20 July, 2013

The Truth About The Fed

Alright, we've bitten our tongue more than once on this one, but it's really obvious isn't it?   Do we even really need to say it?   Sit down; it's time to talk about Roger.  Yes, Roger the GOAT...Swiss guy, likes English grass, chocolates and Rolexes.  Well...

Roger Federer is in irreversible decline.  It's a simple statement, but one that will inevitably draw angry Federer fanboys and fangirls to this post like catnip.  Thus, in advance of all the defending we'll have to do later, let us say simply what we are NOT declaring here:
  • We're not saying Federer will never win another tournament...or even a major 
  • We're not saying Federer will continue losing eminently winnable matches to players outside the top 100
  • We're not saying Federer is being shipped off to the Shady Pines Retirement Village tomorrow, or that he should be 
But let's have a rational, bloodless conversation about Federer, where he's been, where he is and where he's going.  We don't think we're overreacting to Federer's loss today to newly minted Argentine folk hero Frederick Delbonis, but the reality is that this kind of thing didn't used to happen.  
From 2004-2007, the man went 315-24, for American fans that's essentially the equivalent of playing back to back 12-loss Major League Baseball seasons, or four consecutive six loss NBA seasons.  Apologize for the vulgarity, but that's otherworldly shit right there.  
That just doesn't happen in sports...unless your name is Roger Federer.  That's the record of less a man and more a forehand launching machine carefully calibrated to destroy all that came before him.  There's a reason the Fedal Wars (the term for the social media battles between fans of Federer and his arch rival Rafael Nadal) were so protracted and engrossing.  Of those 24 losses in Federer's Halcyon days, fully one third, 8 losses, were at the hands of the Spanish icon.  The casual observer will sometimes claim, oftimes without context, that clay is Federer's worst surface and mathematically, yes, the numbers bear that out...but let's examine those shades of gray.  Federer's four losses at Roland Garros over that span were at the hands of Gustavo Kuerten (2004) and Nadal (2005-2007), two men who combined to win ELEVEN French Opens.  Nadal single-handedly (or double-handedly if we're talking about his backhand) denied Federer a chance to earn the true calendar year Grand Slam twice (a semifinal loss to Marat Safin in a forgotten classic Australian Open five setter ended his chances in 2005).  In 2006 and 2007 it was Nadal who turned Federer back in Paris from an even greater place in history than the one he's already carved out.  Between 2004 and 2007, Federer played in 66 ATP and Grand Slam tournaments.  He won 42 of them...Tiger, who?

Then came that match...

You know, the great one, the only tennis match we've ever even considered (and wound up) buying on DVD.  2008, Wimbledon, Federer, Nadal.  We all know how it ended.  Nadal, twice himself turned back from Wimbledon titles at the last hurdle by the Swiss great, cracked his opponent's citadel.  It was a watershed moment for Nadal, he was no longer going to go down in history as maybe just the King of Clay (he had only won four of his eight Roland Garros titles by then, mind you), but as a Wimbledon champion as well.  There was now a player who could beat the great man no matter the surface.  It was Nadal, not the heavily tipped Swiss, who would capture Olympic singles gold on the Beijing hardcourts.  Then, exhausted from his breakthrough summer, Nadal would miss his next appointment with Federer at the US Open, which the Swiss would go on to win.  After the "offseason" Nadal came roaring back, leaving Federer reduced to tears after a bruising five-set loss in the 2009 Australian Open final.  Worse yet, it wasn't just Nadal, the World No. 1 and holder of three major titles (as Federer had been coming into the 2008 season) putting him on his heels anymore.  A year prior in that same Rod Laver Arena, Novak Djokovic had stunned Federer in the semifinal on the way to the his first major title.  Remember, Federer won 42 of 66 tournaments played between 2004 and 2007.  That 2008 season, Federer played 19 tournaments and claimed just four titles.  2008 was the beginning of Federer's decline.

But hey, Federer didn't exactly go tumbling from his peak into the abyss, did he?  Nadal's famously wonky knees and stress from his parents' separation contributed as much to his loss at the 2009 French Open as Robin Soderling did, and both conspired to keep him from even attempting to defend his hard-won Wimbledon title.  Federer bagged both titles without much fuss; securing his career grand slam as Nadal had been removed from his path in Paris; then claiming the all-time Grand Slam title record with his 15th major title at that year's Wimbledon, again without facing Nadal, then a three-time finalist at the All England Club.  Without the context of Nadal's absence, Federer looked resurgent in that triumphant 2009 campaign; he would end the year once again No. 1 in the world.  Before that season concluded though, another crack formed in the veneer of the worldbeating champion.  He unexpectedly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the 2009 US Open final, with Juan Martin del Potro capturing the title from two sets to one down.  Prior to that tournament, Federer had lost five major finals before, but every one had been to Nadal.  In short, this was not the same Roger Federer.

