By Pete Bodo
Howdy, everyone. . . just dropping by while you're enduring the rain delay to see what's going on. I was out all of yesterday, mostly trying to load up on sleep and rest and otherwise take a little better care of myself than I've been doing. When I came into the office this morning, I loaded tennistv.com on my office computer for the first time. We have a big television set in our conference room, with cable and Tennis Channel, and I generally prefer watching tennis in the company of others. But I was curious about this internet feed, and I thought remarkably good. I've been trying to keep an eye on the Roger Federer vs. Stan Wawrinka match as I type this; it isn't a divsion of attention I would recommend unless you have a perverse interest in driving yourself nuts.
Like everyone else, I was a little surprised by Federer's last-minute decision to enter Monte Carlo, especially after he'd been so roughed up in the hard court segment. I assumed he was going to circle the wagons, and take a little break to re-group. But as I watched the early portion of his match against his pal, Wawrinka, I had a different idea. Maybe Federer, after getting feedback from a host of people including Darren Cahill, decided that he really does need to make some changes. Perhaps he needs to play more aggressively, especially on red clay. Maybe the handwriting on the wall following these last fw weeks says that whatever happens in Europe this spring, it will not be business as usual, and approaching it as if it were might be a drastic miscalculation.
For the past three years, Federer has been the clear world no. 2 on clay; the past few months suggest that he's unlikely to claim that title again this year. Quite simply, the consistency and free-flowing genius that once powered Federer on all surfaces simply isn't in evidence these days.
So maybe Federer decided that instead of clinging to hia traditional determination to "play my game" come hell, high water, or Nadal kickers to the backhand, he was going to try something new - attacking tennis. That is, he would use the next few weeks to condition himself to attack at every reasonable opportunity. This doesn't necessarily mean serving and volleying, but it does suggest playing flatter strokes, a higher degree of attentiveness, a willingness to hit approach rather than rally shots, and to follow them up with forays to the net. It also implies a willingness to follow a good serve (first or second) to the net now and then, either because of the quality of the serve, or just to make sure the shot was well placed or simply to keep his opponent guessing. Most of all, though, it means Federer embracing the kind of aggressive, focused approach that he generally eschews. Even on grass, he's never really seemed like a guy interested in ending points as efficiently and ruthlessly as possible.
Federer thus far has been a master of long-range aggression; why get into another guy's face by hanging your chin over the netcord and sticking a volley when you can just load up and let fly an inside-out forehand winner from back by the baseline?
But think about this. The only man ever to beat Bjorn Borg at Roland Garros (and he did it twice) was the skillful, attacking Italian player, Adriano Panatta. Federer is easily as skilled as Panatta, and he's just as versatile as were Stefan Edberg and John McEnroe - both of whom were, like Panatta, Roland Garros finalists. But Panatta, Edberg, McEnroe - even former Roland Garros semifinalists, Pat Rafter and Boris Becker - not only used all their tools on clay, they tried to maximize them, especially when playing rivals who had superior groundstrokes and what might be called "typical" baseline- based clay-court games. So far, Federer has declined to use his full arsenal on clay. It isn't like he's fighting the same natural urge that led Edberg and McEnroe to attack; it's more like Federer has dipped into his bag of tricks as a matter of necessity, not conviction, or pride. Remember, this is the guy who told Pete Sampras that the reason he doesn't serve and volley more often at Wimbledon is because he hasn't had to.
This underscores the extent to which Federer's game is chameleon-like. He does what he needs; he doesn't have a specific vision of the game, or an urge to impose a template, or even his will, on a rival. This may be hurting him now that he's struggling with his consistency and confidence, because he doesn't have a clear trail to follow through the woods back into the sunshine. It occurred to me today that perhaps Roger has decided that he needs that clear trail, some solid vision of the game to embrace and use to pull himself out of his present hole. It would take an adjustment to do something like that, it would take time to make a change and embrace a new strategy. Hence, it makes sense to enter more than the two clay events to which Federer had been committed. This could be called the strategic equivalent of the old "play your way into shape" approach to fitness.
This would not be an ill-chosen moment, career-wise, for Federer to try something like that. It's not a bad time for him to experience an epiphany: Hey, I've got 13 majors and I'm just 27. I've got more money than God and a kid on the way. Why don't I just go out there and have some fun, hit the crap out of the ball, see if I can push these guys around and make something good happen for myself?
