Since his debut on the tennis stage, it was apparent that Roger Federer was gifted. Recently, there was a showing of Federer’s 2001 confrontation with Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in the round of 16. What leaves a lasting impression is not the arsenal of shots on display despite his young age, but that in listening to the commentaries, the superlatives that were used to describe Federer’s game back then are still the same ones employed today by many analysts. With so much praise and adulation showered on Federer, granted deservingly, his recent stumbles in 2008 leave tennis devotees somewhat perplexed and speculation abound as to whether his career is on a downward slide.
A few years back, Federer was akin to a bulldozer with the capacity to rollover his opponents. At times, he seemed to win a match even before getting on the court. Although he won three of the four majors in 2007, comparatively by ‘Federess’ standards it was a decent year; signs were visible that the Federer Cruiser may have encountered choppy waters. Previously, it was inconceivable for Federer to lose in the preliminary rounds of a tournament, and yet, last year, this occurred at two consecutive events, the Pacific Life and Sony Ericsson Open. To add insult to injury, Federer was eliminated by the same player, Guillermo Canas. Moreover, except for the French Open, once Federer reached the finals of an event except for the French Open, he was “Mr. Automatic”. But last year, there was plenty of drama with the need for a fifth set to tame “El Tauro”, Spaniard Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon. Furthermore, at the U.S. Open final, the boy wonder, Novak Djokovic seemed to want to usurp Batman’s territory almost forgetting his position as sidekick, but eventually Roger prevailed. At the year-end Masters Series tournament, Fernando Gonzalez outgunned Federer in the first match of the Round Robin format. It took a few hapless losses by his rivals in order for Federer to squeak his way into the next round of competition. However, the Federer Cruiser seemed to veer back on course when he defeated David Ferrer in the finals, a man who had played brilliantly up to that point, even taking down Djokovic.
Then again with all this being said, perhaps it should not be surprising that Federer’s start in 2008 has been so stormy. In some respects, MiamiTennisBlog.com predicted in its ATP 2007 Review peril for Roger in the upcoming season as it became evident that the difference between Federer and the rest of the field was closing. But what is harder to explain is that Federer’s ship appears to have been hijacked and not just taken off course. At this year’s Australian Open, Djokovic went on to take the title after dismissing Federer in the semifinals in straight sets. When a few months later it was revealed that Federer’s uncharacteristic performance might have been due to a viral infection, a bout of mononucleosis, his fans exhaled. After all, Federer’s troubles were not limited to the semifinals in Australia, throughout the tournament his game looked mediocre requiring a fifth set to advance to the round of 16 against Jarko Tipsaravic, a player he had beaten in the past. The confounding variable in need of an explanation found comfort in the virus theory, but relief would be short-lived. At his next tournament, the Dubai Open, where he was the defending champion, Federer was browbeaten by Andy Murray in his first match. By this time, the question to ponder was whether Federer’s Cruiser had actually sprung a leak and been marooned on Tennis Island. This conjured up flashbacks of 2005 when Andy Roddick did the American Express commercial where he was looking for his ‘mojo.” This is the same feeling that one has watching Federer play of late. It appears that over the Christmas Holiday, someone may have stolen his ‘mojo’ or maybe it is that pesky virus still hanging about. The hope was that the Pacific Life would prove that Federer was on the road to recovery.
The pressure was on; the Federer mystique of invincibility was at stake, it was time to reclaim it. After a relatively difficult match in the second round, Federer appeared to have regained his feathery touch sweeping aside Nicholas Mahut in the third round and Ivan Ljubicic in the round of 16. His path was cleared even further when Tommy Haas could not compete in the quarterfinals because of a sinus infection. More good news was to come Federer’s way, a major stumbling block, his nemesis, David Nalbandian was disposed by American Marty Fish. Considering Fish had never beaten Federer, the forecast called for a smooth sailing to his first 2008 final. Thus, imagine what consternation and shock that resulted when Fish was able to trap and defeat Federer convincingly in straight sets. Now concern heightens to another level, is Roger’s ship taking in water fast and sinking?
Setting illness aside, Federer looks to be in need of guidance and new perspective. In the past, Roger has gone long stretches without a coach and prospered, but one gets the sense that he now requires help in steering his ship. In addition, I may be the only voice of dissent when it comes to this subject, but the recent exhibition matches with Pete Sampras have been a distraction. At this point in his career, with so many years of potential good tennis remaining, Federer has stated himself he would like to play into his 30’s, he should focus first on finding his place in history. There will be plenty of time during retirement for Federer to prove his prowess against a living legend such as Sampras.
Thus far, Federer has been a disaster on the hardcourt circuit. With Miami around the corner, the Ericsson may be his course to redemption. In order for that to come to pass, it will not be adequate for Federer to have a good showing; he needs to win the title. Otherwise, with the next surface to tackle being clay, where Nadal is the master, the next few months can present a great crisis of confidence for the world’s number one. But then again, if Federer continues to be title-less, maybe this type of misfortune will be the new impetus that will aid Federer in capturing the most difficult prize as far as he is concerned, the French Open. It has been said that greatness can only be truly measured by the way one handles adversity. The next few tournaments will be telling as to if and how Federer will be able to repair the chinks in his armor.
At the beginning of the Pacific Life Open, the talk was about how Nadal is gnawing at Federer’s heels for the number one spot. But by tournament’s end, it became conspicuous that the future for Roger may be the present in the form of Djokovic. Roger watch your back, the sharks are circling the water. Therefore, it will be interesting to see if Federer can get his tanker ungrounded at its next stop the Sony Ericsson Open.