If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same…
In Roger Federer’s world, the gap between triumph and disaster has become so exaggerated that he must believe he has a doppelganger.
There seems to be a ghostly double who steps into his shoes at the very instant he has victory within his grasp. It happened in the final set of the Australian Open against Rafael Nadal. It happened again in the semi-finals of Indian Wells against Andy Murray.
Then, in his semi at this week’s Miami Masters, a strangely unfamiliar Federer once again lost a match that, on the evidence of quarter-final performances, he should have taken from Novak Djokovic with relative ease.
At Melbourne, he met disaster with his usual grace and pragmatism. He wept with emotion—but it seemed natural that he should do so. He wept when he won the title, and he showed his grief in just the same way as he did his joy.
Federer’s loss of form in the closing stages of that magnificent final could be put down to lack of practice during an extended off season caused by his injured back. It could simply be put down to the back itself feeling the strain at the end of an arduous Grand Slam.
At Indian Wells, the pattern was repeated. Back problems, lack of match-play, and tricky negotiations with Darren Cahill could all have played their part in his loss of focus against Andy Murray.
There were moments of brilliance and there were lapses. But his concentration, traditionally one of his greatest assets, seemed blown when Murray took a tumble in the final set. Federer hovered at the net, solicitous of his opponent, while Murray dusted himself off the refocused.
Were it not for the thousands of spectators, it was possible to imagine that an insubstantial shadow had replaced the inky-hued substance of the real man. Error followed error, and the match slipped from balance to imbalance.
In the interviews and press conferences that followed, Federer reverted to type, acknowledged mistakes, praised his opponent and looked forward to the next challenge. Order was restored, almost.
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you…
Federer has rarely suffered from lack of self-belief. Through the many lean months since Flushing Meadow, he maintained that he was the man to beat in Grand Slams, that Nadal was his only challenger on clay, that he was fit, recovered and hungry for victory. But this belief was chipped away as title after title ended in the hands of his rivals.
However, any doubts that his fans, the media and the experts expressed were quickly pushed aside by Federer’s performances at Miami.
He looked fitter, stronger, more confident than he had in months, and dispatched opponents round by round.
Taylor Dent played inspired tennis for a set and a half, charging the net like few other players on the tour. An exquisitely poised Federer analysed, adjusted and applied tactics with the precision of an assassin. He appeared to have no doubts and few weaknesses.
Against Andy Roddick, he expected a tough encounter and he got it. Roddick is fitter, faster and more passionate than he’s been in years. He also desperately wanted another win against his nemesis. Yet even against this onslaught, Federer raised his game not merely to match, but to out-match Roddick.
Doubts about Federer’s ability to win this Masters title began to dissipate with the defeat of Nadal, and with the ignominious style of Novak Djokovic’s win over Jo-Wilfred Tsonga. The contrast between the bottom-draw quarters made it all the more certain that Federer’s trust in himself was justified.
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew…
But on semi-final day, Federer’s place was taken by another man. To all but the most assiduous observer, the vision in white, mink and sky-blue matched the man who had leapt for joy in beating Roddick. However, there was a tension in the face and a grim set to the mouth that betrayed a different identity.
The serve was a touch slower. It was rarely fired down the centre line—the usual source of aces. The forehand was over-played and misdirected in a parody of Federer’s signature shot. The wind gusted, and his focus gusted with it. The sun blinded his eyes and blurred his tactics. The harder he pushed, the worse he played.
This was not a case of Nadal playing better on the big points, or Murray forcing Federer’s backhand into error. This was Djokovic digging in and waiting for Federer to self-destruct.
This would normally be a fatal error. Federer has always had wayward passages of play amidst the scenic masterpieces. But he has usually maintained a perfect tension between overly ambitious and calmly focused, between art-form and energy, between beauty and business.
But this was a different Federer.
If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…
The smashed racket was a shock, but his subsequent assertion that he “didn’t lose it...it’s just a natural thing I did” was even more shocking. He did lose it, and it hasn’t been a natural reaction in him for many years.
He also overlooked the essential courtesy of shaking hands with the umpire.
And from a player who has been revered for his mental toughness, the comment “once you start feeling bad, it’s kind of tough to regroup” was wholly uncharacteristic.
The press conference had yet more surprises up its sleeve. Tears that have normally been the preserve of post-match moments still sat in his eyes. His look was downcast when as a rule he makes eye contact with interviewers. And there was sarcasm in his voice: “I haven’t been winning 20 tournaments in a row, so nobody expects me to win really.”
So frustrated, yes. Downhearted, most certainly. But he didn’t lose his head. He behaved with his usual restraint and courtesy to opponent and to crowd. And no apologies were required from the commentators for any verbal outbursts!
If you can dream, and not make dreams your master…
The big question now is, which Federer will take the road to Rome?
The confident one dreams of a better season on clay, and is pleased to be leaving the hard-court season behind. Had he scheduled more than two events on the russet surface before Roland Garros, his dream may have been more credible.
If flesh-and-blood Federer is to banish his ghostly doppelganger, he must keep those dreams under tighter control. Ambition is a powerful incentive, but unfulfilled ambition can be destructive.
Rein in the emotions. Go back to basics. Play the next point rather than thinking about the final point.
That flesh-and-blood Federer must also treat all those flesh-and-blood imposters the same.
The other top players have all lost matches this year, just as he has—and to lower ranked players. Verdasco, Roddick and del Potro have beaten Murray, Djokovic and Nadal. Federer has, in turn, beaten Verdasco, Roddick and del Potro.
He has not lost his skills, his speed, his movement, his desire. He does seem to have lost that ability to shut from his mind the baggage of past matches.
Some were disasters. Many more were triumphs. Treat them the same, and then:
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.
With acknowledgement to Rudyard Kipling’s “If”