"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Ruffled Feathers, Tattered Game


S.L. Price has a great piece on Roger Federer and his arch-nemesis Rafael Nadal in last week’s Sports Illustrated:

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.

Share: Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email %PRINT_TEXT


1 The Hawk   ~  May 20, 2009 10:50 am

I'm disappointed in Federer. I don't think he has no guts, but he's missing something - at least thus far. I didn't like Nadal at first, found it annoying that his record against Federer was lopsided because of his dominance on grass and relative inability to get to finals on other surfaces. But he improved and improved and soon proved himself, plus he seems like a really nice guy. Nicer than Federer to be honest, who is a little weird.

Anyway Nadal did his part. Federer needs to step up his game or do something different. He's running out of time and I think he needs to prove he can hold up his end of the bargain of a great rivalry and climb back up the mountain, so to speak.

2 Simone   ~  May 20, 2009 11:38 am

Federer plays the most beautiful tennis game that I have ever seen. He has to step it up. There is no reason for him to keep consistently losing to Nadal.

3 The Hawk   ~  May 20, 2009 12:00 pm

[1] Clay, not grass.

4 Horace Clarke Era   ~  May 20, 2009 12:03 pm

Federer just beat him this weekend - in Spain, in a final, on a slow court. French Open coming up. This is going to go on for awhile. Two astonishing talents. I disagree that Federer is 'running out of time' he is a VERY young guy.

Hawk, you mean dominance on clay, not grass. He is probably the best clay court player ever. Nadal's breakthrough was to be able to win on the faster surfaces now.

Federer's backhand is on a level with Mo's delivery for the aesthetics peaks of sport. Hmm, what else would people nominate? Once it was John Olerud's swing - any old-timer's remember that?

5 Horace Clarke Era   ~  May 20, 2009 12:04 pm

[3] Ah. You saw it too. Cross-post.

6 The Hawk   ~  May 20, 2009 12:10 pm

[4] Federer will be 28 in August. That is not young in tennis years.

7 Horace Clarke Era   ~  May 20, 2009 12:43 pm

28 is supposed to be an athlete's prime, right? And in tennis some guys went strong well into their 30s if fit ... Agassi, Connors, McEnroe ...

But I'll agree that at 31-32, Federer will start being at some disadvantage to guys 5-6 years younger, like Nadal.

8 Bobtaco   ~  May 20, 2009 1:12 pm

Any Yanks/Sox comparisons to this pair of rivals?

9 The Hawk   ~  May 20, 2009 1:32 pm

Traditionally, I think a tennis player's prime is younger than 28. Around that point, it starts to become a story if they excel. In recent years there have been more high profile players doing really well into their 30s, a result of more attention to conditioning than usual for such a Euro sport. Seems like that's become more and more common, but I don't get the idea that Federer is a nose to the grindstone type guy, he's more in the ethereal, effortless realm. I'm not saying he doesn't work hard, but I don't know if he works that hard on his conditioning.

10 rbj   ~  May 20, 2009 1:52 pm

OT stunning news: "Phil Mickelson's wife, Amy, has been diagnosed with breast cancer, and the three-time major champion said Wednesday he will suspend his PGA Tour schedule indefinitely."

Let's hope for the best. Speaking of rivals, Phil seems to be the closest to Tiger's rival, which shows just how far apace the field Tiger is.

No matter who won, last year's Wimbledon was probably the best I've ever seen. Even more than any Bjorn final.

11 BuckFoston   ~  May 20, 2009 2:27 pm

Federer has more talent. Nadal works harder. I root for Nadal because that is the 'American Way', to outsmart and out work your opponent. Nadal is a classy guy, I thought Federer was nice, but after reading that article, he seems rather arrogant. It's true what Malcolm Gladwell says in his great book 'Outliers', a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck can lead to great success.

12 Horace Clarke Era   ~  May 20, 2009 3:43 pm

Interesting. I've now read the article. I don['t think Federer comes across badly at all. A bit arrogant at THAT level of excellence ... pretty minor. Compare Jordan. Tiger. LeBron. In the piece they say federer is so courteous and lowkey players didn't mind losing to him so much!

What's amusing also is that the piece appears just as Federer beat Nadal, on CLAY four days ago, in Spain. It also mentions, but seems to then ignore, in favor of psychoanalysis, that Federer was seriously ill for much of the year that Nadal 'overtook' him. In technical terms, the thing that interested me most was the bit about how the perfect, or even the ONLY anti-Federer-missile, would be a lefthander with a reverse spin, which is what Nadal developed.

feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver