Mr 5%: How Ivan Ljubicic could give Roger Federer the edge over Novak Djokovic
Tumaini Carayol says new coach Ivan Ljubicic could give Roger Federer the edge he needs over Novak Djokovic in his Australian Open semi-final.
Where Federer’s box previously radiated with style and unabashed charisma, it now reflects the sun and moonlight from a glowing, bald head. Where slam trophies overflowed from its seats, it now hosts one solitary Masters 1000 title. Where the perfect match that was Stefan Edberg once sat, the initially head-scratching hire of Ivan Ljubicic now occupies the role of coach.
The famous Fedberg partnership was a job well done. As Federer recovered from the nadir of his career in 2013, the era of Edberg was marked by Federer’s final full commitment to tinkering with his game - the moment he stopped resting on his endless talents and started maximizing them. Together they forged a plan, which eventually had him playing the most attacking tennis of his career.
To beat Djokovic, their hypothesis stated, Federer needed to end points as quickly as possible. And so he spent the best part of two years - and especially the final six months of 2015 - rushing to the net at every opportunity. He ended points with his forehand more hurriedly than ever before, his already mercurial serve at times hit stratospheric heights and, most essentially, he finally developed the ability to snap early backhands arrow-straight down the line.
The early, entirely unsurprising signs in 2016 are that nothing has changed and Federer intends to do precisely all of this all over again. Against Berdych in the quarter-finals, Federer didn’t think to bait, lure or toy with the Czech. Federer simply went blow to blow with the 6ft 5in destroyer until he knocked him clean out. Berdych admirably matched Federer’s first strike tennis for one brilliant first set, but by the end of three, it wasn’t even close. Federer finished with 48 winners to his name, while Berdych only landed 27.
The reality of the constant talk of Federer’s “coaching” partnerships is that the great Roger Federer obviously doesn’t actually need a real coach. Even the influence of Edberg is romanticised and exaggerated. Federer already knows how to play tennis, thank you very much, and there are very few players qualified enough to teach him. More specifically, the endless reservoir of tennis knowledge he has built up over the years is far beyond that which most could even fantasize of.
“The game keeps evolving. So I think it's important to have an open mind,” said Federer on his partnership with Ljubicic. “I think the support team and everybody involved, they can push with a little bit extra when times get tough sometimes. Or just on a regular day rather than me going through the motions or getting used to something, I shouldn't be doing in practice or in a match, they remind me what to do and motivate me to do it. Those little extra percent here, 5% overall can make a massive difference.”
Tennis is a funny sport. Players hit thousands of balls on the practice court, but after so many years, progress is often only accessed through a small fraction of those balls - the ones are that the difference between subconsciously learning bad habits or pushing on. Federer unsurprisingly hopes that the value of Ljubicic will be seen in fractional improvements rather than any kind of overhaul.
Although Federer would rightfully never admit to it, it’s also clear that he hopes Ljubicic will serve as his whispering voice of counsel in hopes of solving the riddle of Djokovic. Ljubicic’s expertise on this subject goes far beyond the basic yet irrelevant fact that he knows the world number one. Ljubicic was a player himself and has formed his own observations and angles on Djokovic. Federer, as he said, just has to keep an open mind.
That Federer is still attempting to solve the problem that is Djokovic doesn’t mean that he hasn’t done a good job already. In this endless twilight of his career, Federer remains the only player worthy of being called Djokovic’s rival. He is the only living being to have beaten Djokovic multiple times during his peak in 2015 as well as 2014, and his head to head is impossibly still dead even with Djokovic. These are all brilliant achievements - Federer’s commitment to aggression and his tactics have clearly reaped rewards and will not change.
Federer’s problem is that these wins have only come in the Doha and the Toronto-level events of this great world; in five-setters, Federer hasn’t defeated Djokovic since Wimbledon 2012. He has pushed Djokovic with force and resolve, but across best of five sets the margins are tighter and the demand placed on an aging Federer to maintain this brand of physical, high-risk tennis against Djokovic is so difficult.
And so when Federer finally does march out to meet the undisputed world number one on Thursday, the change in his box will make no difference to 95% of his play. Federer has arrived in the semi-finals in the same scintillating form as he did in the Wimbledon and US Open finals, and he will continue to attack in precisely the way he attacked when he faced Djokovic then.
But this time around, his belief is that the 5% he hopes Ljubicic brings to the table will mark the difference between his usual valiant assaults and a pinpoint assassination, between another valiant defeat or a glorious victory, and between departing the court with his head bowed or walking out of the Rod Laver Arena a winner once again.