Heavens, Federer wants to be even better

Men's final: You wouldn't think he needed a coach but the champion has enlisted Roche to reach untouched heights
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The Independent Online

It has been six months since the 60-year-old Roche agreed to become Federer's coach (at the second time of asking), just for the segments of the season surrounding the four Grand Slams. Semi-final defeats at both the Australian and French Opens have to be regarded, by Federer's soaring standards, as failure. Hence the twitch, part pleasure, part approval, on Friday afternoon as his man marched into this afternoon's final. Job nearly done.

As an Australian, and therefore a good mate of Lleyton Hewitt's, with whom he has been involved at Davis Cup level, Roche was generous in his summary of the match afterwards, saying: "It was a lot closer than the score indicated. Lleyton started to come back strongly midway through the third set. I love Lleyton and it was a tough match to watch, but I was happy for both of them to reach the semis. What a pity it wasn't the final."

There have been comments about Roche's job, almost certainly meant kindly, that it could be compared to being handed a Ferrari and asked to judge its quality. Another twitch, broader this time. "That's not the reason I came in," said Roche. "The number one reason is that Roger is a very nice person and has a lot of respect for the game of tennis, which is something I really like about him."

Well, yes, but just how good is the Ferrari? Pretty damned good, since Roche was required to delve into the heart of Australian tennis greatness for comparison. "You would have to go back to Lew [Hoad] or Rod [Laver]. He is a little bit of a throwback to those guys with the power.

"Obviously Roger is right up there with the best. His game is certainly more rounded than when I was with Ivan Lendl and Pat Rafter [Grand Slam winners whom Roche previously coached]. He is a combination of both those, he has many options with his game, he is a complete all-court player."

Roche's initial reluctance to accept a further coaching commitment, and undertake the travel it entailed, was due to a combination of circumstances. He has a hip condition, and has recently suffered the loss of both parents, as well as welcoming the development in tennis potential of a beloved grandson.

"Our relationship is a very open one," he said. "We feel that just the weeks I can do, I will do. It's not a 25- or 30-week job."

Roche is not in accord with those who say there is nothing Federer still has to learn, or that he could have got by without a coach. "Roger is a great player, but there are always areas you can work on and improve on. It's very important he continues to do that, because he has taken the game to another level, and he knows the other guys are going to be working that little bit harder against him.

"It's a bit like my time with Lendl, when he was number one for all those weeks. Every day Ivan got out of bed he was always looking to be a better player. Just because you are number one doesn't mean you can't improve, and it's the same with Roger. He feels he has room for improvement and he keeps searching for those things.

"We have worked a lot on volleys and a better second serve. Here at Wimbledon that's very important. Look at Pete Sampras. He had a great serve, but he also had the all-time great second serve, which helped him win a lot of championships."

Sometimes, however, nothing more than the lightest of touches on the tiller is needed. When the pair talked tactics before Friday's semi-final with Hewitt, Roche acknowledged it was a brief conversation. "I just said to Roger, 'Obviously you're doing something right, having beaten him seven times in a row. Keep doing what you're doing'."

In a distinguished career, and at a time when the Australians were mob-handed at the summit of the sport, Roche captured many Grand Slam doubles titles, but only one singles, the French Open in 1966. The French is the one major missing from Federer's growing collection, but Roche is convinced the Swiss can join him in the pantheon of Roland Garros champions.

Reviewing the "failures" in Melbourne and Paris so far this year, he said: "Roger just can't win every match. No player can. He put himself in a position to win the French and, on the day, just wasn't good enough in the semi-final against [Rafael] Nadal. I don't think he really got his game together. Even though he got through to the semis without dropping a set he still wasn't hitting the ball as well as he could. Having said that, he still had his chances to win, which I believe he will do one day."

Winning Wimbledon for a third time rates rather higher among Federer's priorities at the moment, though he is counselling caution to those who feel all he has to do is turn up this afternoon. "I never feel unbeatable," he said. "It's a new day.

"You have to feel great, and it starts from zero, like a soccer match basically. But I'm very satisfied, very proud, to be in my third consecutive Wimbledon final. It means very much to me and I hope I can seize the opportunity."

With reason, Federer is confident of his chances. While insisting he takes aboard none of the torrent of praise aimed his way via screen and printed page, he knows well enough the state of his talent. "I have improved so much physically and mentally in the last three years or so. It has really started to pay off.

"In the beginning I couldn't hang with Lleyton, not only physically but also mentally. I think that has definitely changed around for me. Eventually, with the variation in my game, I get the errors out of him, too." In other words, having learned to hang with Hewitt, Federer can now spring the trap door.

Hewitt, being a straight talker, concurs. "I've lifted my game the last 18 months and I've got no doubt that I'm the second-best player going around right at the moment. It's just that the best player is pretty bloody good."

That comment from one Australian confirms the reason for the thinking of another. The Roche twitch could well become a full-blown grin today.

Final words of the Centre Court rivals

Roger Federer:

"I never feel unbeatable. There are too many players out there. It's a new day. You have to feel great, and it starts from zero, like a soccer match basically. Slowly I changed my attitude a little bit [five years ago] because I had the feeling I was wasting way too much energy on getting upset. It took me another year or so to get the fire back because I was getting too quiet. They were tough times because I didn't enjoy playing so much. But I am happy the fire came back. The next match is huge for me. I am very proud to be in my third consecutive Wimbledon final. That means very much to me. I hope I can seize the opportunity. I have had many nice things said about me and I appreciate it. It's much easier to handle because of the success I had, whereas in the beginning it was quite difficult to get all the praise. I hadn't achieved anything. Now it suits me better."

Andy Roddick

"I definitely got very lucky in that fourth- set tie-break with the one that just trickled over [an outrageous net-cord in yesterday's semi-final against Thomas Johansson]. I felt guilty about it for a second then I got over it. Credit him - he played great and I was lucky to get through today. I felt like I had to give it my all - there are only so many times you contest a Wimbledon semi-final. I'm ecstatic to play Roger again. He's the champion and is going to make it extremely tough for me, but I'll go out there and have fun and give it all I can... I might try to push him into a wall or something before we go on to court. We always have a good laugh when we see each other in the locker room. There's no question he's been the better player of the last two years - that's a given. The thing is, I have to think about being better tomorrow - not for the next 10 years, not for the next whatever."

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