In this exclusive excerpt from the book THE ROGER FEDERER STORY: QUEST FOR PERFECTION author Rene Stauffer reviews the time when Federer and Paganini first began working together – and the immediate results from their training sessions – in the chapter called “No Pain, No Gain.”
Roger Federer was still the youngest player in the top 100 of the ATP rankings at the end of the 2000 season and was rapidly working his way to the top. However, when it came to winning his first ATP singles title, it seemed as though he was jinxed. No matter how well he played, he just couldn’t break through and win his first title. By contrast, Lleyton Hewitt, who was just five months older than Federer, already won six titles in his career, including four alone in 2000. Hewitt also ranked No. 6 in the world rankings and was firmly established as a consistent top 10 player.
Hewitt’s style was different and simpler. He was fast and was one of the greatest warriors on the court—fighting tooth and nail for every point and wearing his opponents down with his steady baseline play. He intimidated opponents with fist pumps and his signature yell-out of “C’mon!”
While Hewitt was winning in a relatively non-dazzling way, the opposite was usually the case for Federer. He charmed the spectators with dynamic displays of the most diverse strokes and with his virtuoso onslaught. He seemed to possess infinite potential—but he nonetheless repeatedly lost to inferior opponents. He seemed like somebody who had the winning lottery ticket but didn’t know what to do with all his money. “He has so much potential that it sometimes confuses even himself,” said John McEnroe, himself, a one-time artist with the tennis ball.
Federer’s time finally seemed to come in October of 2000 in Basel, his hometown. He overcame a match point in defeating Hewitt for the first time in his career in the semifinals, winning by the narrowest of margins—8-6 in the decisive third-set tie-break. “That was one of my most unbelievable matches,” the local matador said exuberantly of one of his early marquee wins. But Federer was not able to carry the momentum through to the title, losing a hard-fought final to No. 6 seed Thomas Enqvist of Sweden.
The final-round showing in Basel placed Federer among the top 25 ranked players in the world. But mental and physical exhaustion from the long season set in and Federer won just three matches in his final four tournaments and finished the 2000 season ranked No. 29. For the first time, he failed to achieve his goals for the season—winning his first title and finishing the year in the top 25 of the rankings.
Federer’s 2000 season—his second as a professional—taught him the bitter lesson that spectacular strokes and talent by themselves weren’t enough to win tournaments and get to the top. He had to work on his physical fitness. Although fitness training was something he didn’t particularly like, he hired a fitness coach, Pierre Paganini, an old acquaintance from his time with the Swiss Tennis Federation at Ecublens, to join Lundgren as part of his team. Training with the 43-year-old Paganini 100 days a year proved to be a stroke of luck.
“He is the best fitness trainer you can imagine,” said Lundgren of Paganini. The bald, bespectacled man was a former soccer player as well as a smart, professional and unobtrusive worker—and he quickly deduced what Federer was lacking. “Athletically, he had great shortcomings. There was enormous potential for improvement, especially in legwork and body building,” Paganini recalled. “His problem was that his enormous talent allowed him to cover up his athletic shortcomings.” At the same time, however, he also had to defend his position in the world rankings and he could not afford to just work on basic conditioning. “I had a time table of three years to bring him up to the best physical condition.”
Paganini’s goal, however, was not to transform Federer into a muscle-man. “A tennis player is not a sprinter, a marathon runner or a shot-put thrower,” he said. “But he does have to have something from all of them and he does have to be able to summon all of these qualities when playing.” Because Federer was a creative player who often improvised many different shots during a match, he had to be able to execute many different movements, unlike a player like Hewitt, who tended to play the same style and hit the same type of shots repeatedly. Paganini worked with Federer to achieve a “coordinated creativity,” high precision movements and the ability to muster top athletic performance after four hours of play. “Roger couldn’t be permitted to choose the wrong tactic for physical reasons,” Paganini said.
Every day brought fresh challenges for Paganini to keep the young firebrand’s morale high. “Roger is not a workaholic that you can hit 3,000 backhands to and he hits them and feels good doing it. Training has to be fun for Roger,” said Lundgren.
“He wants to work hard but he needs a lot of variety,” Paganini said. “He has to see that an exercise is useful to him. He is an artist. If you motivate him, then he turns into a training animal.”
