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String Theory by Tom Perrotta

So today we'll stick with tennis and pose a question about the world's best player, Roger Federer: How well will Federer age? He's 26 and likely won't keep up the pace of his last few years (12 majors titles in 18 tries). Pete Sampras, the player most often compared to Federer (is that the best comparison? Is Federer less a replica of Sampras than a suped up Andre Agassi? I lean toward the latter; let the debate begin), won four of his 14 majors after his 26th birthday. Three of those were at Wimbledon, which plays strongly to the one advantage we might all agree Sampras has on Federer: his serve. Federer's no slouch in the serve department, but no one served like Sampras.

Federer engaged in an interesting bit of self analysis in his press conference Wednesday, after he took out Nikolay Davydenko in an uneven match, 6-4, 6-3, a moment of introspection that PB, his royal highness of Tennisworld, would appreciate. Here's the quote (shortened slightly and touched up with bold), which came after Federer was asked if he was bothered by missing so many breakpoint chances in the match (he converted 4 out of 10, right on his season average of 40%, which is good for 31st place on the tour; David Ferrer leads the tour with 49%):

"I'm more a guy who's not going to rip every return, you know, like Agassi did on breakpoints…. I don't have the best record when it comes [to] making the breakpoints when I have them. But I create [for] myself many, many opportunities, so eventually I'll break through and I'll break their will as well. And I believe in that play. I don't need to necessarily get the first breakpoint…. I'm more of a grinder in this respect."

The question then becomes, can he keep playing this way, chipping returns and carefully calculating the percentages, as his quickness (vastly underrated) and defensive skills (not as underrated, but definitely underappreciated) begin to fade in the next few years? Will his style, increasingly conservative the last few years for good reason (it works), be as productive during his twilight years as a booming serve and the ability to shorten points with volleys (Sampras)? Or will Federer have to tweak his game and play a little more like he did against Sampras in their only meeting (Wimbledon fourth round)? Federer won Wimbledon this year because of his serve--Nadal had him beat in every other aspect. He might have to do more of that down the road.

But not now, and not next year, either. I don't think one should attribute Federer's hiccups this year (two straight losses to Guillermo Canas, two straight losses to David Nalbandian, and a shock loss to Filippo Volandri) to aging or a decline in his play or even improvement on the part of the opponents who beat him (with Novak Djokovic being an exception to that rule). I don't want to fall prey to gambler's fallacy, but in tennis, you just can't go on winning every match for six, seven, eight years. Sampras never did it. McEnroe never did it. No one has done it to the extent Federer has so far (four years). It can't continue forever, age aside. And when he does age, things will become even more interesting. Federer is as resourceful a player as the game has ever had--that's why I'm looking forward to his twilight, and expect more from it than his prime (not more titles, but more memorable moments). Let me know what you think he'll come up with, and whether it will be enough to get him to, say, 20 majors

Source: http://tennisworld.typepad.com/string_theory/2007/11/federers-future.html
 
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