September Issue 2010

By | Sports | Published 9 years ago

A changing of the guard took place a long time ago in professional tennis. It happened when Roger Federer lost his number one ranking to Nadal in 2008. It was solidified when he broke down in tears after his loss to Nadal in the finals of the 2009 Australian Open. Arguably, it wasn’t just the missed Sampras-held record of 14 Grand Slam titles he was chasing at the time that made the king of the tennis world melt into an embarrassing pool of tears. Quite likely it was his realisation that his dominance was truly over. He had met his match. At that point, Federer had lost his last five encounters against Nadal and hadn’t beaten the Spaniard since 2007. Federer seemed scared that he was running out of time and this Majorcan hurricane was ruining his plans to rewrite tennis history the way he had scripted it.

Federer made it back to the top of the ATP rankings last year by winning on a tour characterised by an injured or absent Nadal: in 2009, Nadal, the King of Clay, hobbled by tendonitis in both knees, was already showing signs of sluggishness when he lost to Federer in the Madrid Masters, and his knee injuries contributed to his early departure at the French Open and his withdrawal from Wimbledon and the Davis Cup. As a result, the Swiss Maestro must have been relieved that he didn’t have to face Nadal in either the French Open or Wimbledon. And make no mistake, when Fed plays Rafa he is nervous. Rafa’s style is the perfect antidote to Fed’s killer game. The Swiss star knows this. Rafa has a clear psychological edge. He’s had this edge on his friend Federer for years. It shows in their head-to-head record: 14-7 for Nadal.

But since his initial slip from the top tennis spot in 2008, Federer has been facing tougher competition from every quarter. Clearly, he is still brilliant and formidable, but he no longer is seen as unbreakable. His opponents believe they can beat him. And these days, he is beaten regularly.

It is quite possible that Federer won’t win another Grand Slam title.

Federer is now ranked number three in world. His latest defeat was against Novak Djokovic, causing them to switch places on the ATP ladder, and dropping Federer to a ranking he has not seen since 2003, nearly seven years ago. Being number three is nothing to sneeze at. But it must be more than irksome for a man so used to winning: unless he has become totally detached from reality, it must be humbling. And if he truly wants to make it to 20 Grand Slams (or whatever other lofty target he has fantasised about), he better read the slide for what it is: an omen. Still, his ranking is not the point. The point lies in what is happening to make this reality so. An aging Federer, past his prime, is now facing off against a rising cadre of tennis players entering theirs, many of whom respect, but arguably no longer fear Federer.

During their last seven meetings, over 2009-2010, the head-to-head battle between Djokovic and Federer has been 4-3 in favour of the Serb. Sure, lifetime Federer is ahead 10-6. But Federer won half of those at his peak in 2006-2007, when Djokovic was just starting to find his top tier game: Djokovic started 2006 ranked 78th in the world.

It is a similar story with Andy Murray, ranked 4th in the world. Head-to-head, Murray leads Federer 7-5. Over the last two years, they have split their six matches, with Murray winning 79 games versus Fed’s 78 games (including tie-breaks). There is no dominance there.

Others are gaining confidence too. Rising player (though already 26 years old) and now world number five, Robin Soderling, overcame his losing streak against Federer this year, beating the Swiss star in the quarterfinals at the French Open in 2010, meting out revenge for his finals loss at Roland Garros a year earlier. Czech Tomas Berdych has beaten Federer twice this year and has moved up the ranking to 7th place from 20th spot, where he was when he beat Federer in the round of 16 at the Miami Masters.

In fact, you only have to look at Federer’s record this year to understand how he is slipping.