In Biel in December of 2000, Federer received a two-week preview of what his new training work would entail. Paganini developed special exercises for him that he termed “integrated fitness training.” Federer, for example, ran on the side of the court until he was exhausted and then immediately ran back onto the court to play tennis. “The natural reflexes and all the bad habits that are the hardest to break kick in when one is in an exhausted state,” Paganini said, explaining his method. “And then the coach goes to work on them.”
While many tennis players only concentrated on building fitness in December, the only tournament-free month of the year, Federer punctually worked on his fitness training the entire year. Paganini was immediately enthused by the professional dedication shown by his protégé. “He was really motivated for such exercises and this surprised me,” he said. “But he is, after all, a natural athlete.” Paganini, who called Federer “naturally coordinated,” said Federer accepted the fact that fitness work and practicing would not always be fun. “He noticed that he was there to acquire something that would later serve him on the tennis court.”
Paganini’s three-year plan proved successful. “Today, Roger can reach a maximum speed of 20 km/h (12 mph), which means that he can keep up with a regional sprinter for the first 30 meters,” he recollected in 2003. Federer could run 3,300 meters in 12 minutes, 9,300 meters in 40 minutes and he could press 150 kg (330 lbs) while doing knee-bends. This was an immense improvement from before.
Federer found it easy to motivate himself for these goal-oriented training sessions because they broke up the routine. “Just a little bit of change does me a lot of good,” he said. “Once I’m out on the court, I don’t have any problem getting motivated. If I want to be No. 1, I have to give my all in training.” Thanks to Paganini, he understood why he was training so hard. He quickly noticed that his improved fitness was helping him to increase his self-confidence. “I feel mentally really good because I know that I am physically prepared and that I can compete,” he said after the first extended training session with Paganini.
Lundgren expected a lot from Federer in 2001, his first full season as Federer’s private coach. He was convinced that “if he plays like he did last fall in Sydney, Vienna or in Basel, he’ll be in the top 15.” He even dared to speculate that “he could have his first title very soon.”
At the start of the season, Federer and Martina Hingis won the Hopman Cup in Perth. It was not an especially significant event but it was, after all, the International Tennis Federation’s sanctioned world mixed tennis tournament. He reached the third round of the Australian Open—avenging his Olympic loss to DiPasquale in the first round before losing to eventual finalist Arnaud Clement. February, however, became the best month of his career to date. At the indoor event in Milan, Italy after the Australian Open, Federer defeated Olympic Champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov for the first time in his career in the semifinals to reach his third career ATP singles final. Federer seized the opportunity and, with his parents in the stands cheering him on, he finally won his first ATP singles title, defeating No. 53-ranked Julien Boutter of France 6-4, 6-7 (7), 6-4.
Lundgren was correct. A milestone was achieved. “The relief is enormous,” Federer said. “I’ve had to wait a long time for this moment. It should get easier from here on out.” But the excursion to Milan didn’t end very happily for Roger’s father. In his excitement, he locked his car keys inside the car and had to smash in the car window to retrieve them.
A week later, another career milestone was achieved for the 19-year-old as he returned to Basel for Davis Cup duty against the United States. There was no stopping Federer. He beat Todd Martin and Jan-Michael Gambill in two breath-taking performances in singles, and in between, paired with Lorenzo Manta to defeat the American team of Gambill and Justin Gimelstob in doubles. With his three match victories in the 3-2 Swiss defeat of the USA, he joined Raul Ramirez, Neale Fraser, Nicola Pietrangeli, Frank Sedgman, Henri Cochet and Laurie Doherty as the seventh and the youngest player to win three live matches in a Davis Cup tie against the United States. “It’s like a dream,” said Federer, who shed tears of joy after his match-clinching victory over Gambill.
The Americans, by contrast, were stunned. “You’d have to be blind not to see that he’s got a great future in store for him,” said Gambill. U.S. Captain Patrick McEnroe didn’t try to make any excuses although he was missing his two strongest players, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, in this match. “We knew that Federer would be tough but we didn’t expect this,” he said. “Whenever he got hold of the ball, the point was his.”
February would bring even more success for Federer. The week after his single-handed defeat of the U.S. Davis Cup team, he reached the semifinals in Marseille where his 10-match winning streak was ended by Kafelnikov. The next week, he reached his fourth career singles final, losing to Nicolas Escude of France in a third-set tie-break in the final of Rotterdam. The ATP chose him their “Player of the Month” and effusively praised in their official press communication, “The Federer Express has arrived!” A playful warning was also issued in the press release stating that Federer, “has been blessed with so much talent that it almost seems unfair to his opponents.”