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Solitary refinement

Minus Roche, Federer looks to redeem difficult spring

Posted: Thursday June 7, 2007 7:40PM; Updated: Friday June 8, 2007 11:30AM
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Roger Federer seeks his 11th Grand Slam title, which would tie Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver for third on the all-time list.
Roger Federer seeks his 11th Grand Slam title, which would tie Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver for third on the all-time list.
Jessica Kluetmeier/SI
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PARIS -- What has all that winning taught us about Roger Federer? We know he isn't a loudmouth. We know he likes the release of a good cry. We know he values good manners and the debatable virtues of a cream sports coat. He's capable of great toughness, but we also know he's fastidious -- what with that constant tucking away of his hair -- and foppish because he doesn't just hack it off.

Excellence can be thrilling, you see, but it doesn't always shed much light. But lately, life hasn't been so easy for the game's sun king. This is trouble for him, of course, but good for Federer watchers. Distress, uncertainty and failure always prove illuminating.

Yes, Federer has now reached another French Open final, but at this point, only the 2007 title can redeem a dreadful spring. After winning the 2007 Australian Open, he took a relatively savage tumble, not only going four straight tournaments without a win for the first time since becoming No. 1 in Feb. 2004, but losing to clear inferiors like Guillermo Canas -- twice -- and a wild card named Filippo Volandri in Rome. Federer then fired his coach, Tony Roche: A cloud of panic hovered over the palace. Crushing a wearied Rafael Nadal in the final of the Hamburg tuneup helped matters, but won't count as much of a cure unless he consolidates. For the moment, the shivers from Federer's cold snap linger on.

So what has losing taught us about Federer? We know now that, even though the timing couldn't be worse, he'd rather solve a problem rather than cover it up. Roche was only part-time and missed enough Grand Slam events to make that an easy option; Federer could've waited until after the U.S. Open to fire him quietly. We also now know that, like many great competitors, Federer can be egocentric and oddly shy -- even to the point of destroying the most important relationship of his professional life.

Consider Federer's own definition of the player-coach dynamic. "It's more friendship than in soccer or other sports where the coach is the absolute respect person," he said last Sunday afternoon. "In tennis, you're more the boss and he's your friend and here to help you; you're trying to go through something together. That's why when it ends it's hard."

Yet when Federer describes what went wrong with Roche, with whom he won six of his 10 Grand Slam titles, we learn he's not much for confrontation. Roche, a former French Open champion, is famously tight-lipped. There's a near forty-year age gap between the two men. From the end of the Australian Open in January to the moment the two met up again in Monte Carlo in April, Federer said, the two men didn't talk once -- a nine-week silence, just as he was preparing for the pivotal clay season, that neither was willing or able to break.

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