Time travels fast in tennis. A few months can account for ages. Take 2009 for example. By April of the last year, talks of Federer being past his prime were at a high point after his loss to Rafael Nadal in Melbourne and his racket smash against Novak Djokovic in Miami.
A couple of months later, he effectively became the Greatest of All Time by capturing his maiden French Open, and reclaiming the title at Wimbledon.
The Swiss Master had virtually no competitor at the U.S. Open after he steam rolled Andy Murray and Djokovic at Cincinnati, when suddenly Juan Martin del Potro overpowered him in the finals.
The field opened up considerably during the fall, and now every tennis expert has excused himself from naming a favorite at the Australian Open. Sure, there are about five contenders at Melbourne, but a clear favorite? None.
Federer has done a remarkably good job at keeping pace with these changing times. We saw the inclusion of a wickedly deceptive drop shot and a viciously kicking second serve which sailed him through at the French Open.
Situations have changed since then, and conditions are different.
A new generation of power baseliners have arrived, who can combine accuracy, raw power, and nimble movement to overwhelm their opponent. Federer knows that he cannot rally against them or it won’t be long before he will be outhit.
Of course, at his age, it is impossible to change his playing style, and hence it is the minor variations in his game which are fascinating to observe. He always uses the smaller tournaments to test these changes before their final launch at the majors.
Which is why, I think that his losses to Nikolay Davydenko will not have any major effect on his Melbourne campaign. From what I have observed, Federer tested his new arsenal against Davydenko and more specifically against Ernest Gulbis .
In fact, he must have been very pleased to face the power baseliner in Gulbis as it gave him a crude practice session ahead of Melbourne, where he will face at least one power baseliner… in all probability, two.
He now understands that top spin is not the only weapon which dominates the game, and hence his down-the-line backhand reemerged against Gulbis. It was fast, flat and mostly directed to his will, sometimes even inside out.
This weapon was fairly non existent, even during the World Tour Finals, and it will be effective against the flat hitting opponents like del Potro and Robin Sodelring whose lack of spin will give Federer more margin of error.
Roger did think about his strategies during the holiday season, but he also seemed to enjoy his Christmas with the twins, as was visible by some additional holiday weight. He knows he is not getting younger, and needs to shorten the points even more than he does at present to survive the calendar year without major injuries or fatigue.
It was obvious during his match against Davydenko where he put a conscious effort to improve his approaches to the net, especially when they were not on his terms. Regardless of how good your volleys are, a good net approach is equally important to close the point, and it takes good amount of practice to develop that feel on an approach. Davydenko passed him admirably at times, but Federer’s anticipation at the net looked better than before.
He used his matches at Doha not only to improve upon his weaknesses but also to develop on his strengths—mainly his forehand.
He must have practiced his inside-out forehand from the mid-court during the holidays (like Andre Agassi did in the late nineties and early nougthies) as it looked in pretty good touch throughout. His cross court forehand has gained a bit more pace too.
Minor adjustments like these are almost impossible to master, and are the hallmark of great champions. Pete Sampras did the same during late nineties by adding a bit more pace on his second serve—which made his second serve from extremely effective to lethal—and serve-n-volleying on both serves.
Agassi modified his game as well as he started losing a step or two, by grinding his opponents from the mid court rather than moving from side to side.
It will be interesting to follow Federer’s change in strategies from here on. He had already sown the seeds of these changes in his Monte Carlo defeat against Stan Wawrinka last year, and I feel he has done the same in the year’s first tournament at Doha.
Whether it will be enough to carry him for seven matches is anyone's guess. All we can do is wait for five more days. The Australian Open is not far off...