Novak Djokovic is wowing the world these days by what some call his "unprecedented dominance" of tennis this year. While what he's done this year is nothing short of marvelous, the truth of the matter is that Roger Federer did for four consecutive years what Novak's done in 2011.
And while his dominance in this particular year may as well match up to any single one of Federer's years between 2004-07, no one will ever repeat, year in year out, that frightening consistency that the Swiss master managed in his prime.
However, as they say, Father Time catches up with everyone, and it seems to be making up ground on the 30-year-old Federer as well.
The good news for him, however, is that his style of play can be managed for another few years, given that he doesn't grind out points and long rallies like Nadal and Djokovic appear to do. He prances around effortlessly on the tennis court, his grace reminiscent of a ballet dancer more so than a tennis player.
So instead of bringing about revolutionary changes to his game, here are the subtle tweaks that he needs to make in order to catch up to, and ultimately overtake, the seemingly peerless Novak Djokovic at the top.
Federer's first serve is probably one of the most underrated shots in tennis. His serve has amazing variety, and he has the capability of thundering them in at 135 mph. He also possesses killer precision, with the ability of painting the lines with slower, better placed serves. He has the perfect ball toss, leaving the opponent guessing to the last minute as to whether the serve will go wide or down the line.
Djokovic and Nadal are two of the best returners in the game, and getting more free points with his lethal first serve should make it easier for Federer to be able to beat the top players consistently.
Federer added the forehand drop shot to his already formidable repertoire for the first time at the French Open in 2009, and to devastating effect. He won the Roland Garros title for the first time, and that shot played a significant part. He's been using it every now and then ever since, and it's always been effective.
It's employed when he sets up the point beautifully and has his opponent on the run and well behind the baseline. He sets up as if he's going to hit a driving forehand winner, only to tilt the racket head at the last moment and execute an almost perfect drop shot.
Nowadays only used as a surprise tactic, he could draw players like Nadal and Djokovic into the net more often, and haul them out of their comfort zone.
It goes without saying that in an era of great baseline players like Nadal and Djokovic, it is too much to ask of Federer to beat them from the baseline at this stage in his career. He has to try and keep the points as short as he possibly can, and that means he needs to attack the net more regularly.
He is easily the best volleyer in the world these days and, quite simply, too good at the net to let that skill of his go waste. If he can attack adequately and come to the net at opportune times, it allows him to put more pressure on his opponent, and hopefully draw the errors.
This is true especially against Rafael Nadal. Because Rafa attacks Federer's backhand with heavy topspin forehands, Federer's wary of mistiming if he responds with a topspin forehand. So instead, he replies with a rather weak backhand slice. And because Rafa's footwork is simply out of this world, he manages to get to that slice (wherever it may be on the court) and hit a forehand. And the Rafa forehand against the Federer backhand slice really is no contest at all!
Federer needs to hit the topspin backhand against the top players, and not be afraid that that's probably going to result in more errors, because he has a much better chance winning points with his topspin backhand, which really is a much more formidable weapon than most people seem to think. He can push players around with that shot, and set the points up in his favour.
This doesn't have much to do with his game; it's got more to do with his priorities. While no one can doubt that the 30-year-old still turns up at his formidable best when the Grand Slams come around, it can be argued that he's capable of doing better as far as the other tournaments are concerned.
He doesn't seem to have as much desire to win them and as everyone knows, they're a healthy source of ATP ranking points. So if he can get to the semifinals and finals of the Masters tournaments week in, week out, he has a great chance of getting back amongst the top two.
That is significant because as things stand, Roger likely has to go through both Rafa and Novak if he is to win a tournament, because they can't be on the same side of the draw. That means that even if he wins his semifinal, it takes a monumental effort and he's likely to be fatigued in the final. And in any case, beating Rafa and Novak back-to-back is the hardest thing to do in tennis these days, and he'd much rather avoid playing one of them if he can help it.
I know: This isn't Richard Gasquet we're talking about. This is a guy who's one of the very best at handling pressure and closing out matches. His poker face seems to give nothing away and at numerous times in the past, he's remained unaffected by the enormity of any particular occasion and keeping his cool hasn't been a problem for him at all.
However, of late he's had a problem finishing off matches, and his failure to do so on important occasions has cost him heavily. In the past five Grand Slams, he has had either a two-set lead or match points (or both!) in the match that he has exited in, and he's never blown such an enormous lead in the past.
He simply needs to keep believing that he's capable of delivering the knockout blow, because if he'd converted his match points against Djokovic at the US Open this year or last year, we might today be looking at a man with 18 Grand Slams. In the near future one day, we might yet witness it.