14 Slam Wins: Subtle Higueras Changes Help Roger Federer to the Pinnacle

H. Jason GreenCorrespondent IJune 9, 2009

Although the 2009 French Open final itself was unremarkable, everything leading up to 6-4 in the third was extraordinary.  Federer’s meteoric rise to 12 grand-slam wins had everyone saying “Federer is the best ever...given a bit more seasoning, he’ll easily blow past the Sampras 14 to who knows how many wins.”    

As fate would have it, nothing in life, including Roger Federer, is perfect.  In January 2008, Federer was seemingly and uncharacteristically struggling.  There was talk of a “chicken virus,” never mind the then world No. 1 said he didn’t eat any. 

It turned out that Federer was suffering from Glandular Fever (a.k.a. Mononucleosis), a virus characterized by, among other things, severe fatigue.  The general advice for Mono is bed rest and plenty of fluids; no strenuous activity until at least four weeks after the virus has run its course.

What did Federer do? He made it to the semi-finals of the Australian Open.  Stopping just long enough along the way to beat Janko Tipsaravic, 10 games to 8 in the fifth set, co-authoring one of the greatest third round matches the AO has ever seen.  The subsequent loss to Djokovic in the semis heralded a year of doubt and struggle for the Federer camp.

The preceding matches and ensuing semifinal loss at the 2008 PacLife Open (l. to Mardy Fish) were chock-full of wild unforced errors. The press started calling Roger Federer human, beatable even.  Those wild errors and now diminishing belief of the press got into the Swiss No. 1’s head. 

After a handful of other early round dismissals, Federer gave in and hired world renowned coach, José Higueras. The two started off with a bang.  The pair traveled to Estoril, Portugal, where Federer earned his first title of 2008 and announced the clay court season officially open.

At the Monte-Carlo Masters, the “Fed Express” was back on track.   Under the watchful eye of Higueras, Federer obliterated his draw.  Some argue, the suspect semifinal retreat of Djokovic, was really just the Serbian caving under the Federer pressure.  Nole said it was a sore throat.

The following straight sets loss to Nadal in the final is not what’s remarkable.  What is of note, however, are the subtle positive changes in the struggling Swiss’s game-first seen at this tournament. 

Federer, normally disdainful of the drop shot, was now trying to mix it into his arsenal.  The Achilles Heel backhand was sometimes firing down the line instead of ALWAYS cross-court.  A base-liner since his first Wimbledon title, all the sudden we see Federer serving out wide and finishing points at the net. 

The crowds were now getting a taste of the Federer/Higueras cooking.  And while tactically the recipe proved to be an edge, the Swiss was struggling with his execution.  What’s more, in matches where he faced Nadal, he seemingly abandoned this game plan all together.

Roland Garros 2008, again Federer made quick work of his draw. The new additives in the Swiss mix served him well; the other guys were just not expecting drop shots or a serve volley.  Finals Sunday, however, was a different story all together. 

Stepping onto the court, the 26-year old Federer seemed stalwart. Unfortunately, the match proved to be a conquest for Nadal, who conceded just four games in three sets.  Federer choked.

Higueras stepped back for Wimbledon.  Present for the last time in Federer’s box at the 2008 U.S. Open, where Federer earned his fifth consecutive title.  Notching him up to 13 slam trophies, putting him within shouting distance the elusive Sampras 14.

Shortly after the New York win, Federer and Higueras parted ways.  Higueras went on to be named director of elite coaching development for the USTA while Federer was happy to close the book on a tumultuous 2008.  The two remain good friends.

The first half of 2009 saw Federer in good stead.  Gone, for the most part, were the wild forehand errors we’ve all come to fear.  Mono, no longer a factor, the Swiss seemed okay.  Not great, but okay none the less-until ATP World Tour Masters-Madrid.

The Swiss maestro commanded the field.  The game plan?  Dust off the Fed/Higi recipe, and this time, execute.  Armed with 2008 clay court tactics, and this time being able to perform, Federer handled Nadal, beating the home-grown favorite, on his preferred turf, in his own back yard, in straight sets.  The win, coming on the eve of Roland Garros, spelled H-O-P-E for the Federer camp.

And then the Draw.

Federer gets slapped with arguably the toughest section and it showed.  Struggling with his opponents, struggling with himself, Federer was on the brink of dismissal. Against veteran Tommy Haas, the Swiss No. 2 was only five points away from NOT winning the French Open. 

He came through. 

What stood out in all his matches was how he was losing points when being decided by a long rally, but winning the points when he could construct a quick kill.  Again, breaking out the Federer/Higueras cooking, we see the struggling Swiss using the drop shot to exactness, finishing points at the net that prove un-returnable and changing direction on his backhand that prevent him from getting stuck in the corner. 

It was those subtle changes he adopted while working with Higueras, and fine-tuned in Madrid, that carried Roger Federer to one of the truly great moments in sports.

Coincidently, José Higueras was the last coach to work with Pete Sampras, parting ways in July, 2002.  A few months later, Sampras beat Andre Agassi at a small tournament in New York.  The win marked Sampras’s 14 career Grand Slam titles.