Thursday Volley: Can Roger Federer Reclaim No. 1 Ranking?
Every week, the FanHouse tennis team tackles a hot debate in the Thursday Volley. This week Hal Spivack and Chris Sesno rally back and forth on whether Roger Federer will ever regain the No. 1 spot on the ATP rankings.
After the French Open, Rafael Nadal ended Roger Federer's reign atop the world rankings, toppling the 16-time major champion from the No. 1 spot after a quarterfinal loss to Robin Soderling at Roland Garros. Nadal locked up the No. 1 spot after winning in Paris and has not relinquished control since.
At Wimbledon, the newly-crowned No. 1 player triumphed again while Federer took another quarterfinal exit. Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic advanced one round past Federer to the semis, earning enough points to take over the No. 2 spot from Federer at the conclusion of the tournament.
Federer's fall to No. 3 marks his lowest ranking since 2003. With his 29th birthday just one month away (August 8), the question is: Will he ever reclaim the No. 1 spot?
Chris Sesno: I feel like what I am about to say is blasphemy: Roger Federer has seen his last day atop the ATP rankings.
Let's face it, just a month shy of 29 years old, his best days are probably behind him. Over the past decade, Federer has been an example of tennis perfection, combining stellar footwork, near perfect control and finesse, mixed in with a little bit of power at just the right moments.
Share But the game is changing. Taller, more powerful players are flattening out their shots and smashing the ball hard enough to prevent Federer from getting in a rhythm. Oh, and there's also this other guy, Nadal, who's looking pretty impressive right now. Perhaps you've heard of him?
Hal Spivack: While Nadal is playing the best tennis in the world right now, his knees remain a lingering concern. Knee injuries have bothered the Spaniard for years now. They forced him to miss Wimbledon in 2009 and retire at this year's Australian Open. Because Nadal missed so much action in 2009, he came into this season with few ATP points to defend in comparison to Federer and other top players on tour. Therefore, it was easy for Nadal to move up the rankings so quickly and supplant Federer at No. 1 after Roland Garros.
Federer, on the other hand, is still only 28. Agassi was able to reclaim the No. 1 spot on tour at 33. If anyone is capable of reclaiming the No. 1 spot, it is Federer. In the ATP rankings game, Federer has been a victim of his own success. Before losing in his quarterfinal match this year at Roland Garros he had advanced to 23 straight major semifinals -- that is a lot of points to defend and nowhere to go but down.
With a subpar performance from Federer at some of the bigger tournaments this season, he will be in prime position to make a run back at No. 1 during the latter end of next year's calendar year or in 2012. His back and leg issues seem minor. Yes, he is getting a bit older, but Federer's game is dependent on solid, consistent play. He does not depend on a 135-mph serve or blazing speed. He has a little bit of everything in his arsenal and is good enough at making it work to win matches. He will continue to win on craftiness and ball placement. He is a 16-time Grand Slam champion at 28-years-old. He ran into a few harder hitting opponents this year in Soderling and Berdych, but he lost similar matches in 2009 to Tsonga and Murray.
He won the Australian Open just this January, had a decent season on clay and slipped up a bit on the grass. We surely have not seen the last of Roger Federer on top of the ATP rankings.
Sesno: The main thing I'll admit you're right about is this: He is Roger Federer. It's very tough to make the case that arguably the best player in men's tennis has ever seen will never reclaim his spot atop the throne. I think there's plenty of time for him to do so, and he's even said plainly that he has no plans of retirement anytime soon.
The thing is, though, before this season Federer made players tremble in their sneakers just by taking the court opposite them. He doesn't have that effect anymore. In fact, people are starting to realize that he is beatable. Guys like Marcos Baghdatis, Ernests Gulbis and Albert Montanes have all beaten Federer this season and prove that players not ranked in the top 30 can still topple the great Roger Federer.
Tennis, more than almost any other sport, is such a mental game. You stand on the court totally on your own, with no teammates to carry you if things get tough and no coaches to pick you back up when points don't go your way. Sure, Federer's fundamentals and longevity on the court are on a level matched by few, but at some point a new champion will emerge and relieve Federer of his throne.
We've seen it in every sport. Think Mike Tyson stepping in the ring a few too many times, Michael Jordan's stint with the Wizards that the history books like to ignore, even Brett Favre's constant waffling about returning to the NFL can be compared. It's a sad truth in sports: You can't be the best forever.
Roger Federer, your greatness will never be forgotten. Your legacy will live on as one of the best tennis players in the history of the game. And I certainly hope you stick around for a while to prove me wrong.
Spivack: Take a look at 2007 for example: Federer was unrivaled in holding the world No. 1 for the third consecutive calendar year. In March 2007, he lost his first match at Indian Wells to then 60th-ranked Guillermo Canas in straight sets. He then lost again to Canas two weeks later at the Miami Masters. In his next tournament he lost to then world No. 2 Nadal in the finals at Monte Carlo. The week after that in his second match in Rome, Federer was upset again by 53rd-ranked Filippo Volandri in straight sets.
When he lost to Volandri, all of a sudden Federer was mortal. He was being rivaled by Nadal and was deemed by many no longer able to hit with the hardest hitters on tour. Critics proclaimed his career was taking a turn for the worse. Sound familiar?
All he did after the Volandri loss was win six more majors, finish runner-up in four more and reclaim his No. 1 status in 2009 after losing it in 2008. There is no doubt that Federer is aging more now and Nadal is more polished on court. Nadal's knees are worrisome, however. They have plagued him for years now and he has yet to win a U.S. Open. He has had trouble making it through the hard-court season healthy. Federer's career seems dependent on Roger Federer. There is no reason to doubt him, yet.
Tyson's career seemed dependent on Cus D'Amato and he battled his share of his own demons. Jordan left the sport twice before returning, while Favre has always had to depend on a supporting cast. Federer needs only himself, and that should be enough for him to climb back to the top, in time.