Roger Federer’s late career cannot be expected to escape the shadows of his fabled dominance of years past. A Masters 1000 tournament like Cincinnati’s Western & Southern Open brings more scrutiny on the aging Swiss Maestro.
While tennis fans cannot reasonably compare 2014 Federer and his competition to his 2007 self on a different ATP tour, there are nevertheless questions about his current form that somehow, and often unfairly, swirl around his accumulated legacy.
For a moment, forget about Federer's accomplishments and think of him as a 33-year-old second-tier player with no Grand Slam titles and one career Masters titles. Suddenly he appears in seven finals in 2014, including Indian Wells, Monte Carlo, Wimbledon and Canada. He attains the No. 3 ranking. What if David Ferrer were the one with this resume in 2014?
Would fans say Ferrer is overachieving and playing remarkable tennis? Would they marvel at his late-career surge? Ferrer's success could be relative to Federer's disappointment. Their standards will always be galaxies apart.
This week in Cincinnati, there will be more expectations for Federer to close out a big title. Will he snap his Masters drought on these fast courts or will fatigue and inconstant Sundays be the continued theme?
Recent Masters 1000 Finals
Federer has lost four consecutive times and eight of 10 sets in Masters 1000 finals since his 2012 Cincinnati title. Some of this is understandable. Injuries in 2013 robbed most of his form and confidence.
He also ran into great players or hot opponents. There was Rafael Nadal on clay (2013 Rome), Novak Djokovic on slow hard courts (2014 Indian Wells), Stanislas Wawrinka on clay (2014 Monte Carlo) and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on hard courts (Canada).
For Grand Slam emphasis, Federer was dominated by Nadal in the 2014 Australian Open semifinals, and he was outlasted by Andy Murray in the 2013 Australian Open semifinals and by Djokovic in the 2014 Wimbledon final.
These opponents were younger, stronger players who possessed superior power and stamina on Sundays (Fridays at Australian semifinals). Furthermore, Federer had his own struggles to match their energy for an entire match, playing well in spurts but often breaking down through fatigue, lackluster baseline errors and missed opportunities.
Canada seemed to confirm all of this as Federer could scarcely bunt back Tsonga’s serve, nor could he find the necessary baseline play to defeat his more powerful opponent.
For all of Federer’s good work in earlier matches, and for all of his serving, volleying and variety, it still came down to whether Federer could outplay top opponents from the baseline. The answer was often painfully evident that he could not. Rather, he had more lapses with his backhand and not enough finishes with his forehand.
Nevertheless, Federer pointed out to Zee News India that he plans on turning things around in future big matches:
I’m overall pretty happy that I made the finals in my first tournament back on hard courts. I had a few tough matches which clearly gave me a lot of information.
I know what I need to work on the next few days and next few weeks, which is good to know what I need to do other than feeling lost. I wish I could have played a bit better in the final, but the facts were that it was tough for me.
The chief challenge this week in Cincinnati will be having the stamina to play top-level tennis in back-to-back weeks. Players that play for titles on the first weekend often get bounced shortly after the airplane touches down in the next venue. Canada winner Tsonga was ambushed by a fresher Mikhail Youzhny.
Federer opens with young Vasek Pospisil, and then he would play either talented Gael Monfils or solid World No. 18 surprise, Roberto Bautista Agut. Murray could be waiting in the quarterfinals, meaning that Federer would have to win through some grinding tennis matches that could take its toll if he survives to the weekend.
But the courts of Cincinnati are fast and the American Midwest’s humid heat is not exactly conducive for baseline endurance. Federer would be favored against any player who reluctantly changed his game for quicker points. And this is exactly what Federer needs to do. Serve well, set up putaway forehands and stay offensive.
The good news for Federer is that he is 5-0 in the finals at Cincinnati. Of course, the past is over and has little relevance to 2014 Federer, but this is a place where Federer can draw confidence.
Going forward, Federer still has the fastest part of the tennis season still to come. There is the U.S. Open, Shanghai, Paris (indoors) and the WTF final (indoors) in London. These are venues that support Federer’s best play and still give him a good chance to win titles.
Can he win enough easy points, courtesy of his serve and forehand? Will his backhand and returns hold up with enough power and depth? Does he have enough spring in his legs to recover day after day against younger, motivated rivals?
All of which will make it very tough to win the Cincinnati title, and more likely that he wins one of the other late-season Masters events.