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Roger Federer’s Yesterdays and Tomorrows – A Champion’s Fate

Roger Federer has achieved so much in his career it boggles the mind. He holds or shares hundreds of records, achievements, and awards in tennis. Led by his record 17 Major titles in the Grand Slam arena, and over 300 weeks ranked the No. 1 player in the world, one wonders what is left for him to do in the future? What is his motivation to continue? He has said he loves the sport, so one might think he will play as long as he is physically able to play, within the limits of his family priorities, and as long as he is happy playing.

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I would not be surprised to see Roger play more doubles as he ages.  I think it benefits and compliments his particular game. There is much more precision required in doubles, including serving and returns.  If played correctly, it obviously helps one’s net play and confidence at the net. Quick thinking tactics and execution are extremely important to set up a winner. Quick footwork and agility are more at a premium in doubles than pure side-to-side movement.

Overall, I think some more doubles play would help him accentuate his strengths and improve some of his weaknesses.

Doubles obviously doesn’t require nor would it help much with fitness or endurance, but Federer’s game was never really based on that, and at this stage in his career, I don’t see that changing.  He doesn’t have to change his game to a grinding style and constantly rally for 15+ shots as that isn’t his strength. My guess is that he will work on as many of his strengths as his health allows. These strengths are what set him apart and made him the competitor he is.

First, he can work on his serve. According to the ATP’s Match Facts statistics, as recently as 2012, he won 91% of his service games, third highest on the tour, while playing 80 matches. (Raonic was first with 93%, and Isner second with 92% but playing fewer matches — 62 and 60, respectively.)  Federer’s 91% last year was higher than his career average of 88%, and the second highest in his career (92% in 2004).  This year, Federer has won 88% of his service games. Yes, it is his career average, but I think it needs to be higher to have an edge these days.  And if one looks inside the numbers, the biggest difference is his second serve winning percentage. Last year, he topped all players on tour with an excellent 60% of second serves won.  (Nadal was second with 57%.)  So far this year, Federer has dropped to 56% (his career avg.-2nd), while Nadal is second with 57% (his career avg.- 1st) and Djokovic leads with 59% (career avg. 55%-6th).  Interestingly, Murray and Berdych are 26th and 27th with only 52% (also their career avg.).  These percentage differences may look small, but the differences are small among the top players and any edge is vital.  Finally, serving well gives Federer confidence in the rest of his game. Confidence is obviously important.

Second, Federer undoubtedly realizes that he needs to focus on the key points more. His break points converted (39%) and break points saved (65%) this year have both dipped. Last year, they were 42% and 69%. Career wise, he has averaged 41% and 67%.

Curiously, his return statistics this year are about the same as last year and for his career, maybe even very slightly better.

Federer does have to have enough fortitude to have the patience when required to set up a point and then go for the clean winner when there is an opening.  But even then, his tactics and execution have to improve from some of the play he has recently exhibited.  He can’t set up the point perfectly, and then hit right back to the opponent instead of the open court.  The “hit behind the player” tactic should be used more sparingly to surprise a player. He also can’t bungle shots when he has the opponent at his mercy.  He did this kind of thing against Robredo, and it cost him the match as he admittedly self-destructed.

Despite that result, I don’t think he is far off the mark; just more inconsistent and a bit below normal. Perhaps that can partially be explained by his not playing as much this year.  His back appears to have bothered him more during the year.  He also announced that this would be a transition year (whatever that means), so perhaps some of this is self-imposed.

Will Roger Federer turn it around in 2014?  Only time will tell.  One day, no one can say for sure when, he won’t be able to play at a high enough level to win big tournaments or remain near the top.  Some believe it has already happened this year, and perhaps it has, but only history will tell us for sure.  I, for one, believe it’s pretty unreasonable to say that “he is finished” less than a year after he was No. 1 in the world. After all, people have been predicting his imminent demise since 2008 when he “only” won one Major and again in 2011, when he hadn’t won a Major since the 2010 Australian Open, and look what happened in 2012.  Though he could win anywhere with some fortune, one would think that the Wimbledon lawn is his best chance to win another Major. The competitive ability on it is more sparse, the surface suits his game, especially if it is not too sun-baked and high bouncing, and he is co-record holder along with Pete Sampras with seven winner’s trophies.

Still, he is 32 years old and has some high mileage, fifth (only 21 matches short of Agassi) in the Open Era in matches played, and what is certain is that nobody plays men’s singles on this tour forever.

But even when Roger Federer can no longer reach the highest levels consistently, what is wrong with Roger playing on for the love of the game?  Unfortunately, I believe that there are too many these days that cannot accept or appreciate performances that don’t continuously match or exceed a player’s best.  Media, fans, and even the tour promoters alike seem only too eager to look at the most recent results – in a “what have you done lately” syndrome – and bury champions that still have exciting moments to give to the sport. In this writer’s eyes that is just plain wrong.

One mustn’t forget that some of the great players in the game have risen to the heights on occasion, even in the dimming twilight of their careers.

In my fading memories, I still recall a nervous almost 42-year-old Richard “Pancho” Gonzalez beating 1969 Grand Slam Champion Laver in a winner-take-all best-of-five set match in 1970 at Madison Square Garden.  Gonzalez said that night he was always frightened of playing there, because it was frightening to think he might play a bad match at MSG.

Gonzalez taping his fingers before Laver MSG match

I recall 36-year-old Ken Rosewall winning the 1971 Australian Open against a strong field (he would win again at 37, but against a very depleted field), beating Emerson in the quarterfinals, Okker in the semifinals, and Ashe in straight sets in the final.  At 41 and 42, in 1976 and 1977, Rosewall would make it to the semifinals in Australia.

1971 Australian Open Final – Rosewall beats Arthur Ashe

And who can forget 39-year-old Jimmy Connors’s run in the 1991 US Open coming from two sets to one down to beat Aaron Krickstein in the deciding set tiebreaker in the fourth round, then playing Paul Haarhuis at night in the quarterfinals, and whipping the crowd into a frenzy behind some incredible defending to break Haarhuis serving for a 2-0 lead, to tie the set, and eventually win the match in four sets. He finally succumbed to Jim Courier in the semifinal, but it was a most memorable run.

1991 US Open – Amazing point where Connors breaks Haarhuis in the second set to begin comeback

Enjoy them all while you still can. Like our children, they learn, they play, they struggle, they succeed to our delight much more than they fail to our sorrow, and finally they get older and leave our admiring gaze.  ‘Tis ever a champion’s fate.

Credits: Cover Photo: anonlinegreenworld (Creative Commons License)

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About John Masters

U.S.A. Tennis player/fan for 40+ years. Software Engineer. Tech. writer. Tennis analyst. You can contact John via: admin@tennisfrontier.com
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