Sometimes, monumental losses prove not how far apart the talents of the winner and the runner-up were, but how agonizingly close.
The 2008 Wimbledon final between Federer and Nadal proved just that. On any other day, losing a match by five points (204 of Federer's to 209 of Nadal's) would not have turned out to be so colossal.
But it did. Such was the game and the rivalry.
For most of his fans, I think Federer's first French Open in 2009 almost erased the pain caused by this loss. For me, it is still the most tragic moment. I knew he would win the FO some day.
As truly epic as the match was between these two incredible players, the outcome somehow didn't force Federer to make strategic changes in his enterprise. He went ahead, coachless. The 2009 turnaround with the French Open and Wimbledon made it look like it wasn't such a bad idea to remain coachless after all.
But darkness descended once again when Federer walked out of Wimbledon 2010 quarterfinals against Berdych. He failed to face his opponent's serves hammered down at an average 129 mph. He had no answers to the relentless 21 winners hit so flat and forcefully from the baseline that it seemed it was not only the balls that were whizzing by him, but also the glorious days of genius tennis.
But this defeat, handed down to him at 4-6, 6-3, 1-6, 4-6, did much else.
How do you rate the success the Federer-Annacone team?
The dark days
Darkness has depth. Unless one plunges into it deeply and learns from the shapelessness of the things around, it is difficult to fathom the contours of the same when light trickles in. Unless one finds a deeper resonance with it, unless one learns to stare at it in solitude without sinking into it, one will never know how to emerge out of it.
A snapped 23 consecutive semifinal streak and an unexpected quarterfinal loss on his favorite surface behind his back, Federer realized there were things that needed competent direction. His team needed one more member and that would be Paul Annacone.
Experiments with truth
The Roger Federer Laboratory began experimenting with truth. It faced the facts and tried different things to see if the effervescent fumes would lend shape to things to come. While 2011 went slamless, it ended with a flicker of hope with Federer's year-end flourish at London, Basel and Paris.
Here are some of my observations:
-A marked plus that has emerged out of this lab is Federer (not consistently, though) trying to use the pace of the serve and turn it into a return winner. Although Federer managed to hit a few such winners yesterday at Madrid finals, his returns need much more work.
-More frequent drop shots and use of short slices to draw the opponent in—especially against big guys like Del Potro and Berdych. Turning defensive into offensive. Improved volleying, though this also needs improvement.
-Far fewer mishits and a more consistent forehand. During 2010, you could see far too many glaring mishits into the crowd or high up into the air. Two more years down the line, it's nice to see Federer still working on this front using his effective feet movement.
-A much-improved backhand. Backhand packs a punch these days. It's not the harmless shot that drops shyly in the middle of the court to be vaporized in no time.
-More reliable serving. No more long streaks of games searching for the first serve. The 'bad serving day' is not so bad, and the good ones are greater!
The open book
All genius professional careers are like an open book. Its narrative has its own rhythm. There are times when it is in full flow, there are times when it stutters with stop-and-start hiccups. It slows down, it races ahead, it withholds and it lunges forward.
For a book that has as grand and monolithic a narrative as this one, all it needed was a skilled editor to pinpoint the errors and bring in the rhythm and the flow that once went missing.
Annacone seems to be doing just that.