After suffering another untimely defeat the questions gain volume and credibility: Has the alarm sounded on his career clock? Is he capable of winning another Slam? Is the monogrammed hat passe? Not only is Roger Federer’s reign over, never to return, but the likelihood of his ever winning another major seems to grow smaller with each tournament. What’s unusual about Federer’s situation is not necessarily the predicament itself, but how some view it as preventable. He was so dominant that his slide to mere mortal is almost inconceivable. Some part of his game, therefore, must be amiss. As though a change in tactics or equipment could stave off the one opponent no athlete has ever beaten: time.
All the great ones – Ruth, Nicklaus, Ali, Gretzky, De Niro – suffered the inevitable decline. In an individual sport like tennis, without teammates to provide cushioning, the fall can be that much more steep; the landing that much more abrupt. Federer’s slide, for the most part, has been slow and graceful; a leaf in a gentle updraft. Yes, his losses are more frequent and his wins less impressive, but he’s far from embarrassing himself. In 2011 Federer has been beaten by Nadal (2), Djokovic (3), Melzer, and Gasquet. You might scratch your head at the last two names, but they’re no George Bastls. In the plus column Federer has won a tournament, gotten to four semis, and a another final. For an American that would be an embarrassment of riches. Is it a typical Federer start to the season? No. Is it a blight on his record? Still, no. Is this what we should expect going forward? Absolutely. It may even get worse.
Federer has remained steadfast that he’s not going anywhere. He loves the sport and the professional lifestyle and continues to be remarkably healthy. The Tour will always be richer and more attractive for his presence. But he’s also proud and unaccustomed to playing second fiddle. Another Swiss star, Martina Hingis, couldn’t transition from Grand Slam champ to quarterfinal steppingstone. She rushed into early retirement only to return when she saw little Justine Henin successfully backhanding the big babes that made Hingis crazy enough to date Radek Stepanek. But her second act played out very much like the end of her first. When she got caught snorting the baseline at Wimbledon, Hingis quickly opted for horseback riding and the exhibition circuit.
What about Connors and Agassi, you say? Didn’t they both do business at Grand Slams late in their careers? No doubt. Connors won three majors after turning 29; Agassi captured four. Connors benefitted from playing Lendl – a full-throated gagger in Slam finals at that point in his career – in two of those finals. Agassi was Vegas lucky there was a power vacuum in the men’s game between the decline of Sampras (who owned him) and the rise of Federer (who soon would). Hewitt was No. 1, but far from dominant. Hence Agassi had to beat Medvedev, Martin, Clement, and Schuettler in his Slam finals. Not exactly the 1973 Australian Davis Cup team. Federer will probably still have his say at a few majors, but with Nadal and Djokovic in their primes, and players like Del Potro and Murray trying to join them, winning will become increasingly more remote. Just as Agassi made an improbable run to the 2005 U.S.Open final, yet came up short against a bona fide No.1 in his prime: Federer.
This hasn’t stopped the armchair experts from offering their analysis on what Federer must do in order to return to the winner’s circle. The advice is well-meaning, based in tennis logic, but mostly delusional. Here are a few of my favorites:
He’s too stubborn. He needs to change his tactics.
You’ve won more Slams (16) than any man before you. Many consider you the best to ever play the game. You’ve got loads of money and really good hair. But damn it, man, what about the serve-and-volley? This reminds me of when I watch American Idol and the judges tell contestants they have to step out of their comfort zones instead of playing it safe all the time. Then when they do just that – and suck – they get criticized for not knowing who they are as artists. (Damn you and your double-talk, Randy Jackson). Connors got a little more cagey, and Agassi more workmanlike, but both stayed close to their roots. Federer knows his genre and he’s not going stray far from it. He is who he is and it’s hard to argue with the results.
