It seems a good time to recall that story: the current No. 1, Roger Federer, has just hired a coach, and the one he's chosen is none other than Sydney-based Roche, now 59. But there's a key difference between Lendl and Federer. Even at his peak the Czech had weaknesses - clunky volleys, a sulky countenance - that kept Roche busy. Federer, on the other hand, has scarcely a limitation, let alone a flaw. He is, at 23, as complete a player as even the sport's ancients can recall. "I play a classical game," says the graceful Swiss, smiling, "so I have the seniors on my side."
Only a few players in history have had a year like Federer's 2004, when - without the guidance of a coach - he won three of the four grand slam titles and amassed a 74-6 win-loss record. If those six defeats make him sound less than invincible, it may do to acknowledge that the ATP circuit is a grind so relentless that players either turn down the intensity dial occasionally or else burn out. Whenever it mattered, Federer rose: he did not lose to anyone in the Top 10 and won all 11 finals he contested. He has to be favored to defend his Australian Open title, climaxing Jan. 30; there's also loose but understandable talk of him accomplishing some quite extraordinary feats before he's done with tennis: a grand slam, perhaps (winning all four major titles in the same year), and eclipsing the record of 14 majors won by Pete Sampras, who said recently: "We have the same way of making it look easy. He can do just about anything he wants with a racquet. He dominates everybody as I did several years before."
So perhaps Federer's wasting some of the $6.3 million he won in prize money last year by appointing the creaky-jointed Roche to a part-time deal that will kick in before each of the grand slam events. Then again, perhaps he's not. "In this game you look for ways to improve," says former Australian pro John Alexander, "or you go backward." Technically, Federer is near to perfect. Roche certainly won't have to take apart and rebuild any of the Swiss's strokes, as he did with Pat Rafter's forehand in the 1990s. But maybe Federer could play a smarter game. The thrust of Alexander's argument is that because Federer's shotmaking from the baseline is so preposterously good, he can be a little lazy about advancing to the net for the quick kill. "It's not making any difference at the moment, but eventually his opponents will lift," says Alexander, who nominates world No. 3 Lleyton Hewitt as having the tireless counterpuncher's game that might conceivably burn a complacent Federer. (Hewitt, the great local hope to become the first Australian since 1976 to win his national title, has lost his last six matches against the world No. 1.)
The funny thing about Federer's dominance is that only a year ago many in tennis were lamenting the absence of a stand-alone champion. Federer was an equal in a group that featured Andy Roddick, Juan Carlos Ferrero and one or two others. Nowadays, as gifted as they are, the best of the rest can seem limited, even impotent, on the other side of the net from Federer. As Federer played world No. 10 Gaston Gaudio at Melbourne's Kooyong Classic last week, a first impression was that they were equally matched. Indeed, appearing languid, Federer dropped the first set. He then pressed a button in his mind. Moving like a cat and blending a tease of delicate volleys and pinpoint groundstrokes through an otherwise workmanlike showing, he breezed through the rest of the match for his 22nd consecutive win.
An hour later he strolls into a sponsor's function in a crisp, white shirt and jeans. He looks boyish and surprisingly slim across the shoulders, a reminder that for all the buzz about power racquets and booming strokes, tennis is a game of timing. A woman in her 30s wins a watch in a raffle, and it's for Federer to present it to her. She's not sure whether to kiss him and makes a late and sudden lunge for his cheek; he responds with a quick and slightly awkward lunge for hers. Mostly he grins and chuckles while talking about how well he's been playing, how no other player seems able to touch him, and about all the compliments he's been receiving from his fellow pros and greats of the past.
Despite his fame, he retains more than traces of the innocent who left home at 14 to live elsewhere in Switzerland where the practice was better, and who ached with homesickness most nights. Superlative tennis has always been in him, but until recently his mind was getting in the way. "I had to change. I had many problems," he says, chronicling battles with nerves, temper and apathy. "I was fighting with myself to get the attitude right on the court." It took 18 months' work with a "mental trainer" to put him into the zone.
Now there's the prospect that some tinkering by Roche might make him even better. Though he mostly ignores approaches from the media, Roche has a good-guy image; friends speak of a calm man who's always pleasant to be around. In the case of their alliance, it's clear that Federer did the chasing and that Roche, who has a low-profile role with Tennis Australia coaching some of the country's most promising juniors at his home, needed a lot of convincing to hop back on the merry-go-round.
A former champion at the French Open - the only grand slam title Federer hasn't won - and an astute player and classy volleyer in his day, the old dog may be able to teach the No. 1 some new tricks. Federer is vague on what those might be - "different angles of thought" is how he puts it - but he doesn't want Roche judged harshly. "It's not the easiest thing for him to start coaching the No. 1 in the world," he says. "I will lose matches, and I don't think we should start blaming him, because he won't have done anything wrong. He's only trying to help." Still, the pupil's rivals will be hoping that the newest member of Team Federer is no help at all.