from Tennis Head (issue of January 2015)
by Paul Newman
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With the Davis Cup added to the list of honours won by Roger Federer, Paul Newman reflects on a remarkable come back year for the Swiss and assesses the impact Stefan Edberg has had on the latest chapter of a unique career.
As Roger Federer reflects on a memorable 2014 he will surely regard a phone call that he made just over 12 months ago as one of the major turning points in his career. When Federer parted company with Paul Annacone, his coach of the previous three years, in October 2013, you would have got long odds on the Swiss replacing him with Stefan Edberg, who had never previously coached a top player and had spent 12 years out of the sport following his retirement.
One phone conversation, however, was enough to ignite Edberg's interest in coaching the seven-times Wimbledon champion - and the two men have not looked back. A campaign which began with many wondering whether Federer could ever scale the peaks again ended with the 33-year-old Swiss back at No.2 in the world rankings and securing one of the jewels that had been missing from his crown as he led his country to victory in the Davis Cup.
From the moment Federer reached the final of his first tournament in Brisbane, it proved to be a very different season to the year before, when he was beset by back problems and won only one title, which was his worst haul since 2001.
Over the course of 2014 he played in one of the best Wimbledon finals of recent times before losing to Novak Djokovic, reached the semi-finals at the Australian and US Opens, won his first Masters Series title for two years in Cincinnati and quickly added another in Shanghai. By the end of the year he had reached 11 finals (not counting the Davis Cup) and won five of them. It was fitting that he should end the campaign with one of the highlights of his career as he beat Richard Gasquet in what proved the decisive rubber to give Switzerland their first Davis Cup trophy in the competition's 114-year history.
Of the spate of "legend" coaching appointments that were made last winter, Edberg's was arguably one of the most improbable. If eyebrows were raised at Djokovic's recruitment of Boris Becker, the German had at least stayed in close contact with tennis through his media work.
Edberg, in contrast, had focused on a successful business career after putting away his rackets for the last time in 1996. Even when he started making occasional appearances on the veterans' circuit 12 years later the Swede did not appear to be interested in immersing himself in the sport again. As for Federer, the Swiss had spent lengthy periods in the past without a permanent coach.
Following Annacone's departure he was expected by many to work only with Severin Lüthi, his Davis Cup captain, who had become a regular member of his entourage. Federer, nevertheless, had other ideas, even if he approached Edberg more in hope than expectation.
"When I called him, I clearly expected a negative answer," Federer said. "He doesn't need to do this in anyway. I'm thrilled that he took the opportunity. He saw it as a really big opportunity to help me and get me back to winning ways. It's going really well, I'm really pleased how we're able to manage everything.
He hasn't followed the game very closely the last 15 years, but he has a lot of experience as a player. And with the information that I have and that Severin has, I think we make a great team. Stefan really enjoys himself on the tour now." Federer admits that for much of his life he had been in awe of Edberg.
When Federer was growing up, Becker had been the Swiss youngster's first idol, but the powerful German was soon replaced by the elegant Swede. "I started to watch him closely and I liked the way he played and the way he behaved on court," Federer said. "I also had a one-handed backhand by then so I guess I could really relate to some degree." Having put Edberg on such a pedestal, Federer did not feel entirely comfortable when he approached him with the coaching suggestion at the end of last year. "I think with idols or heroes, it's always intimidating to speak to them or see them or spend time with them," Federer said. "It's just not something you ever thought was going to happen."
Even in the very early days of their collaboration Federer admitted that it had taken time to get used to the idea. "Now it's very comfortable and not awkward in any way," he said. "I'm happy that the transition is in the past now. We like each other's company. We don't get bored with each other. We enjoy talking about tennis, but then we don't talk tennis all the time. It's really comfortable. So from that standpoint he's been a big help. The hard work has clearly been put in before he came on to the team, especially last year. I had to grind it out so much and I worked so hard to get back into shape. I'm happy he's been helpful in the process to get me back into winning ways."
The most obvious benefit of their collaboration has been the way Federer has rediscovered his natural attacking game. Although the slowing down of courts worldwide means that it would be foolish for Federer to play serve-and-volley all the time, Edberg appears to have restored the world No.2's faith in his volleying game.
Nowhere was that more evident than in his crushing victory over Andy Murray at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, where he regularly played chip-and-charge on the Scot's second serve and repeatedly came into the net, to devastating effect.
"I think I've always played aggressively, but I think I've really found some confidence this year moving forward," Federer said. "If you look back at the tournaments I've played this year, not consciously, but many of them have been on faster courts. Starting in Brisbane was fast.
Throughout the season, I've played on pretty quick courts really all around. I think I've also got used to these courts now, using the courts, what they give me, I take it as an advantage. I think if you put all these things together, I've done a nice job."
The success Federer has enjoyed has been in strict contrast to 2013, when he never got over the back problems that dogged him from the start of the season. He suffered some spectacular defeats - to Sergiy Stakhovsky in the second round at Wimbledon, to Tommy Robredo in the fourth round of the US Open - and usually came off second best against the biggest names. Over the year he won only four out of 15 matches against top 10 opponents.
Having admitted that he had felt "halfbroken" last year, the goal Federer set himself in 2014 was simple. "For me it was about winning titles again, because last year I only got one, which is quite disappointing to be honest," he said. "[Last year] I just kind of felt like it was always going to be hard for me to beat top five or top 10 players. I felt like I had little margin against guys ranked just outside of the top 10 to No.30 in the world.
My confidence was going away quickly, just because I wasn't moving so well. I was scared to have another setback." Playing well from the very first week of the 2014 season and winning a title in Dubai in February quickly helped to restore those confidence levels. "You remember how it feels to win tournaments," Federer said. "You remember and you get used to that. You almost forget how to lose to a point and confidence rises. You're back to winning ways again and everything seems so simple. That's a nice feeling."
A year of feeling good ended with perhaps the warmest emotion of all as Federer joined his Swiss team mates in Lille to beat France and win the Davis Cup for the first time in the country's history.
In particular it was a chance to share a triumph with Lüthi and Wawrinka, two of the people he is closest to in tennis. "At the end of the day I wanted it more for the guys and for Severin and Stan, the staff and everybody involved," Federer said. "We're a small country. We don't win bigger events every other week."
As for 2015, nobody will be ruling Federer out of contention for the biggest honours. Would it be important to him to win an 18th Grand Slam title? "Not to my life," he said. "I don't need it to be more happy or anything. But the moment itself, it would mean a lot. I keep working hard to win titles on the tour, not just No.18.
I'll give it a go again in Australia. I'll hope to be healthy there. I enjoy playing there. It's been one of my most consistent Slams. I hope to get another chance at it. I can't do more than try really hard, which I'm doing."
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