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.
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?”
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.
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
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.