Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Federer’s search for a coach continues

Let me say straight up that the good news is that Federer realizes that he needs to hire a full-time coach. I think that that is wonderful, and I am holding desperately onto that as I contemplate the disappointment he must be feeling at being bailed on by Darren Cahill.

I must admit that I had mixed feelings about Federer’s choice of Cahill. Not that Cahill wasn’t up to the job because he was. And he has certainly enjoyed winning runs with the likes of Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt, both of whom performed their best under his expert tutelage.

But both of those assignments came at a different stage of Cahill’s career. He was younger and hungrier then. Now he enjoys the kind of general acceptance that has translated easily into a gig with ESPN, commenting on Grand Slams and analyzing live play.

The commentating job in particular makes for a cushy assignment. It comes with few competitors -- let’s face it, Patrick McEnroe is kind of lame and boring, John McEnroe has way overstayed his welcome, Brad Gilbert is graying faster than George Bush did while in office, and Cliff Drysdale has his fancy resorts to run. Among the women, Mary Carrillo remains the sharpest and most astute. But the camera is becoming less and less kind to her facial lines. Which leaves a space that Darren Cahill can easily occupy -- at least for some time.

So when I heard that Cahill was considering becoming Federer’s coach, I must admit that I was more than a bit surprised. Coaching a top player is a huge commitment of time and effort. Just ask Uncle Toni whose life has been radically changed by his nephew’s stellar success. Sure the job pays well, but it is best suited to an individual who is in a position to relinquish his other interests, including periodically abandoning his family in order to make sure that his charge remains in top physical and mental shape.

Coaching a top player requires a tremendous measure of sacrifice. On my way home today, I saw a car with a sticker that fully made this point. The sticker read: “There’s Army strong, and there’s Army Wife strong”. In other words, an Army wife makes as many if not more sacrifices as does the soldier himself. Similarly, a top player has to commit himself (or herself) to a tremendous amount of sacrifices in order to achieve a top berth. But so too does the coach. It’s a committed relationship in which both parties elect to subjugate other interests to the mutual desire for the player’s singular achievement.

So when someone in the Cahill or Federer camp made it known that Cahill was being interviewed for the privilege of coaching Roger, I must admit that I was more than a bit surprised. Not that Cahill couldn’t do the job. He can. He would have done it well. No, I was taken aback because coaching Roger requires a level of sacrifice that I was surprised that Cahill, at this stage of his career, was actually prepared to make.

So I was not at all surprised when I read the announcement today that Cahill has changed his mind and no longer wishes to be considered for the job. And other than the negative impact on his alternative career as a commentator, I can’t help but wonder what Cahill’s other motives might be. Is it possible for a coach of his caliber to be daunted by the prospect of trying to help Federer achieve his consuming ambition of besting Sampras? Is the challenge of one or two Slams more actually so improbable that it is just not worth the sacrifices? Could Cahill have encountered his own fear of failing? We may never know.

In the meantime I feel badly for Federer. I would have preferred that Cahill had analyzed his schedule and level of interest before his name even got publicly announced as an option. I would have preferred him not to even bother to make the trip to Dubai if he knew that he would be letting Federer down. I would have wanted Roger to be spared the tinge of embarrassment that accompanies being publicly rejected.

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