aspects of my game."
No denying it, the suggestion is huge. Relying on memory, I think Federer & Edberg is the most winning coach & player connection of all time. Together, the two champions have won 23 Grand Slam titles and 7 Masters, have been at number 1 for over 370 weeks, and the list of trophies and awards could be indefinitely extended. But it is not only the pure numerical sum to make Roger's fans dream, and generally those who love tennis purity.
Imagine seeing them in a practice session, with Edberg (still in excellent physical condition in spite of being 47) working on Roger's backhand diagonal and then tickle him to come forward. An absolute privilege, a tennis court kissed by the utmost ever achieved in a player-coach pairing as far as technical class, elegance and royalty. Something shocking, such a technical show is worth more than many finals (also in Grand Slams) of our times...
On magazines and websites the topic is very hot, among doubts, skepticism and real technical developments. Truly an eventful winter for tennis, with Bruguera alongside Gasquet, Djokovic with Becker and Chang with Nishikori. As I recently wrote about Bruguera-Gasquet (the first of these just born "weird pairings"), the most correct attitude is to wait for the court response, especially when the game will be harder and the best Federer will be needed to stem the virulence of his opponents' shots.
There we will see if Roger has really prepared well for 2014, if his health and athletics have returned to good levels, and if Edberg's touch will have succeded in giving a sprinkling to the Swiss' technical arsenal.
The best serve & volleyer ever
If coaches had the magic of being able to blend their qualities into those of their assisted, well, Federer & Edberg would be the absolute checkmate in tennis. In King Roger's technical semi-perfection the few relative weaknesses have always been his backhand, his ability to approach the net and his too many mistakes at the net. Coincidentally right where Stefan is a master, one of the best ever, probably the best at the net on the left wing.
For the very few who have forgotten about Stefan Edberg, the blonde angel was the last true serve and volley player, the one who was able to raise the attacking tennis to art. His historic coach Tony Pickard said of him: "When Edberg is at his top, he flies on the court, he unleashes the fierce power of his legs with the lightness of a dancer." A perfect definition of Stefan's style, a player who basically did not invent anything new, but who was the most sublime performer of the pure serve and volley, bringing it to the maximum speed and elegance.
Edberg interpreted at the best all the royalties of old-fashioned tennis. As a young pianist playing Mozart with a twist and style of his own, embellishing a classic and giving it a soul. The harmony of his one-handed backhand is something musical, a miracle of harmony, speed and power comparable to a triple Axel jump by Plushenko on the ice, something that catches the eye and can not leave indifferent. But where Stefan has really outclassed everyone is on the backhand volley, which the greats of the game consider to be the best ever. The masterpieces worthy of the best Baryshnikov were when the ball was treacherous, tense and waning between his feet. Stefan was able to play low volleys at the level of the ground, with his racket that almost touched the surface at full speed after the serve, and to land the ball an inch from the opponent's baseline, maybe even in one of the two corners, forcing a difficult passing. Magic and mystery.
Coach and player: a complicated alchemy
As much as his attacking tennis was sublime, neither Edberg has the power to give Roger his qualities. Indeed, the relationship between coach and player is very complex. To unleash a virtuous circle the right chemistry must be generated, the coach must be able to enter the player's world, must be capable of opening up to him, accept to see his tennis honestly, being able to get into his game. It's essential that the player has a critical sense, that he wants to try new things with great humility, daring to do it during the match.
The whole thing is even more difficult when the tennis player is already grown, with strengths (and weaknesses) already tested generating an on court automation which is very difficult to defuse. It reaches the extreme when his name is Roger Federer, the most successful player in the Open Era thanks to a divine game, and he has long since passed the thirties.
The curiosity to see how this magical duo will combine is huge, but its actual developments on court are highly uncertain. For a few reasons.
Roger's real problem is not the technical and tactical direction of his game, but the combination between athletic health and true motivation, hunger for victory.
On Roger's health Edberg can do nothing, he can only try to help him train better, with the maximum consistency and determination. Instead he can work on motivation.
He will try to trigger something, goad the pride of the champion hurt from being overtaken by younger, "bad" and hungry rivals.
Make things short
The only thing I think could stretch Roger's career at the highest level is an improvement of the effectiveness of his serve. A process that he should have started a few seasons ago already, in the wake of the resounding victory at Wimbledon 2009, when a brave Roddick was buried under more than 50 aces in the final.
That match should have been the cornerstone on which building the last phase of his career, activating a kind of, so to say, "Sampras-sization" process, heavily unbalance his game on the effectiveness of serve, so to save energy, get many "low-cost" points from the physical (and mental) point of view, and then focus the maximum physical effort in the return games. Not an easy process for Roger, who loves too much rallying from behind, drawing his magical trajectories with his shots getting winners with unreal angles in anticipation.
But tennis has changed, it's getting more and more physical, and it is unthinkable that, at 33, the Swiss God can stand the "famous" 54 top-spin hits by Djokovic and Nadal... which is what would be needed to win a Slam final.
Besides, he had at his side right Annacone, the one who led the last part of Sampras' career, earning him the last big trophies just thanks to the outstanding effectiveness of his serve.
The meaning of the challenge
What to draw from Edberg, then? What is the meaning of the challenge? In addition to a greater focus on tennis efficiency, maybe I would expect a wait-less Roger, who would try to move the game very early at the cost of making mistakes in order not to be forced into defense.
Not a plan of systematic, Edberg-style net attack because times have changed, and Federer himself has stated several times that play a lot of volleys is very risky and percentage loser, given the current conditions (heavy balls, very high rebounds, extreme top-spin).
Where Edberg could really help Federer is in the selection of his shots, especially in mixing well his top-spin backhand with the sliced one, for the changes of pace and not to lose yards on court. And more generally try to frame his existing strengths in a more rigid game plan, but functional to take the best out of his technical superiority. And who follows Roger knows well how he has never been a tactical genius... even Edberg was not, apparently, but beware: the Swede was an outstanding performer of percentage tennis, one who maximized his strengths covering his weaknesses. Not the ultimate in versatility, but not even so clueless on the tactical level, this aspect unfairly little stressed during his career.
This is the meaning of the challenge, and Federer's magics will know how to challenge senses.
Imagine a Roger that, thanks to the coaching of Edberg often takes the net and touches up the ball would be an absolute "cool". In a tennis now completely anchored to heavy topspin blows from behind, even just dreaming of its most beloved actor trying to make the attacking game shine again, volley with consistency, would be a bold thought.
Yet several times Edberg said that the hard-hitters are no longer technically and mentally used to facing an opponent that would challenge them in a game of attack and passings, and so the space for a skilful attacking tennis is still there.
Who knows. This would be the ultimate challenge, to partly revive the attacking game. It would be the most noble testament also for a man called Roger Federer.
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