Federer Struggles With His Altered World
By CHRISTOPHER CLAREY
Published: April 9, 2009
One of the best and cruelest aspects of tennis is that there is nowhere to hide. You might be an all-time great, even the all-time great, and yet you are only as effective as the forehands, backhands and decisions you are making on any given day.
Soccer and rugby stars in a funk or in decline can rely on teammates. Golfers, unless they are Tiger Woods, aren’t expected to win or even shine every week. Stars in judged sports can lean on the judges’ memories and inclinations.
A tennis star like Roger Federer stands exposed — in all his brilliance or all his disarray — in every match. And while it might take a while to know that a seminal athlete in another sport is vulnerable, tennis provides an abundance of evidence in a hurry.
It is piling high for Federer as he continues to devolve from a ruthless closer with a killer forehand into an edgy mortal with performance anxiety. He has won one tournament since the U.S. Open last year and has not won an event in four attempts so far this year, with the clay-court season — never part of his kingdom — now under way.
So far, the studied Swiss with the acquired cool has not left us guessing how much it hurts. There were the uncontrollable tears in defeat at the Australian Open, where he faded in the fifth set against nemesis-in-chief Rafael Nadal. There was the racket smashing in Miami last week early in the third set of his error-strewn semifinal loss to one of his nemeses-in-waiting, Novak Djokovic.
Federer hardly lost the plot altogether. He simply reached down slowly to pick up the crumpled frame and then flicked it in the direction of his courtside chair. But for an understated champion for whom appearances matter (greatly), it was as if he had begun yanking out his hair and shrieking “Why me!?” to the world.
It required great effort for Federer to cure himself of the on-court tantrums of his youth. To see him resume breaking rackets now, after all these years of self-control, was like watching the owner of a health food store start fumbling through his desk drawer for a long-lost pack of cigarettes.
But perhaps we exaggerate for effect, and perhaps we are all getting elegiac about Federer, the tennis genius, rather too soon.
With his 28th birthday looming in August, his days of Slam-in, tournament-out dominance are clearly over. His body is also beginning to betray him more regularly. But it would be both unwise and unfair to write him off just yet.
Yes, the game he once ruled with so few hints of rebellion from the serfs is now governed by Nadal, with Djokovic and, above all, Andy Murray quickly acquiring territory and treasure.
Yes, Federer’s level under the greatest pressure has dropped. He has lost five straight times to Nadal and four straight times to the counterpunching Murray. But he has beaten other quality players convincingly this year, including Fernando Verdasco and Andy Roddick. The range of Federer’s ball-striking ability and world view is such that some meaningful mid-career adjustments are possible.
His appetite for traveling and playing the game appears undiminished, which is due to his intelligent scheduling and also to the fact that his longtime companion Mirka Vavrinec was a globe-trotting tennis professional herself.
Pete Sampras, the modern champion whose career most closely parallels Federer’s, was already growing weary of the grind in his late 20s. But it is Sampras who should provide Federer with some inspiration at this vulnerable stage. After years of dominance on fast surfaces, Sampras also hit an extended rough patch, only to emerge with his 14th Grand Slam singles title.
Sampras did it at age 31 at the 2002 U.S. Open, well aware that big life changes were coming, with his wife Bridgette Wilson pregnant with their first child. Though slightly younger, Federer finds himself chasing No. 14 and a share of Sampras’s all-time record with Vavrinec also expecting their first.
“There are definitely some parallels,” said Paul Annacone, Sampras’s longtime coach, in an interview this week. “Just as it was for Pete, it’s a particularly interesting, challenging time in Roger’s career. But I would look at it with Roger in the same way as for Pete. For guys like that, it is daunting but not that daunting. They are so skilled they can adjust, but a lot of the adjustment is mental.”
Annacone thinks Roger grew accustomed to overwhelming opponents from the back court: to being the better athlete and hitting a more, consistent and heavier ball.
“We are all creatures of habits,” Annacone said. “Roger has won a lot a certain way, and when you’ve done that for four or five years and then in Year 6 or 7 that shot that used to be a winner isn’t a winner anymore, the tendency in human nature is to overplay a little bit. And that’s what’s happening. His couple of patterns that used to be very dominant are still successful against 95 percent of the guys — just not against that last five percent.”
Annacone understandably leans toward Federer’s hiring a full-time coach. “I always feel in an individual sports, it’s up to the guy on court, but as you watch the evolution of careers, it’s good to have someone you trust and who understands you and what you’re trying to do and also your game and the history of what’s gone on,” he said.
To say that Federer has been without a coach is not entirely accurate. He has had world-class voices in his ear, including Jose Higueras last year and Darren Cahill for nine days this year. Both men surely discussed tactical and technical solutions to the negative trends.
Applying those solutions is up to Federer. He has looked, if anything, too intent on getting results: hence the tears and the crumpled racket when the shots won’t obey the mind down the stretch. Perhaps there is more to the mental block: something personal, something private. Tennis is, after all, a mirror to its practitioners’ souls. But knowing what we know, it still seems premature to start summing up the Federer era.
“He may choose to keep doing what he’s been doing and not tweaking, and that’s his choice as a champion,” Annacone said. “But for me it would be a shame. If you have a lot of weapons in your arsenal and choose not to use them, what’s the point in having them? It’s a matter of managing them a bit differently than he did a few years ago.”