Roger Federer’s latest loss in a Grand Slam—semifinals of the 2011 Australian Open to Novak Djokovic, the eventual champion—signified a subtle but dangerous precedent.
It was perhaps inevitable.
We should have known it well. Roger Federer has either not been himself since the 2008 Australian Open when he lost in the semifinal to the eventual champion, Novak Djokovic (who again won in 2011, through a similar semifinal course) or he simply does not think he can still be that Roger Federer.
Federer clearly wasn’t himself in that semifinal, for he was suffering from a mysterious ailment, mononucleosis, and clearly the rise in competition was gaining on him.
His massacre at the next grand slam, the 2008 French Open final, where he was savaged by his eternal rival Rafael Nadal, should have taught us again that Federer was just not that Federer anymore.
Then came that Wimbledon final.
Nadal was simply too strong, too relentless and too confident in himself, and Federer simply wilted. It took five magical sets, the last of which was as memorable as any in modern tennis history, but Nadal persevered. Two points away from victory in that final set, Federer lost it all, and it came at Federer’s own backyard, a surface where he had hardly lost any match since 2003.
The previous year, Nadal had stretched the mighty Federer to five sets and Federer had to summon his entire spirit to prevail. Talk about psychological warfare!
One might counter that this is no school match between teenagers eager to impress girls. This is a men’s game, as professional as it is tough. But it was no mere tennis player we saw unraveling before our eyes, it was Roger Federer.
I remember that 2008 Wimbledon final as distinctly now as I saw it then. Federer, seemingly calm but confused and scared inside. If it had been any other opponent, I have no doubt Federer could have prevailed.
But Nadal, then again, is not any mere opponent. He is Federer’s equal, his only adversary that will always have the "edge" over him. Federer’s overall record is simply too overpowering, and Nadal would struggle to maintain even half of Federer’s overall consistency, but he has one thing the Fed-ex does not—an edge.
The 2009 Australian Open final was the tour de force—the fitting vindication to my doubts about Federer’s big-game loss of belief.
Barely 24 hours after a grueling five-set win over the relentless Fernando Verdasco, Nadal summoned up his entire strength of mind and body and just put it past Federer. His strategy? Relentless attack, leave no ball unreturned and Federer just capitulated…again.
Federer faltered 2-1 up in the final set, dismembered by Nadal’s endless offense. He simply couldn’t catch up. The result—an emotional sobfest during the trophy celebrations for Federer.
In all these losses, I noticed one fact about Federer that not too many ever conceived possible—Federer now doubts himself, and this is dangerous for more reasons than one.
It tells me that either Federer is tired of the relentless, unwavering challenge of the new generation, or he simply doubts whether he can reclaim his once lofty standard of play.
The rise of Novak Djokovic, Robin Soderling, Andy Murray, Tomas Berdych and more has worried him and he continues to be worried. The Roger Federer that was unstoppable from 2004-2007 is simply not the Roger Federer we now see. And it is most hurtful because Federer is an absolute favorite of mine and I watch as many of his matches I can.
Moreover, knowing how his post-2003 years were, the Federer I see today is a weary shadow of the warrior he once was.
Can he win one more Grand Slam title? Can he reclaim the French Open? Or even his favorite, Wimbledon? Can he reap one more glorious moment at Flushing Meadows?
Just in case you are wondering, Federer is the all-time greatest player in tennis history for me. There is absolutely no doubt about it. We can talk about the Lavers and the Samprases, but no player, not even Ivan Lendl, has the Grand Slam consistency to match Federer’s, no one in history.
And it is not just on his favorite surface, grass. His record at the other Slams is simply too amazing to overlook. Nadal? Just look at his career graph; when he’s hot, he’s unstoppable. But when he’s not, he is either injured, sick or simply tired.
Djokovic’s latest Australian Open triumph couldn’t have come at a better time for men’s tennis. A Grand Slam winner not named Federer or Nadal was the shot in the arm that tennis needed.