I sensed something of that in the way Federer played in the first set against Wawrinka. He seemed to want to force the action; driven back behind the baseline by a penetrating groundstroke, he seemed eager to scramble back, to get inside the court. And he showed a greater willingness than usual to move forward behind his best shots. As the match wore on, though, his error count increased and his play was, to use a word that just doesn't sound right, applied to Federer, sloppy.
If Federer is indeed committed to playing more aggressive tennis on clay, you could groan and protest that it isn't working. That's okay; it's early in the process, if we can call it that. The level of execution Federer showed today wouldn't have worked for Edberg, McEnroe, or Panatta, either.The greatest game plan in the world is useless if you can't execute it. But there's a lot to be said for working on your execution in order to be able to implement what may prove to be a winning game plan.
Whatever Frederer had in mind, it was a calculated risk entering Monte Carlo. If he did it just because the appearance fee grew so big that he felt he couldn't afford to turn it down, he's got a nice built-in excuse (I went for the dough, but what do you expect? That kid's gonna need shoes some day!). But I'm guessing that Federer entered the tournament because he decided that doing something is better than doing nothing. And if there's anything to my theory that we're going to see Federer taking many more chances on clay this year, he'll be less worried about the scorelines and results than finding a comfort zone on the court.
That presents an interesting dilemma; is Federer better off trying to hit his way or trying to work his way through his problems? While losing matches has never been prescribed as a miracle cure for a slumping player, Federer is beyond the point where he needs to prove anything to anyone. And he doesn't just need to find his game - he needs to find a game - one that might produce a different result than the game that carried him to the Roland Garros final these past three years.
That, to me, is what this entire clay-court season is, or should be, about for Federer. I don't know what you would tell him, if you had the chance (but I'm sure you'll be happy to tell me, in the comments) but here's what I would say to Roger: Forget the ranking points, forget Andy Murray, forget the spectre of Nadal, forget surprising third-round losses to Stan Wawrinka. If you game is in ruins, as it appears to be, take advantage of the chaos to re-invent yourself. Pick up those pieces and try putting them together in a slightly different way. Give yourself time; you're going to lose some matches as you build the new, improved model, but keep building and never, ever lose the conviction that you can do this. After all, you're Roger Federer.
If Federer isn't thinking along these lines, he's in even deeper trouble than I thought. He's not going to be beating a lot of guys in the coming weeks based on what he's shown us in the preceding weeks. If he's not thinking any differently this spring than in years past, the next few weeks are going to be pure torture. This just isn't the right time and place to discover that you left your game back in Miami, or that you're not really that into playing long matches on clay. I suppose there's the chance that Federer's decision to enter Monte Carlo was driven by panic - the fear that his rivals would gain too much ground if he didn't manage to somehow block them. But that's the worst-case scenario; It's hard to imagine that Federer was that desperate, or that he doesn't know that while there are a lot of bad reasons for choosing to play, there's only one good one: because you want to.
Much of this potential weight gets lifted off of Federer's shoulders if he decides that this is the right moment to roll the die, to try doing something a little different, perhaps even new. Others have taken comparably big risks - who can forget Ivan Lendl choosing not to play in the French Open (when he would have been a favorite to win), simply because he thought that a few additional weeks of training on grass might enable him to win the one title that always eluded him, at Wimbledon? Did that hurt Lendl's reputation in the long-term, or diminish his record? Not in the least. If anything, it made some people respect Lendl that much more - for trying, for daring to do something a little different.
Federer's is in a similar position. And what he's been thinking about this clay season may have a lot do do with what he's feeling about this clay season at the very moment you read these words: If he's got a plan - okay, indulge me, let's say he's decided to play much more aggressively on clay this year - he may be thinking that he pressed too hard, that he was too eager to force the action and tried to get to square E without stopping to touch squares B through D. Maybe he's taking stock of how often he hesitated, instead of moving forward with confidence and alacrity (how about that sliced backhand approach shot he put in the net, to go down love-30 in that critical 5-all game in the second set? For a player fully locked into attack mode, that was a gimme). Maybe he's thinking: I didn't really want to play here anyway, but now that I did I've got a pretty solid idea about the task I set myself, and a starting point for building a good attacking game.
And what's he thinking if he entered Monte Carlo in the hope that he'd somehow find a way to win? That by some strange and unforseen act of will, luck, or magic he'd suddenly find himself transformed into the Mighty Fed of yore, as if the past six or eight or 10 months had been just some terrible mistake, or aberration of the natural order? I'd rather not go there, and I think that tells us all we need to know about Federer's present state, and how imperative it is for him to alter the plan, for one purpose or another.