Take his game plan on clay: If he engages in extended rallies, he’s condemned as too tentative. If he piles up errors trying to be aggressive, he’s reckless. The former is clearly a poor tactic for Federer. His instinct is to be bold and creative which runs counter to the grinding repetition of effective clay-court tennis. Besides, he’s not going to beat Nadal, or Djokovic, in a tractor pull on dirt. Who can, really? Conversely, swinging from the heels on every other shot is a foolish strategy on clay (for anyone not named Soderling), and completely out of character for Federer. So he does his best to straddle the fence between patience and audacity. He generally does a pretty impressive job of it, too. But tinkering with the formula won’t make his backhand stand up better to Nadal’s forehand. It won’t allow Federer to adopt a full western grip that applies more topspin and safety to his own forehand. He’s a very good clay-court player, but the guys ahead of him are simply better-suited for the task.
Faster surfaces are where Federer will most likely see his best results. His problem there seems to be less about tactics and more about focus. He occasionally suffers from sporadic play: one set he’s a maestro, the next he’s got a case of the shanks. The killer instinct, once so razor sharp, is no longer second nature. This is the telltale of the aging superstar: performance varies from game to game; invincibility more easily gives way to vulnerability. The forehand lets Federer down in a crucial situation and he no longer fully trusts his most lethal weapon. A few uneven matches and inferior opponents now seem formidable. The walk through the locker room doesn’t draw the hushed stares. An athlete’s confidence is his armor. If it erodes, or shows any chinks, he becomes exposed. Look no further than Federer’s buddy, Tiger Woods. (Do you think Mirka put an end to their texting?). One of the great natural ball-strikers in his sport, he no longer trusts his swing. One of the great clutch players ever, his putter has become shaky. It’s not about strategy, as much as it’s about swagger.
He’s too stubborn. He needs a bigger racquet.
Is it the tool or the carpenter? If you believe that Federer needs more help from his equipment, it’s a not-so veiled condemnation of his skills; at this point in his career he’s not hitting the ball as consistently or cleanly. Because his competition hasn’t switched to some new technology that has elevated their play. Nadal uses essentially the same frame he used when Federer was getting the better of him on hard courts and grass. Djokovic was roundly criticized for switching racquet companies (from Wilson to Head) a few years ago because he struggled to make a smooth transition. So it’s clearly not a question of Federer refusing to move from wood to graphite.
No, the thinking is if Federer would switch to a lighter racquet with a larger face – going from his customary 90 sq. in. up to 95 or 100 sq. in. – the friendlier dimensions would mean less mishits and greater power. Federer could last longer in rallies and do a better job of handling his opponent’s pace. Indeed, Federer uses a demanding frame, unlike any other on tour. It was said of Alabama football coach, Bear Bryant: He could take his and beat yours. And he could take yours and beat his. (It’s much more poetic when said with a good ol’ boy southern accent). If Federer switched racquets with Nadal or Djokovic, would he get the better? It’s an interesting question. His racquet would most likely be a bigger adjustment for them than theirs would be for him.
Still, it’s a leap to think a different racquet would give Federer a new lease on his tennis life. When has a racquet switch extended a player’s fortunes? Towards the end of his playing days Ivan Lendl switched from his Adidas war club to a bigger-faced Mizuno – mostly for the money – and it did nothing to revive his career. (But it did make for funny commercials). If Federer switches to something that’s lighter, stiffer, and with a bigger head, it may add some pop to his strokes, but it may also detract from some of the things that make him Roger Federer. The Wilson he uses is designed to reward his precise shot-making. He can derive plenty of power from it, but it’s attributes revolve around manipulating the ball; not overwhelming it. It’s a wand of sorts, and we’ve seen the magic he can conjure with it. Federer is not all of a sudden going to be comfortable taking a power racquet and adopting the mindset of a baseline basher. Plus, the trust issues of adjusting to new equipment for players at this level rival those of Maria Shriver. He doesn’t have the requisite time to get acclimated.
The important number to consider is not 90, 95, or 100. It’s 30 – as in Federer’s age come August. It’s not old, but to a tennis player it’s closing in on social security. Federer’s skills are still extraordinary; his game always beautiful to watch. There will probably be some great victories to come in his career. But it’s time we simply appreciate those moments, rather than expect them.