Before facing Andy Murray at the Australian Open this year, Federer stated, among other things, that Murray will have added pressure on him besides the obvious one of trying to win his first slam.
"He's playing, you know, me, who's won many Grand Slams prior to that," said Federer.
He also claimed that the British public have been waiting for a "150,000 years" for one of their own to land a Slam, as well as mentioning that some of his losses to Murray were kind of flukes.
These comments were clearly intended to get under the skin and into the mind of the brilliant, but still maturing and highly emotional young Scotsman.
Intimidation was Federer’s tactic, and it worked. Murray was at his most passive in the final compared to his earlier conquests. He started to play more freely by the third set tiebreak, but it was a case of too little too late.
Why did Federer feel the need for this kind of talk, in my opinion, the most abrasive and demeaning of his whole career (making his customary flippant remarks about some of his opponents seem tame)? I believe the answer stems from a year earlier and will be discussed later.
Federer is no longer the intimidating presence on a tennis court he once was, thanks in part to his losses this year at the hands of four players that were previously dominated by him—Marcos Baghdatis, Tomas Berdych, Robin Soderling, and most recently Lleyton Hewitt in Halle on Federer’s favored grass where he had not been defeated since 2002.
With the exception of Federer’s match with Soderling at the French Open, where the Swiss was almost blasted off the court by the power of the brutal Swede, and in a round before the semi-final stage of a Slam (the latter feat quite remarkable on its own), the other three encounters were engaging battles where Federer had chances to win, but did not.
Those matches showed that when Federer is engaged in a dog fight his chances of winning become a lot slimmer.
When his current opponents, unlike past opposition who were mainly content to just be awe-inspired spectators, rather than fighting competitors, are not overwhelmed by the brilliant shot-making abilities, are not intimidated when they are a set down and staring defeat in the face, but dig down and believe in their abilities, there chances of winning become much more realistic.
Baghdatis and Berdych defeated Federer at the Masters 1000 events at Indian Wells and Miami respectively, both important tournaments in men’s tennis, second in line to the four Grand Slams.
The loss to Hewitt came at the Wimbledon tune-up event in Halle, a grass tournament Federer enjoys playing in, and where he has been dominant on five previous occasions.
The battling Aussie was facing three break points on serve at four-all in the second set, virtual match points if one takes into account Federer’s closing abilities. Hewitt fought hard and got through the game and the ensuing tiebreak.
The result of that achievement was that Federer got broken in his first service game of the deciding set. The opponent refused to capitulate and the Swiss got flustered.
I feel the seeds for Federer’s declining court presence were sown in his match with the young Argentine, Juan Martin Del Potro at the US Open of 2009, began to grow in his loss to Novak Djokovic in the final of Federer’s hometown event in Basel in the same year, and reached full bloom in his loss to Robin Soderling at the quarter final stage of the French Open of 2010.
Del Potro’s defeat of Federer in the final of the 2009 US Open was the defining moment in Federer’s fading aura.
The Argentine was affected neither by the blistering start of his opponent, intent on finishing his younger foe as quickly as possible, nor by Federer’s rude outburst at the chair umpire towards the end of the third set when things were not going as swiftly as intended.
Del Potro set about his game plan of unleashing howitzer bombs from his forehand side and not giving an inch in the long baseline rallies, and got the job done. He was another who had previously never beaten Federer.
This event, culminating in the recent victory by Soderling, has given confidence to Federer's opponents, especially those outside of the top ten who were previously intimidated by his presence.
Subsequently, Federer felt it necessary to talk down to his talented young rival, Andy Murray, before the Australian Open final to help reduce the risk of another USO '09 incident.
Murray, who has been praised by the likes of Wilander, Borg and Nadal for his tremendous court sense and tactical skills, is a maturing player and a great asset to this sport, and I highly doubt that he will again be affected by verbal volleys aimed at his potential.
It used to be that Federer could just walk on court and unleash one of his piercing glances at his opponent, putting the latter off his game just enough to get destroyed!
This is not the case anymore, and if Federer wants to win Wimbledon again this year he will have to do it under his own steam.
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