Federer left chasing Rafa -- on his own

Roger Federer needs to figure out how to surmount Rafael Nadal without a coach. Robert Laberge/Getty Images

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- It wasn't long ago, in a not-so-distant galaxy, that Roger Federer strode out of the tunnel onto the stadium court at the U.S. Open accompanied by the doleful strains of Darth Vader's theme music.

The soundtrack was a tribute to Federer's near-invincibility from late 2004 through 2007. At the end of that stretch, the chief question was when, not whether, he would reach the mystical and record-breaking number of 15 Grand Slam titles.

But there have been a few twists to the sequel. Federer struggled with illness in 2008 and encountered his own Death Star in the form of Rafael Nadal, who crushed him in the French Open final and then took the trophy dearest to his heart -- the silver cup awarded to the Wimbledon winner. The Swiss star came back to win the U.S. Open convincingly against Great Britain's Andy Murray but could not keep that momentum going in this year's Australian Open final, where an uncharacteristic letdown in the fifth set handed Nadal his first hard-court major.

"I played a great match for four and a half sets,'' Federer said Wednesday in his first public comments since the loss in Melbourne, calling Nadal's play over the past 18 months "extraordinary."

"He looked a little bit tired, and I couldn't take advantage of it,'' Federer continued. "He has proven himself on all surfaces now. It kind of maybe all started for him when he beat me comfortably at the French Open. Maybe I was still hurting with that loss at Wimbledon. I lost that match in the first two sets and not at the end.''

The mystery now is whether the 2009 season will be a continuation of the latest installment of "R Wars" -- Roger versus Rafa for control of the empire -- or whether Federer can start writing a new script.

Federer has answered one question left hanging by his defeat Down Under: He will continue without a full-time coach.

Reports erroneously had Darren Cahill, an ESPN commentator and former pro who previously worked with Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi, all but certain to commit to full-time travel with Federer after he spent nine days with Federer in the player's adopted home of Dubai.

It seemed like a logical move. Cahill recently resigned as assistant coach of the Australian Davis Cup team and was a close friend of Federer's late Australian mentor, Peter Carter. The coach's low-key style seemed to be a good fit for a player who could use a sounding board rather than a drill sergeant and whose game needs incremental adjustment (especially against Nadal) rather than an overhaul.

But Cahill's previous high-profile coaching gigs came when he was at a different point in his life. He was single when he began working with Hewitt, then moved his wife and infant son to Agassi's hometown of Las Vegas to make the arrangement with Agassi feasible. Now that Cahill has two children, ages 4 and 7, spending six months on the road is an entirely different proposition.

"It's tough for him to do the traveling with his kids, and the weeks I required he couldn't really do,'' Federer said. "So it never really got to the point where I had to go and think too far and take a decision on my own.''

Cahill is under contract to ESPN to work the Grand Slams but said network officials told him they wouldn't stand in his way. In the end, it came down to something to which every parent can relate.

"Yes, it's a dream job, and in tennis, we have a very small window both as players and as coaches to make a mark,'' Cahill said from his home in Las Vegas. "You make a lot of selfish decisions. But every time I pack the bags and walk out the door, it gets harder and harder.'' The sheer distance from Vegas to Dubai was another obstacle, he said.

So where does that leave Federer? Rested and ready, he said, after nagging back pain prompted him to withdraw from the Dubai event and the first round of Davis Cup play against the U.S. team, which won in his absence.

Federer said his back had been troubling him since late last season. "It's a big priority for me to look at the long term,'' he said. "I want to play for many more years to come. I know some people don't understand [the Davis Cup decision], but if they listen to me, I'm sure they will.''

He will continue to consult with Swiss Davis Cup captain Severin Luthi on a part-time basis. Meanwhile, the concept of recruiting a full-time coach is again on indefinite hold. Should it ever resume, Federer said, he is after "a little bit of everything.''

"I don't have any technical flaws and I don't have problems working hard,'' he said. "I guess it's the little things. Maybe it's just talking about the players, maybe a few exercises in practice here and there; maybe it's just having somebody else around sometimes. I'll just continue with the great team I have.''

Federer's strategy will continue to be viewed through a high-powered microscope as he enters a critical part of the season, starting at Indian Wells, the kickoff to the nine-event ATP World Tour 1000 (aka Masters Series), which is second in importance to only the Slams.

From 2004 to 2006, Federer owned the tournament now known as the BNP Paribas Open. But he since has been upset in consecutive years by Guillermo Canas (second round, 2007) and Mardy Fish (semifinals, 2008). Federer did not win a Masters championship last year, the first time he has been shut out on that level since 2003.

The clay-court season looms just a month away. At this time in 2008, Federer hired Jose Higueras to work with him specifically on his tactics on dirt and was rewarded by reaching his third straight French Open final, only to run into the same roadblock. Now Higueras is unavailable, under contract with the U.S. Tennis Association as its director of coaching development, and Federer faces the prospect of rolling another boulder up the red-dirt mountain.

"I'm really motivated,'' he said. "I don't know how much better [Nadal] can play; I don't know how much better I can play. But I'm right there, and he's playing the tennis of his life. So for me, that's a good sign.

"I love playing matches against him, especially those five-setters, seeing I can hang with him physically without a problem. I was on top for so long, facing challenge after challenge, and he's the greatest challenge I've ever had. It's nice that we can face off so often against each other. Those finals are always intriguing.''

(The world's No. 1 and No. 2 have a chance, albeit slim, to square off in an early round this week -- if they advance in the doubles draw. Federer, pairing with countryman Yves Allegro, would have to overcome top-ranked brothers Bob and Mike Bryan. Nadal is teaming with Spain's Marc Lopez against less potent opposition. Their tandems will meet in the second round if both win.)

Federer had a ready answer to the oft-asked question of whether clay is the quicksand that ultimately will prevent him from surpassing Pete Sampras in Slam victories.

"I don't think the clay has been my problem,'' Federer said. "My problem has been Rafa on clay. There's a big difference. If he wouldn't have been there, we would be talking very differently today.''

It's a fair point. Not so long ago, top ATP players were scrambling to find ways to solve Federer; now, he's the leader of the pack trying to match Nadal's level. What a blockbuster of a story arc.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.