Federer unveils Higueras as clay-court secret weapon

Roger Federer on Tuesday begins a first-round test of fire with coaching candidate Jose Higueras as the trial pair work to put the Swiss into winning position in a debut week at the Estoril Open. ( dpa )

Federer, playing a non-Masters Series or Grand Slam event on clay for the first time since a title in Munich five years ago, will put the potential partnerships to the test after just three days of training against childhood tennis friend Olivier Rochus.

The Swiss number one outlined details of his strategy on Monday as he explained how he managed to hook up with the 55-year-old Higueras, former mentor to Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Michael Chang.

"It's just all starting, I'm happy he's here," said 26-year-old Federer, working to lift his first title of a season which began slowly as he fought a virus.

"Jose is gonna do this week and we will see how it goes from here," said the 12-time Grand Slam winner.

The fiercely independent Federer has not had an official coach on board for 11 months after splitting with Tony Roche in 2007.

But the Swiss said that he made the decision last month during US events in Indian Wells and Miami to give the California-based Spanish clay master a try.

"I've been thinking about a coach for a long time, who would be the right guy," said Federer. "Once I had Jose in my mind I asked if he was interested.

"He's quite flexible and came over. It all happened when I was in the States, I took the decision there."

Federer refuses to panic over his "modest" season so far, with a semi-finals in Australia and Indian Wells as his best performances.

"I disagree with those who say I'm playing bad. I'm definitely not playing bad. I'm on the verge of playing great again, that's what I'm looking at.

"We're now in a different part of the season, it's back to zero for everybody."

Federer said that this week in Portugal - his debut on court in the nation - could lead to further collaboration with Higueras.

"We'll have to see how this arrangement goes. It's pretty open at the moment. But he won't to 30-40 weeks a year. That's not what he really wants.

"It's a similar arrangement like it was with Tony Roche - but first we have to get through this week and see how it goes from there."

"You need need people around who make you better, fitter and stronger. Those guys work hard to make you play better. If that happens at the French Open, that's the perfect scenario."

Federer, guarded by a special detail of four security men around the grounds of the Estadio Nacional, said that this week is important as a test of his clay form.

He is playing the smaller event by chance, due to Beijing Olympic scheduling which knocks one week off the spring clay season.

"Being here as the ultimate favourite and having maybe an easier draw than at a Masters, it's the right thing to kick off the clay court season," he said.

"I've not had too many days on clay, it will be tough for all of us. But I hope I can then get on a roll.

"I hope Estoril will pay off and I can do well at other events - especially the French Open."

Second seed Nikolay Davydenko arrived on Monday after helping Russia into the Davis Cup semi-final at the weekend on clay over the Czech Republic.

The Miami champion from eight days ago was due a Tuesday training session before opening later in the day against Austrian Jurgen Melzer.

In the men's first-round matches, Portugal's Frederico Gil staged an upset as he beat French sixth seed Nicolas Mahut 6-0, 6-3 while number seven Frenchman Marc Gicquel made it safely through over Serb Boris Pashanski 6-4, 6-3.

On the women's side, seeds Karin Knapp, Klara Zakopalova and Sofia Arvidsson all reached the second round.

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