When Roger Federer entered the 2017 Australian Open Final against perennial rival Rafael Nadal, he was the oldest Grand Slam finalist in the men’s game for 40 years. Federer, aged 35, prevailed over the Spaniard in five sets.
His late-career renaissance carried over to Wimbledon, which he won.
Behind these successes was the imposing figure of Ivan Ljubicic, the former Croatian tennis star who became part of the Swiss’ coaching team in 2016.
Spot the small stuff
In the two years before Ljubicic came on board, Federer had reached three Grand Slam finals, but lost them all to Novak Djokovic. The upturn in his fortunes began in 2014 when he recruited childhood hero Stefan Edberg as his coach.
Edberg’s arrival brought with it a technical change—Federer started playing with a bigger racket head, moving from 90 sq. inches to 97 sq. inches. The Swiss maestro’s serve improved and he became more dominant, making 11 finals in 2014 after a drought in 2013.
Edberg’s intervention highlights the need for someone who can bring in a fresh perspective. It is an approach that Indranil Das Blah, CEO of entertainment and talent management company Kwan, believes can serve companies well.
“In a corporate job, we get so caught up in our own processes and where we want to go that we stop evaluating ourselves. And when someone external takes a look at what you are doing, they may suggest something that we never thought of because we were so caught in the rut," he says.
Edberg’s contract, meant to last till the end of 2014, was extended for a year. But, with Grand Slam victories still eluding him, Federer hired Ljubicic to build on Edberg’s work.
Blah believes this may not always work—for a change of mentors can easily undo the lessons from the previous one. “This cannot be a one size fits all approach. If it works for a Federer, it doesn’t mean it will work for someone else," he says.
Ljubicic has long been held in high regard. As a player, he was known for his booming serve and powerful single-handed backhand. And it’s these very facets that have improved in Federer’s game.
Technical improvements aside, Ljubicic has been a factor in easing Federer’s schedule—the Swiss is skipping the clay- court season in the quest for longevity. Ljubicic’s experience in the ATP Players Council gives him insight into the gruelling schedule.
Being a contemporary of Federer, Ljubicic has the twin advantages of being acquainted with the modern baseline- heavy game as well as the rigours of the hectic ATP calendar.
Seeking help from a contemporary
Reaching out for help to a player whose own career shades in comparison to his own sheds light on Federer’s humility. It is also an acknowledgement that a manager brings a different skill set to that of a worker’s.
“If you look at the most successful people, say, Sachin (Tendulkar), they are all very humble people. No matter what they have achieved, they always talk (to people from whom they can learn), which makes the coaches’ work easier," says Blah. “You do not necessarily need someone better than you at your job to help you. A technical manager brings a different perspective," he adds.
In an interview with ATP, Ljubicic acknowledged that the toughest part of coaching a legendary figure like Federer was to understand when to step in to help. Blah says: “This is dependent upon the relationship between the manager and the player and their personalities. Some people like to micromanage, they like being told what to do, and certain people like to be left on their own, and they come to the manager with their problem. There is no right and wrong approach in this.
“Treat people the way that gets the best out of them. Some people crack under pressure, some deliver under pressure. That’s what a manager needs to find out and act accordingly," he concludes.
Interfere too much, and you disrupt a system which may have worked well for years. Don’t interfere at all, and you make no meaningful change. Ljubicic has walked this tightrope to perfection.
Coaching a Star is a series that looks at ideas from the coaches of tennis champions and the lessons managers can draw from these.