Is Roger Federer Into His Twilight Zone?

Mahesh S BharadvajContributor IMarch 21, 2009

INDIAN WELLS, CA - MARCH 21:  Roger Federer of Switzerland hits a forehand from Andy Murray of Great Britain in the semifinal match of the BNP Paribas Open on March 21, 2009 at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, California.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

As much as his fans will like to brush it aside as a bad dream, Fed is increasingly finding it challenging to stay on top of the tennis world. The loss to Andy Murray in Indian Wells yesterday might seem to further confirm fears that the Swiss Master is indeed vulnerable and likely to face a tougher ride the rest of his tennis career.

Die-hard fans of the Swiss master would have liked to believe that Fed would find a new breakthrough and able to consolidate his gains in 2009. If the Indian Wells loss to Andy Murray is something to go by, I think Roger has some serious problem on his hands.

Fed’s initiative to find a new coach after his Australian Open loss unfortunately ran into a wall. He has now been left alone to figure it out all by himself. The task on hand is getting only harder as the clock ticks by.

They say it’s lonely at the top, I can’t think of a better example than Fed in the tennis world. 

The indefatigable Roger Federer was first rendered human - and then mortal, in that order, at the start of 2008. In hindsight, the mono might well have been the worst nemesis Fed had to ever face. 

His magic grip has since been on the wane steadily and has now slipped into a lost world. It’s going to take a lot to win another slam or two for Fed who has gotten this close to making a historical landmark and seems to be suddenly finding his grip loosening more than ever.

Ironical, it may seem, given his extraordinary career and going by his own admission earlier, it is only the major wins that eventually count for him and not just his ability to reach finals consistently.

The Swiss Master's ability to win majors has been called into serious question now. There is a growing band of players who threaten the Swiss Master's supremacy more than ever.

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, who had been relentlessly knocking at his door for long succesfully made their inroads through 2008. Later Andy Murray joined that bandwagon while there are a few others closing in on the ranks.

Fed will increasingly face a potent force grow up in the shape of Murray and Verdasco, who now lead the expanding group of militants against the top two players.

A silver lining to Fed fans is that Novak Djokovic has fallen by the wayside contrary to expectations that he'll emerge as a major contender to the top two positions. It's anybody's guess as to where Novak is heading, but he's not an immediate threat at least for now.

Considering that Andy is lethal on hard courts and not a major contender on clay and grass surfaces yet, it might seem that Fed's ranking is not under an imminent threat in the weeks and months to come.

Looking ahead, Tennis, as is played now and in the times to come, is getting physical and very demanding unlike it has possibly been in many years. Unfortunately for Fed, it’s a bit late in the day to change his style or approach to the game and he has to find the answers within his resource base and constraints.

The new breed of players are hard-working and seem hell bent on breaking into the impregnable fortress that Fed and Nadal managed to build and seemed content to rule between themselves.

Andy Murray’s response over the last year and a half or two has been admirable. He seems to have recognized at the right time the physical nature of the game and embarked on it early enough to improve his own chances.

Andy Murray has, of course, the right age apart from the will and determination to do what it takes to break into the top two. He has undergone a physical transformation and improved his stamina apart from tirelessly improving his game.

Good old Fernando Verdasco followed on similar footsteps as his mentor Agassi and took a leaf or two from his homegrown idol Nadal. He swept into Australian Open’09 like a cyclonic storm and nearly turned into a Tsunami.

Verdasco has taken his physical strength and endurance apart from his attitude to very different levels since the start of 2009 and will continue to be on the prowl to satiate himself.

In his second set match against Fed in Indian Wells, it appeared like Verdasco got close enough to steal the set. It was of course, Fed’s sheer knack of being able to wriggle out of tough spots that saved him.

I am not sure that Fed will be able to get away from Verdasco with equal ease again, if Verdasco succeeds in building that momentum in the game early on.

Andy Roddick has not yet been able to crack the code to win a slam final against the might of Nadal and Fed, but he seems to have found a new inspiration since late 2008 and been looking fresh ever since the start of 2009.

Roddick has somewhat got attuned to the physical demands of the game despite age not being on his side and found a new level of physical fitness and mental wherewithal.

One thing is for sure. Fed’s game is arguably still super smooth, mellifluous and the most graceful. The moot question now is how would Fed rediscover the missing touch and gain success going forward.

Fed might have had reasons in the recent past to think that he’s closer to the pinnacle than ever before. Sadly enough, the remaining patch appears to be the steepest and most dangerous.