Grading Roger Federer's 2015 Season and Looking Ahead to 2016

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistDecember 16, 2015

Roger Federer, of Switzerland, reacts after beating Richard Gasquet, of France, during a quarterfinal match at the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
Adam Hunger/Associated Press

How does Roger Federer truly feel about his 2015 tennis year?

He knows that his effort and results were tremendous, but he also experienced more Grand Slam disappointment at the hands of world No. 1 Novak Djokovic.

Said Federer following his final loss at the World Tour Finals, per Yahoo, "It's hard to play at this pace all the time. You are talking about narrow margins. A break point here and there can change the whole outcome. You can't always be on the winning side. Margins are very small at the top."

The Swiss Maestro continues to be the most consistent big winner in tennis history, year after year one of the top three players in the world. Like fine wine, he’s grown more flavorful with his smoother and bolder tastes of shotmaking. But the reality is that the past half decade, he has been running into a wall against the more dominating Djokovic or Rafael Nadal when major matches are at stake.

For Federer fans, is it easier in 2015 to celebrate their hero's breathtaking wizardry with a racket—the way he competes and reinvents more subtleties at age 34? Or will 2015 be the year of close misses, where his best was just not good enough to win major No. 18 at the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals?

Years ago Federer was the star that dominated tennis, but he has now long been the sidekick to the leading man. His peak years, 2004-09, seem like another career, and sometimes it’s easy to forget that his five most dominant years (excluding major winning years 2003, '08, '12) have only made up roughly one-third of his career. His dominant peak has stepped aside for the standard of longevity he is creating.

Federer’s 2015 tennis season is the third of our five December superstar profiles that countdown the top five players in men’s tennis. If you missed the grades and outlooks for Nadal and Stan Wawrinka, you may click their names for the links.

John Minchillo/Associated Press

Grade: B+

Federer finished as the No. 3 player in 2015, but he was better than Andy Murray in challenging Djokovic for a major title. Federer won six titles and continued his monopoly on fast surfaces at Dubai, Halle and the Cincinnati Masters.

The Swiss Maestro’s 63-11 record turns to a sparkling 60-6 against everyone else in the ATP when Djokovic is removed. He beat up Murray in all five sets spanning two victories at Wimbledon and Cincinnati. He took three of four matches from Wawrinka, and he claimed a satisfying title against Nadal in his hometown, Basel at the Swiss Indoors.

Switzerland's Roger Federer holds the runners-up trophy after losing to Serbia's Novak Djokovic in their men's singles final match, during the presentation on day thirteen of the 2015 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Tennis Club in Wimbledon, so
TOBY MELVILLE/Getty Images

Best of all, Federer elevated his play with greater attacking ferocity at net and with service returns. He rolled lesser opponents to set up his chances against Djokovic, who was playing his greatest year.

This was the best of Federer since 2012, and perhaps we have to go back to 2009 or Australia 2010 to find a better Federer. But the most important (major) counts, and Federer deserved his acclaimed praise.

There’s nothing to discount about his work ethic and desire under coach Stefan Edberg in 2014-15. Federer was like the student who studied everything twice, took extra notes, reviewed and aced his homework. Unfortunately his semester exams were a heavy dose of Professor Djokovic denying him the coveted major for an A grade. The Swiss Maestro gets a B-plus for extraordinary efforts and otherwise very strong results.

Even Federer’s comments following his four-set loss to Djokovic at the U.S. Open summed up the mixed feelings he had for his year, per ATP World Tour:

Surely I am very disappointed. I had my chances on my racket. But Novak did a great job of fending them off. It was a great battle … I am playing a good year. I am happy with where my level is at. I'm able to beat the best players regularly. Cincinnati obviously was a great feeling beating the world No. 1 and world No. 2 in the same week. I don't think I have done that before.

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 06:  Roger Federer of Switzerland plays a forehand in his match against Nick Kyrgios of Australia in their second round match during day five of the Mutua Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica  on May 6, 2015 in Madrid, Spai
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

 

Outlook 2016

The wheels are already in motion for new looks and opportunities in 2016. Coach Edberg finished his commitment with Federer and will part from the Swiss’ team. His assistance with Federer’s increasingly aggressive net play was an important asset for the Maestro's development the past year. At least Federer has the continued stability in Severin Luthi, who will be his main coach.

Federer recently appointed 36-year-old Ivan Ljubicic to assist his coaching team. Ljubicic, who retired in 2012, has played many of the stars in today’s game. He once reached the No. 3 ATP ranking with a strong serve and forehand, and he was a smart winner who was all too familiar with the ways that Djokovic and Nadal took over the sport in his final years.

ESPN’s Peter Bodo believes that Ljubicic will surely have some wisdom to offer Federer in his quest to overtake Djokovic. Federer can only hope it is sooner rather than later. He figures to make a much stronger bid for the Australian Open than he did in his third-round fall to Andreas Seppi last year.

Uncredited/Associated Press

The next order for Federer is to maintain his high level as a contender, meaning that he cannot give up ground to Murray, Wawrinka and a harder-charging Nadal. Then he must put himself in position for another crack at the Wimbledon title, where he probably will have to go after his "white whale," Djokovic.

Federer told the National:

He’s (Djokovic) got sky-high confidence and we hope that will come down again sooner than later, but we’re working hard to try to catch him.  It’s about winning tournaments at this point in my career. For me if I’m ranked two, three, four, five it’s less important. Once you’ve been world No. 1 like myself or Rafa or others, you can go in wrong direction in the year if you start chasing rankings.

Federer’s popularity with fans worldwide has picked him up in important matches, especially as he winds down his career. He enjoys playing tennis as he balances family life, stays fit and competes. His priorities in playing the sport he has dominated and loved are not enslaved by media expectations and doubts, something he expressed succinctly and beautifully at the 2012 Shanghai Masters in ATP World Tour, via Sportskeeda Australia:

Sometimes you’re just happy playing. Some people, some media, unfortunately, don’t understand that it’s okay just to play tennis and enjoy it. They always think you have to win everything. It always needs to be a success story, and if it’s not, obviously, what is the point? Maybe you have to go back and think, why have I started playing tennis? Because I just like it. It’s actually sort of a dream hobby that became somewhat of a job. Some people just don’t get that, ever.

What to expect from Federer in 2016?

More winning, beautiful tennis and a lot of enjoyment for his fans. He takes on his younger rivals because he works and desires to win like all sports legends. He’s been level through the disappointments that have come among his 88 singles trophies, but he's always optimistic for the next golden opportunity.

The quest for major No. 18 will continue, and there’s a solid chance that he lifts it up in 2016.

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