Federer’s breakdown just before Nadal received the ’09 Australian Open winner’s trophy was the most obvious sign of the shift, but there had been earlier indications. Asked the day before the final whether he relished another shot at his archrival, Federer said, “Honestly, I preferred the days when I didn’t have a rival.” Nadal had exhausted himself in a five-hour, 14-minute semifinal the day before, but as soon as the final began, Federer seemed out of sorts. Worse, unlike Nadal when he was No. 2, Federer didn’t commit himself to attacking his rival, to shaking him out of his comfort zone. Twice Federer ran around his backhand and staggered Nadal with forehand winners, but he never did that again. “Twice in 4½ hours?” Wilander asks. “Why not show Nadal something different?”
The answer lies in the regal language always used to describe Federer. Born to rule, he has never been interested in fighting for power; that’s why in his current exile he looks less like Napoleon plotting on Elba than like the puzzled Czar Nicholas II waiting for the world to right itself and restore his throne.
This attitude perplexes even Federer’s staunchest admirers. Former players, coaches, peers: They all accept that his talent is, as Wilander says, “crazy,” but his passive response to Nadal goes against what they’ve been taught a superstar does when he’s down. Muhammad Ali came up with rope-a-dope, an aging Michael Jordan perfected the fadeaway jumper: The great ones adjust, sending a signal not only to their rivals but also to all the newly emboldened. It’s no shock that following Nadal’s trail, No. 3 Andy Murray has won six of his last seven matches against Federer, and No. 4 Novak Djokovic has won three of their last five. “What makes me scratch my head,” Courier says, “is how Roger doesn’t shift.”
The remedy most often prescribed for Federer’s ailing game is hiring a coach such as Darren Cahill, who once counseled Agassi. Federer toyed with the idea in the off-season, but that he didn’t follow up seemed further proof that he’s not hearing alarm bells. Others suggest that he serve-and-volley more, or play more doubles to replicate the Olympic preparation that helped him win the gold medal in doubles in Beijing and the U.S. Open singles title last September. But if Federer insists on staying back and winning rallies from the baseline, the consensus is that he must shorten points to save energy for the decisive third and fifth sets he has lately been losing: He has to hit more low, short slices to throw off Nadal’s rhythm, and he must put more bite on his flatter strokes.
Federer did that in the Australian Open final, but only when desperate; the instant he felt he had gained the momentum, he went back to the game on which he built his empire—and that Nadal solved long ago. “Roger still feels he’s just better [than Nadal],” Courier says. “And, frankly, he’s not.”
I like Nadal but I root for Federer. It will be fascinating to see if he can recover and get those three more grand slams to set the all-time mark. What once seemed inevitable is very much in question now. Can you remember a champion, seemingly still in his prime, get taken out like this? Bjorg, maybe. But he just walked away from the game. I wonder if Federer has it in him to get back on top? It would be a dream if he could ever win the French. This is could become a great rivalry if Federer finds a way to respond.