The 2010 season would commence with Federer winning the Australian Open over a not-quite ready for primetime Andy Murray, but from there the rest of the season belonged to a reinvigorated Nadal, as would the titles at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open.  Federer's 13 losses that year included defeats to Albert Montanes, Marcos Baghdatis and Ernests Gulbis.  Federer would only reach the semifinal of one other major, the US Open, where he would finish on the wrong side of a blockbuster loss to Novak Djokovic.  Robin Soderling and Tomas Berdych would see him out of Roland Garros and Wimbledon respectively.  From there, after eight straight years with a major title, Federer would go two seasons without adding to his then cache of sixteen.  He again ceded the top ranking to Nadal in 2010, who would then be toppled, by Djokovic, the following year.  The Serb was playing spectacular tennis in Robo-Nole mode in 2011, when in an ironic twist, Federer kept him from meeting Nadal (who Djokovic had beaten four times in a row to that point) in the Roland Garros final.  Federer won a tight four-set semifinal over Djokovic, before losing to...you get the picture.

Between 2004-2007, Federer was 12-10 versus Nadal, Djokovic and Murray
Since 2008, he's 23-34 versus his younger rivals
Once again, Federer was able to obscure his decline.  He ended his major-less 2011 season with a flurry, winning his hometown event in Basel, the Paris Masters and the World Tour Finals, thrashing Nadal 6-3, 6-0 for good measure on the fast indoor surface at the O2 Arena in London.  There seemed to be life in the old man yet.  In hindsight, it seems to have been a final assault on the No. 1 ranking.  Federer was one week shy of Pete Sampras' last big career record, most (non-consecutive) weeks at No. 1 and that one week margin would not be left to stand.  Federer needed a major title to get back to No. 1 and he got it at Wimbledon in 2012.  Nadal, the five-time finalist had been dumped out in the second round by Lukas Rosol, but it was still tough sledding for the venerable champ.  He found his way past Djokovic in the semifinal and the hometown hope, Murray, in the championship match.  Most majors, most weeks at No. 1, mission accomplished.  Djokovic would end 2012 at No. 1 for the second year running, but Federer had done what he came into the season to do, leave no doubt that he was the greatest to have played.

Not that Federer's ready to go home.  He still competes just as hard, but the shanks off his racquet frame come more frequently, as do the losses.  He decided to play a shorter schedule this year, 14 versus his typical 18 events.  Instead of keeping him fresh, the extra time off seems to have corroded his usually Rolex-precise game.  His only title this season came on the grass of Halle, Germany right before Wimbledon.  He didn't face a top 10 player there, but he did what he had to do; beat the guys in front of him before hoisting a trophy.  He closed with tight three set wins over fellow over-30 stalwarts Tommy Haas and Mikhail Youzhny in the semifinal and final respectively.  Federer has played six matches against other top ten players this year, he's won once, a five set slugfest against a 7th seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Australia.  Tsonga returned the favor at his native major, Roland Garros, a clean kill, in straight sets.  Where he reclaimed the No. 1 ranking at Wimbledon a year ago, a listless 2nd round loss this year to Sergiy Stakhovsky (best known to that point for his work on Twitter) left him clinging to a slot in the top five.  Today, he added to the scrap heap in Hamburg, as the trophy that had to have been pre-engraved with Federer's name when he entered the event as the top seed, was rendered useless after he fell to Federico Delbonis in the semifinal.

We don't think today's match was a funeral, he's trying a new racquet, still has a bad back and was playing an unfamiliar opponent, but the dominant Federer is gone and he's not coming back.  What about the still pretty damn good Federer we've seen the last few years?  We haven't seen much of him either lately.  The old racquet is gone and we wouldn't be surprised to see the back of Paul Annacone either.

Is Federer done?  We're not arrogant enough to say so, but the evidence is mounting against him.  We haven't seen many players much over 30 making an impact at the highest levels of the ATP Tour, Federer's now 32.
For his longtime rival, Nadal, the biggest question has always been, how many times will injuries knock the guy to the mat before he loses the will to keep bounding back up?  For Federer, the question is how long will be be able to publicly suffer the indignity of decline.  
Federer has not only been a dominant No. 1, but a proud one.  Haas never really felt like he fulfilled his destiny, injuries derailed him at the peak of his career.  Lleyton Hewitt relishes the fight so much that even at age 32, he's fought his way back into the top 100 to fight another day and another.  What about Federer?  Well, we've never seen anyone like him before.  We've never seen a guy who's won so much; who's so thoroughly dominated (almost) all of his rivals.  How will he react to no longer being No. 1, not to mention being farther away from that post than he's been in decade?  How will he react to losing to players who aren't ranked high enough to even get direct entry to the majors where he's done so much damage?  How will he react when he goes down a level to 250 and 500-level tournaments to get his groove back and can't get to the winners' circle?  It's beginning to look like we'll see soon enough.


  1. Nice writing bro, hopefully (for me), the US Open wont be his swan song

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