So far, his won-lost record this year is 44-11. With 13 tournaments played this year, the six-time Wimbledon champion has only been winning three matches per tournament. Along the way he has lost to 32nd-ranked Lleyton Hewitt (someone who Fed had dominated, beating 15 consecutive times since 2004), 33rd-ranked Marcos Baghdatis, 34th-ranked Albert Montanes, 40th-ranked Ernests Gulbis (the rankings represent the rankings at the times of the respective matches). He is not losing exclusively in the semis or finals of tournaments either. He is being sent home during the quarterfinals (twice), round of 16 (once) and round of 32 (twice).

Federer has only won two titles in 2010. This year, he has lost more finals than he has won. After his Australian Open win at the beginning of the year, he has only won one other tournament, the Cincinnati Masters against then 36th-ranked Mardy Fish. Is this the type of player he needs to face off against in a final to win?

This is easily his worst year since 2003, the last time he was ranked number three on the planet. Is it more than an ‘off’ year?

Federer is not panicking yet. But he’s making adjustments. He changed coaches this year, trying out former Sampras coach Paul Annacone. It was a change that accompanied his 29th birthday. This is not an age where the wins come easy. Bjorn Borg retired at 26. Boris Becker won his last Grand Slam at 28. Sampras won his last slam, the 2002 US Open, just after his 31st birthday. He retired the next year. But before that Sampras’s previous one was two years earlier at Wimbledon, he was still 28 years old at the time. Sampras played 33 tournaments without a win before winning his final Grand Slam in 2002. Would Federer be able to tolerate a drought like that? In the last 40 years, only Andre Agassi has found true winning form after 29, winning the Australian Open at 29, 30, and 32.

But they have different styles, and that will make Federer’s Grand Slam success going forward that much more difficult says Sean Randall writing at Tennis-X.com (though Randall thinks Federer can probably still take two more Slams home if he stays healthy and can play for a few more years):

“Andre was a strategiser, a controller who picked his spots and moved opponents around the court chipping away at their weaknesses and breaking them down mentally.

Federer relies more on precision, timing and footwork. All of which are subject to greater erosion in later years and especially so with a player like Federer who has logged a lifetime of miles already under his Nike’s.

Agassi also won those four Slams arguably in a post-Pete, pre-Federer generational ‘soft spot.’ [To reach 20 Grand Slam titles] Federer will have to score four more at time when rivals like Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic will be or are already in their 24-26 prime playing years. And let’s not forget Juan Martin Del Potro, who still has plenty of room to run assuming he can get healthy, and guys like Tomas Berdych and Robin Soderling.”

This is not about career trajectories. It’s obvious Federer peaked years ago. And obviously when on top of the tennis world, he only had two possible futures: stay on top or head downwards. Well, he’s already stumbled a bit from the top. And unlike 2008 when he dropped to number two only to rebound and regain the top ranking in 2009, it is doubtful he has the fitness or confidence to do it. Yes, Fed may still have the motivation to do it and he knows that he still has the game to compete with the world’s best, but there is no way he truly has the same level of confidence he had in 2006 when he dominated the sport.

But he’s not letting on. According to Randall at Tennis-X.com, the now-behind-schedule Fed Express told the BBC in August that he believes he can still dominate the Slams:

“Having won three Grand Slams per season three times, and two per year a couple of times, it’s something that I think is very do-able for me.”

Federer didn’t like being number two. He’s going hate being number three. He has an ego. And he has the right to have one. He is arguably the best tennis player in history. But that ego will keep him playing and striving to regain that number one spot. If Rafa stays healthy, Fed won’t be able to do it, and he’ll start to slide farther down. Rafa’s actually getting better too: he’s worked hard to develop a new serve. Is Fed willing to work harder now than he’s had to in years to keep up with the younger and stronger players?

Conventional wisdom says, “Retire on top.” But most champions do not because when they are on top, they are confident, giddy and in love with the feeling of being number: they feel invincible. And they keep going.

When Federer broke down in Melbourne in 2009, he said, “I love this game, it means the world to me and it hurts when you lose.”

Unfortunately for him, and his legions of fans, he’s at a point in his career where there’s a lot more hurt in store.