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“Working with Federer was not always easy”

On the eve of the US Open, talks to Paul Dorochenko, one of Roger Federer's first coaches, about the world number one and his early tumultuous years.

The Swiss tennis star is looking to make it six straight US Open titles in a row at Flushing Meadows, racking up a record 16th Grand Slam title.

Dorochenko got to know Federer extremely well in his early formative years. He was one of his first fitness trainers when the Swiss champion was just 17 years old.

From 1998 to 2000 Dorochenko worked with young up-and-coming Swiss players at the Swiss Tennis Association’s training complex at Biel in canton Bern. How did you start working with Roger Federer?

Paul Dorochenko: At the time I was coaching the Spanish player Sergi Bruguera and before that the Swiss player Marc Rosset. The Swiss Tennis Association contacted me in 1998 to become the fitness coach and physiotherapist at the national training centre in Bienne [French name for Biel]. Federer needed help to improve his physical condition. What do you remember about this period with the young players, in particular with the future world number one?

P.D.: Federer was already very gifted technically, but he still had to improve his movement around the court. He was a hyperactive boy with a very demonstrative personality. He was always calling out and making jokes all the time. Everyone used to say his good humour and energy were infectious. But he was above all a great guy and friends with everyone at the centre.

For me he was almost like a son as we had a special relationship. Sometimes he used to come to my house for dinner. I even let him use my holiday home in Biarritz, France. But working with him was not always easy. Why was that?

P.D.: Federer tired me out over the space of just three years. After this period in Switzerland I felt rather worn-out and I went to Barcelona to again coach Sergi Bruguera. Federer also left the Swiss Tennis Association to start working with Pierre Paganini.

It wasn’t easy working with Federer as he was rarely on time; he used to arrive late for training and you had to constantly push him to get him to begin the coaching sessions. He wasn’t that interested in working and got bored easily because he could do the exercises without any problems. But despite all that, he put a lot of himself into it. One of the most important elements of a professional sportsman’s preparation is their psychological coaching. Was Federer’s hyperactivity difficult to manage?

P.D.: All areas of training were based on self control. For example, I put together one-hour-long resistance training sessions. The aim was to learn to battle with yourself to improve your mental control. The Swiss Tennis Association also hired a sports psychologist to complete the coaching staff.

I remember the punishment we used to inflict on him when he threw down his racket or lost self control. For instance, we made him clean all the yellow tennis ball marks on the association’s courts using a special machine – at seven o’clock in the morning, often when it was freezing cold. Did you ever imagine that Federer would one day become the best player in tennis history?

P.D.: Of course not. I never imagined that I was working with the future star of world tennis. But we already knew that he was a cut above the rest and he was very good for his age.

He always used to say that he wanted to become world number one. It might have seemed arrogant but he was very clear in his mind. At that time he wasn’t on the ATP ranking and had no points. Over just one and a half years, his progress was astonishing and he was elected best young up-and-coming Swiss sportsman.

I would never have thought that one day he might win Roland Garros, which is usually won by clay specialists. But Federer is really at home on all kinds of surfaces. What were the keys to Federer’s success?

P.D.: There is no success without hard work. He invested a lot of his preparation in coordination, strength and physical fitness. On the court he doesn’t look very fast but he has amazing coordination. Although he was a natural born talent, this alone wasn’t enough.

Federer has the perfect physique for playing tennis. He does everything well and is very economical in his movements. I taught him his fantastic footwork after working for a long time with Sergi Bruguera on hard courts.

Another key to his success is the incredible emotional stability he has always had. He hasn’t changed much over the years. He enjoys a stable family life and has almost always worked with the same coach. His mother also gave him this important stability. Do you think he is capable of winning other Grand Slam titles before he retires?

P.D.: I’m certain that he can win other major tournaments in the years to come. Wimbledon will always be within reach even if it gets a little harder to win each year. I think Federer was at his best two or three years ago. Apart from Nadal there are other big rivals like Andy Murray or Novak Djokovic.

I believe he can win a 17th or 18th Grand Slam title before he calls it a day. He will be able to play at the top level at least until he is 30 years old.

Ivan Turmo, (Adapted from Spanish by Simon Bradley)

Roger Federer was born on August 8, 1981 in Binningen, canton Basel Country.

His father is Swiss German, and his mother South African.

He speaks three languages fluently: German, French and English. At home he uses Swiss German.

The world number one has won 59 ATP and 15 Grand Slam titles: Roland Garros (2009), Australian Open (2004, 2006, 2007), Wimbledon (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009) and the US Open (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008).

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR