The US Open is approaching fast and many will see the tournament as an opportunity to make up for ground lost to their rivals. Over the first seven months of the year, the players will have identified areas in their games that need some tweaking and readjusting—whilst others may see the need to completely overhaul and redesign their game plans.
The six-week period between the end of Wimbledon and the start of the US Open Series is usually a time for players to make these changes—the best example of this being Novak Djokovic who, at a similar time last year, made a lot of the changes that we have seen so far this year in his game plan.
A lot of people will have been surprised by some of Roger Federer's shock losses this year—the loss to Jo Wilfried Tsonga at Wimbledon being the most prominent. What is unsurprising though, is that these losses could have been avoided. So the big question is how.
Take out Nadal and Djokovic and I'd have no doubt that Federer would win the US Open—but we can't take out Nadal or Djokovic. So, what five changes could Federer make to be in the running at the US Open this year?
The Roger Federer of 2011 is not the Roger Federer of 2007, 2008 or 2009. There are new additions to his family (he has two kids), he is married now (he's got a wife that needs spending time with), sponsor requirements and, of course, there's Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in his face every tournament he plays.
It's no surprise then that his form nowadays is quite a lot more patchy than his form in previous years. A little drop in his concentration levels and suddenly he was out of Wimbledon, a little drop in concentration and suddenly he's lost the US Open 2010 semifinal to Djokovic—a little drop in concentration and all of a sudden, he lost the 1st set of this year's French Open final.
It is clearly important that Roger's priorities are got right from the onset. The big thing that Roger has going for him is that when he loses focus and plays a poor few games, the loss of focus is not really down to his being possibly flustered or despondent or at the receiving end of a beat down—if anything, it's usually attributed to his age.
And so, just actively working to remind himself why he's still out there would help him. The hunger is there, I'm sure. The drive is there, I'm certain—or he wouldn't be playing in the first instance. It's just the focus that's missing.
If Roger can work to improve his focus during matches, it will help him when push comes to shove.
Reports of Roger Federer's fitness have always been closely guarded secrets. When he was suffering from glandular fever, we weren't privy to the news till late on. When he had back problems, we similarly didn't know that anything was wrong.
Well, it's not the case now. Roger Federer is getting older and by simply adding two and two—we can be pretty sure that there are bound to be one or more niggles popping up a little more than occasionally.
With fitness and physicality becoming ubiquitous in the game nowadays, it's important for one to be in the best possible shape one can be in. Roger Federer is strangely enough one of the least injured on the tour and it's a credit to his style of game and his handlers that this the case.
Nonetheless, there is a difference between staying injury-free and staying fit. The latter is a must for Federer. There is no way he is going to compete successfully against players who are younger, stronger and fitter than himself without being just as fit as them.
Injuries bring their own specific set of psychological problems with them, but a lack of fitness is just as brutal if not more. No-one likes to feel inferior—and to give himself every chance, Federer must make sure that there is no avenue for an inferiority complex to set in.
At the first point of the third set after losing the first two sets in the semifinals of the US Open, Roger Federer will get nowhere if he starts to think of the physical price he will have to pay to come back from two sets down to defeat his opponent and then play Nadal or Novak in the final.
Get the fitness right!
The French Open final this year showcased just how lethal Roger Federer could be if he stuck to a game plan. And it's wasn't just any old game plan—it was a specific game plan: high-tempo tennis in short, consistent bursts.
Watching Federer take control of the first and third sets like he did, left me with no doubts that he knew what he was capable of, what he was doing and what he had to continue doing.
Unfortunately, for reasons best known to himself, he failed—as he has in the past—to convert the opportunities when they came. Still, this isn't the point. That he could create these opportunities at all against the best players in the world, was the incredible thing—and that should be a great source of encouragement to him.
Not only did Federer take it to Nadal—he taught Djokovic a thing or two in his victory against the Serb. The same game plan was used and similarly—as with Nadal—it couldn't be lived with.
This was the same game plan that won him the World Tour Finals late last year, it was the game plan that almost upset Nadal in Madrid in 2010 and 2011 and it was the very same game plan that wasn't used in Miami this year.
If Roger can stick to his game plan, there is clearly nothing beyond him.
Recommending that Roger Federer shorten the points he plays may seem a rather draconian and ungainly thing to ask of someone like Roger Federer, being that he has such a wonderful, free-flowing game—but to be honest, it isn't. At a point in everyone's career, age WILL have its say—whether you like it or not.
At various points in this year's French Open final, Roger's inability to shorten the points cost him against Nadal. We all know what the stats are like for Nadal and Djokovic when the rally goes above eight shots—and simply put, Roger can't play that game.
After that final, Federer made a comment that worried me. He said:
I like to see him running left and right and left and right and see how long he can sustain it, you know? Mixing it up. That's what I always do, and he does his things. ... You know, I think he's happy to be Rafa; I'm happy to be Roger. That's why we like to play each other, maybe.
Well, unfortunately Roger, as you noted yourself, Nadal is happy to be Nadal and you can't compete with him if you're going to indulge in rallies that—over time—will extend the match past three to four hours.
More relevant though to the need to shorten the rallies, is the idea that Federer's game plan revolves around keeping the opponent on their toes—the reverse of this being: allow the opponent to work their way into the rally by not shortening the points, soon they are no longer on their toes.
Being ranked number three in the world does not suit Roger Federer one bit—that's just the mentality of a champion. So it goes to figure that there is a very good chance that whenever Federer plays in a tournament where Novak Djokovic and/or Rafael Nadal are present, he has thoughts of Novak and/or Nadal at the back of his mind.
This potentially results in considerable emotional baggage—a scenario that would affect his ability to stick to his game plan and his ability to stay focused.
What Roger Federer must actively try to do is remind himself that, in the big picture, he is still the guy to beat. Roger Federer is the one with 16 Grand Slam titles to his name and would still be ahead of Nadal and Djokovic even if their Slam tallies were combined.
Roger Federer isn't doing the chasing—he is the one being chased. And he should take solace from this. Take out Nadal and Djokovic and Federer is favorite for the title. If Federer takes out Nadal and Djokovic from his mind, he could similarly be unstoppable.
What Changes do you think Federer can make to his game?