Pierre Paganini took part in track and field in his youth, and when he first decided to become a coach he was interested above all in working with soccer stars.
But it is in tennis, a sport he has never played regularly, where he has made an indelible mark as the key man in the shadows for Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka.
If they have continued to win big into their 30s, it has a great deal to do with Paganini, the 60-year-old Swiss fitness coach who takes a cerebral approach to working up a sweat.
“A big part of the reason that I’m here where I am today is definitely because of Pierre,” Federer told me in a recent interview.
Where Federer finds himself now is back in London at the ATP Finals, the tour championship reserved for the world’s top eight players.
Federer, now 36, is by far the oldest man in the field and in a round-robin group with Alexander Zverev, Marin Cilic and Jack Sock, who will face Federer in the opening singles match on Sunday. Federer has won the prestigious event a record six times and is the understandable favorite to win it again.
Though he skipped the entire clay-court season to preserve his body and his spark, he has swept nearly all else before him, winning seven titles, including the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and losing just four matches all year.
Back to No. 2 in the rankings behind Rafael Nadal, Federer’s winning percentage of 92 percent is his best since 2006, when he went 92-5, winning 95 percent of his singles matches (a season, it should be noted, in which he did play on clay).
Paganini has worked with Federer for 17 years, longer than any other member of Federer’s current team. Is even he surprised by his man’s 2017?
“Yes, totally, completely,” Paganini said on Tuesday by telephone in French. “You have to be honest. It’s a majestic, fantastic year. It’s not possible normally.”
Paganini, who does most of his work with Federer off the tour in Switzerland and Dubai, has only seen two of Federer’s 19 Grand Slam tournament victories in person. In 2009, he was in Federer’s box when he won his first and only French Open. This year, he was at Wimbledon.
Paganini said he was very much in the moment as he watched Federer defeat an emotional Cilic on the grass of the All England Club, but when Paganini caught his flight back to Switzerland, he said images kept surfacing in his brain of all the work Federer had done off camera to get back to this astonishing level.
One of the most powerful images was from February 2016, when Federer was still recovering from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, the first surgery of his life.
“Rog worked with his physical therapist for two weeks and when we started the fitness training, at the beginning he had to, for example, jog five meters and then walk backwards,” Paganini said. “It was like he was learning to walk again. You can be the most positive person in the world and there are still moments where you wonder, is he really going to be able to play high-level tennis again?”
The answer has been a resounding yes, although it required another six-month break from competition at the end of 2016. The question is how long Federer, the oldest men’s singles champion at Wimbledon in the Open era, might be able to sustain this if he continues cherry-picking his spots and staying fresh in the head and legs.
Five years ago, I asked Paganini if Federer, then 31, could play on until 2016. He said he saw no reason to doubt it based on Federer’s playing style, talents and enduring enthusiasm.
How about 2020?
“I think only Rog will know when it’s the moment that he’ll want to say perhaps this is enough,” Paganini said. “Rog does have the biological age of 36 but for me, he has an athletic age that is younger than that and yet he has the maturity of someone well over 40. So it’s quite a balance. And because of that it’s very difficult to say or predict. It’s the man who makes the decision, not just the athlete, unless there’s a serious injury that leaves you no choice.”
The two met when Federer was 14 and a new arrival at the Swiss national training center in Ecublens near Lausanne. Federer, the youngest boarder there, was still working through his talent and his temper. When he eventually put together his own team in 2000, he asked Paganini to join him.
“He’s made fitness workouts so enjoyable, if they ever can be,” Federer said. “I just follow his beat. Whatever he tells me I’ll do it because I trust him. People ask me, do you still do your physical tests and stuff? I don’t have to do any tests because I work with Pierre and he knows and sees if I’m moving well or not; if I’m slow or fast; all these things. He’s had a huge part of this success, and I’m happy I called him way back when.”
Paganini said his methods of training Federer have changed with the years. They used to play other sports like basketball in Federer’s youth to add variety but now focus on activities that directly correspond to tennis and, according to Paganini, they emphasize complex drills that mimic the multipronged challenges of the sport.
“You have to be strong, fast, coordinated and have endurance in tennis and you have to do drills for that,” Paganini said. “But you also should never forget you have to use this on a tennis court; not on the road or in the pool. So you always have to create a link between the speed and the athletic way it’s used on the court. Nine times out of 10 on the court, the speed is in the first three steps and then you’re playing the tennis ball. So you have to train to be particularly strong in the first three steps.”
Paganini said he truly believes Federer has not lost a step while acknowledging that full transparency was not the goal. “If there is anything that has diminished, it’s for the opponents to figure out,” he said with a chuckle.
“When you judge speed in tennis, you have to judge it differently than you judge a 100-meter runner,” Paganini said. “You have to judge a great deal the reaction time and how well the speed is coordinated. It’s not only important to move fast. You have to move right, and with the nature of the sport, you have to move fast and right for a long time in a match. Rog has proved like others before him that it’s possible to do this past 30. I think what we forget with him is the discipline he has had for many, many years. All his life and his philosophy revolve around tennis.”
Paganini’s enthusiasm remains intact, too, and he now has another comeback to manage. Wawrinka, 32, has been out since July because of left knee surgery of his own. Though he is still ranked seventh and technically qualified for the ATP Finals, he is unable to take part and returned to practice in Geneva for the first time since the operation on Tuesday. Paganini was with him.
“We always benefit from experience and as we plan with Stan, it’s useful to have just gone through this with Rog,” Paganini said. “What is comparable is the duration. Rog stopped in July 2016 and started in January. Stan stopped in July 2017 and the goal is to start in January 2018.”
It is a short-term project but Paganini and his prize pupils have focused above all on the long term. “Rog was always, even at age 20, interested in doing what he could to have a long career,” Paganini said.
That has meant not overplaying, building breaks into the season and listening intently to his body’s signals. It has meant reducing, if only marginally, the number of training sessions through the years. Paganini hopes the younger set, the #nextgen if you will, is taking notes.
“I think if we manage to motivate the young ones to give time to their bodies to recover from training before playing and then to give time to their bodies to recover from playing before training, this simple message can help us have fewer injuries in the future,” Paganini said.
But he is not planning on being the next generation’s fitness trainer.
“At my age, I’m looking at next season and no further than that,” he said. “I cannot plan long term for my own career at this stage. For now, I have the pleasure every day to cross paths with Rog and Stan. That’s my essence, and that’s enough.”
Published at Sun, 12 Nov 2017 06:00:21 +0000