What does this now mean?
It means that both Nadal and Federer have a serious challenge that they can no longer ignore or simply take lightly. It means that Djokovic now has an edge over the Roddicks, the Murrays, the Soderlings and the Berdychs.
It means that Federer cannot take his head-to-head record against Djokovic for granted, and even if Federer puts his heart and soul in his matches, Djokovic has still climbed another level.
Consider the precedent—every time Djokovic has beaten Federer in a Grand Slam match, he has gone on to bigger things.
I see a familiar and dangerous precedent in his losses.
When he’s absolutely confident, Federer is calm and unperturbed on the court. No amount of subtle provocation from the audience or his opponent riles him. But when the mind is in doubt, when the body cannot summon the guts to fight, the itch keeps on bothering him, and he starts to lose it.
Watch all his losses I have talked about and you’ll see a clue. When he gets distracted by other factors, he starts arguing with himself, argues with the umpire, shakes his head time and again. He simply loses it.
Nine out of 10 times, he’ll end up losing the match. And his latest Grand Slam finals losses have validated my doubt. He simply doesn’t trust himself, not like the pre-2008 days. And it is reflected not just in his performance on the court.
I now see and fear that his legend has brought about a rather dangerous ailment—swagger and bravado. The world likes to call Federer majestic and graceful. I have another observation. As graceful and charming as he is, he is also a man of considerable ego and pride.
As he ascends the rounds at major tournaments, I have seen that he raises his level of ego and talks more brashly and confidently, a manner absolutely unlike our knowledge of him. Again, nine out of 10 times, he ends up losing, because he breaks down when it really, really matters.
This is not the Roger Federer I know so well. This is the Roger Federer since 2008, and that man has struggled to keep up with the dizzy standards he set for himself. Because as soon as the rest of the tennis world caught up to him, he was unable to distance and separate himself from his peers.
His 2009 wins at Roland Garros and Wimbledon? As much as I celebrate him, those wins were a little iffy for me. What if Nadal was fully fit then?
Yes, success stories and legends are made through such fortunate timings and situations, because if Federer hadn’t won the 2009 Wimbledon, even in Nadal’s absence, we would have heaped more scorn on him.
As for consistency, whew, take a lesson all you aspiring tennis learners! Federer simply ran up a fourth-straight final at the 2009 US Open where only a grueling summer session and a red-hot Juan Del Porto conspired to take the crown.
Of course, it would be foolish to simply blame Federer for the loss of standard. Correspondingly, the standard of men’s tennis has risen significantly in the last couple of years.
Guys like Nadal, Murray, Djokovic, Soderling, Berdych, Ferrer and more have made significant gains and steadily climbed up the ATP ladder. And what’s more, the respect and intimidation of seeing Federer across the net has slowly morphed into a normal occurrence—the man is vulnerable, the man can be beat.
But then again, why does it bother us so much when Federer loses one more Grand Slam match? Do we honestly expect him to win each and every match and title?
If we do, then we contradict ourselves by saying that there is no competition anymore in men’s tennis and that it is easy for Federer. And then again, if the rest of the world catches up to Federer, we again revert to the familiar game; blaming Federer.
I would be the happiest fan if Federer can regroup and start winning the bigger matches. But it would take a Herculean effort.
Why? Because the heart has to believe, and the spirit has to encourage the body.
All that he accomplished from 2003-2010 was magical, legendary, but it is this year that will show what Roger Federer is made of. Will he simply rest in his laurels (and there is no lying in saying his career has been extraordinary) or will he still challenge himself that he is still the Roger Federer that we all know he is, or is he just a legend on his way out?
Regardless of how 2011 goes for Federer, he remains, for me, the standard for tennis excellence. But his final legacy? Now, that should be re-analysed as the years go by.
An incomplete masterpiece?
I hope so, at least for the fan in me…and millions others.