WHAT IS the mark of a true sporting legend? Is it somebody who climbs supremely to the top and then appreciates they are better than the rest and feels no need to try and reach new levels of brilliance? Or rather a person who yearns to always improve, take risks and become an even more supreme force in a search for true perfection?
I donít know what it is like to be as brilliant and accomplished as Roger Federer. Like the rest of the tennis world I am in awe of his skill and respect his accomplishments. So in many ways I feel uncomfortable in coming out with the following statement - I believe the world No 1 has hit a brick wall with his game and to escape from what could become stagnating complacency he must show the guts to take some gambles.
Just imagine the excitement that would be generated by Federer suddenly going back on the attack with some marauding play rather than staying largely anchored to the baseline, relying on the percentages and only making the occasional foray into the net. Yet thatís what he must do if he wants to assert some dominance over Rafael Nadal and inflict the sort of emphatic defeat in what everybody expects to be next weekís menís singles final that would exact revenge for the thrashing three weeks ago at Roland Garros.
I think the most boring way of leading a life, sporting or otherwise, is taking the safe option. Isnít that the way of lacklustre men? Iíd like to think Roger isnít dull, but right now he seems to accept that he can win the majority of his matches on cruise control and that just becomes downright predictable.
At this Wimbledon he hasnít been pushed and looking at the list of his opponents in Halle it seemed to be the same story. He has now won 62 grass court matches in succession but there is a danger in becoming obsessed by statistics and records; you become almost monotonous. I donít want somebody so exquisitely talented as Federer to fall into that trap.
Since collecting his fifth successive Wimbledon title a year ago Federer has spent a lot of time in the company of Pete Sampras. You would like to think he chose those weeks they spent playing exhibitions in Asia and New York to pick up a few tips from the great man. Sampras was always a believer in playing the aggressive game and going for broke if the opportunity presented itself.
This year we have seen far more unforced errors creeping into the Federer game and there have been defeats and performances that previously would have been hard to comprehend - the loss to Mardy Fish in Indian Wells or the Roman exit on clay against Radek Stepanek. Wimbledon and grass is different but watching Federerís third-round match against Marc Gicquel there was no real adventure, no taking risks, no looking to experiment with a more attacking game.
I remember Ivan Lendlís desperate attempts to try and win Wimbledon by becoming a serve-and-volley player for a fortnight a year. For the rest of the year he packed away the tactic along with his grass court shoes and consequently never felt natural in attacking the net. Had he tried it now and again on the quicker surfaces indoors or on the cement in the United States it might have been different, but he was stuck in his ways.
Perish the thought that Federer is falling into the same trap. What would have been wrong in him trying a little all-out attack against Gicquel, who was honestly never a threat? His match against Dominik Hrbaty in the first round was another chance to show a little panache but it never truly came.
As an Aussie Iíd love to think Lleyton Hewitt could bring something to the court in the next round that would force Federer to crank up another couple of gears, but I canít see that happening. Iím expecting Federer to adopt his normal tactics again, but someday soon I hope he will free himself from the mental shackles that seem to be dictating his approach. Itís a matter of whether he wants to take on the challenge of constantly improving his game the way Nadal has. Martina Navratilova was another great champion who refused to rest on her laurels and always sought to achieve new levels in her game, but I donít see that with Federer.
Nadal knows what to expect from Federer on grass and Iím not sure whether it worries him too much. However, it would be so different if the champion came out and took the risks Iíd love to see by serving and volleying with the wonderful style I know he possesses. Iíd hazard a pretty educated guess that such a sight across the net is the only thing that just might unsettle the young Spaniard. I live in hope but Iím not holding my breath.