Federer fire burns bright
Pierre Paganini, the Swiss master’s fitness coach, throws light on the ways that keep the champ going.
It was the year in which Roger Federer refused to fade away, when he won another Wimbledon and returned for a long, reaffirming stretch to No 1. And he celebrated his 31st birthday.
Federer’s legacy to the game will be multi-pronged. With his flowing style and one-handed backhand, it will encompass aesthetics. With his interest in governance and player leadership, it will encompass politics and prize money. But what could be most striking may be his durability and consistency.
In a year when his 26-year-old arch-rival, Rafael Nadal, missed the second half of the season with knee problems, Federer – as usual – kept on ticking.
He has never retired during a match and has now played in 52 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments, four short of Wayne Ferreira’s record. At the ATP World Tour Finals in London, he played in his 11th straight year-end championship, one short of Ivan Lendl’s record.
The constant in Federer’s ability to endure in style has been Pierre Paganini, his 54-year-old Swiss fitness coach, a former track and field athlete and soccer player who never played tennis at a high level. He met Federer in 1994 when Federer was a prodigy-in-training at the Swiss national training center.
He has been a formal part of Federer’s team since 2000, when they put together a three-year plan with the goal of keeping Federer, then 19, healthy for the long haul. Based on the record book, it has worked like a Swiss watch. Excerpts from an interview with Paganini:
What has Roger had to do differently to succeed at his age?
You don’t have the same goals when a player is 19 or 31. When you work with a 19-year-old, you work long term, thinking about today but thinking about goals for the whole career arc. The more you get older, the more each season and the moment itself become important. Roger has an incredible capacity to still progress. That’s why he’s still on top: mentally he’s very strong and can adapt to the physical side, too.
For Roger, you have to be good to find exercises that give him trouble. He’s so coordinated. In 2000, when we started working full-time again, I proposed a complex thing and sensed while he was doing it that it was more and more perfect. He then explained at the end why I had asked him to do it.
It was fascinating to me. He had understood as an athlete how to do it but also understood why. He had the internal and external aspects covered. He’s not someone who consumes. He’s someone who creates.
Why has he endured where others have not? He’s had ongoing back problems, but no major injury.
I think it’s that his life is all related to tennis, but he also knows how to take a step back from it, which is really important. He knows recovery is an important part of the process, so for him it’s natural to recover after a series of tournaments and then he’s even more motivated to start training again.
What I find interesting is that he is just as motivated now as he was as a junior. I’d say even more so for the physical training. When he was young, he was an artist who wanted to be an artist. Now he’s an artist who knows exactly what he needs to do to express his virtuosity.
Conventional tennis wisdom is that his genetic gifts – body type, natural grace – make it easier for him than others to stay healthy. True?
I hear that all the time. To have a potential is one thing, but to express it for 70 matches a year is something else. That’s Roger’s goal, to be consistent in each match and each training session. I think we underestimate all the work Roger does, and it’s a beautiful problem he has.
We underestimate it because when we see Roger play, we see the artist who expresses himself. We forget almost that he has to work to get there, like watching the ballet dancer: You see the beauty but you forget the work behind it. You have to work very, very hard to be that beautiful a dancer.
With the power and physicality of the modern game, speed seems critical.
You can’t forget we aren’t talking just about speed; we are talking about speed and endurance together. You don’t do one sprint like a guy who does the 100 meters. You go for three hours or more, stop and go. That’s very tough, but you have 25 seconds or 90 seconds to recover. In all the work you do, you have to stay aware of that. We don’t ask you to beat a speed record. We ask you to be fast repeatedly for a long time. That’s what makes tennis interesting. You don’t run 40 kilometers when a match lasts five hours. You run perhaps six kilometers at most.
So has he lost a step?
I’m convinced that he has not lost a step. You also can’t forget that Roger has a quality of anticipation that is enormous. In tennis, you don’t only need to be fast. You need to run cleanly and use speed intelligently, and Roger is very intelligent in this department. It’s court vision, anticipation, maturity.
Does Roger need to work as much physically as Nadal or Djokovic?
It’s not because his physicality is less in the forefront on the court that he doesn’t need to work at it. Roger varies play a great deal. So if you vary a lot it means you also have to have footwork that is more varied. That means you have to train to adapt to his type of game. It’s why it’s impossible to use one method with all the players. Federer is a different player than Nadal and Djokovic, but all three are champions. Take someone who speaks English and French well and take someone else who speaks English, Russian, Japanese, Spanish and Chinese. Roger, for me, is the second one. He speaks lots of languages on the court with his creativity, but he also speaks lots of languages with his speed and coordination and his physique because he is obliged to do it because he is a creative player. What is more difficult? To speak seven languages or two? Seven, which proves that when you have lots of talent you have to work a lot, and that’s what Roger does.
He wouldn’t be able to continue if he didn’t like it. You can work without really liking it when you are young because you are hungry. But when you’ve done it already and achieved a lot of things, you have to really truly like it because you know what’s coming. When you’re 23 and the fitness coach comes, you’re surprised. But when you’re 30 and the fitness trainer comes, you know what to expect, and Roger’s still smiling.
How much of a challenge have Roger’s back problems posed?
No matter what it is – back, legs – it can be a problem. But Roger is also really good because he knows his body and is very good at communicating. It’s happened several times where he could tell us that he senses something wrong before there is a concrete problem. That helps us to anticipate.
If Roger were not a tennis player what would be his best sport?
In soccer, he could have been really good. Roger has coordination from head to hands to feet. He could have been a good javelin thrower, he could have been good in basketball or volleyball or skiing because he has a great sense of balance. He’s very versatile. I think young players should draw inspiration from this because it’s like learning a language. When you develop a good, wide capacity for coordination when you’re young, it helps you express a lot when you’re older. Training for tennis shouldn’t be done in a tunnel. It should be in more of a courtyard.