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Confidence Game 01/25/2008 - 9:21 AM

When you open your newspapers this morning, you'll undoubtedly read about the end of the Federer era, which allegedly passed before our eyes in three sets Friday evening, all of them won by Novak Djokovic, 7-5, 6-3, 7-6(5).Novakfed

The match, if you haven't seen it, wasn't complicated or ever in doubt. Djokovic didn't play his best except for a stretch in the second set, but he was steady and smart throughout. He moved well. He was firm on important points; in the second set, he hit a backhand around the net post on break point for a 3-1 lead. But the fact that Federer didn't move well was the most noticeable element of the match. The man who usually glides, sometimes so quickly that the ball and his opponent look frozen in time, was a step slower than usual, and so came the forehand errors and the missed chances, none more significant than a 0-40 break opportunity in the second game of the third set. Djokovic kept his nerve and served beautifully. Against most players, Federer can win when he's not at his best. Djokovic is no longer one of those players.

The ins and outs of this particular match don't interest me too much, however. The bigger question is, "Should you believe what you read" about the Federer Era? Are those shocking headlines correct? Dijana Djokovic, Novak's mother, hopes so.

"He has been no. 1 for four years, with all respect, and now there are young kids, Novak, Murray, Tsonga," she said as she and her husband, Srdjan, soaked up the moment in the player's restaurant. "So it's time for change. We came here to win this tournament. I think if Novak is playing how he can play, it will be easy--not easy, I can't say easy, but he will win."

Confidence runs strong in the Djokovic family and in tennis, we all know, confidence is a must. This boy has believed since he was a child and hasn't been shy about telling us all about it the past few years. Still, I'd argue that the above words are more a mother's pride (and well-earned pride at that) than the truth of the matter. Rather than signifying something earth shattering, Djokovic's win tonight highlighted something that would have been the case even if Federer had won this tournament. We are now in the third stage of Federer's career, if for no other reason than his age (he'll be 27 in August). He's gone from a wildly talented teenager who couldn't figure out how to win an important title, to the most dominant champion the sport has ever known, to a champion who now must beat back a number of talented players who are not afraid of him. Will he win more majors? Of course. More intelligent, I think, to ask, "How many more?"

Federer has set the bar impossibly high the last five years. He has won 12 major titles. He hasn't lost before the semifinals in a major since the 2004 French Open, which was also the last time he lost in straight sets in a major. Before tonight, he had won 34 consecutive semifinal matches (all tournaments). He had reached the final of 10 consecutive majors, breaking Jack Crawford's 1933-34 record by four. Last year he won three majors and lost nine matches--a better year than Pete Sampras ever had in his career--and people talked as if Federer had come down a level. I could go on and on into the night about the absurdity of his accomplishments and how those accomplishments are viewed, typing until my fingers go numb or bleed, but like any good journalist, I'm obligated to make it back to the bar before last call.

Federer has said in the past that he didn't expect to keep up this pace, but for the first time that I can recall, he described his feats--the enormity of his accomplishments--as a burden of sorts.

"I'll definitely reflect on what happened," he said. "You know, I mean, considering, you know, my illness, I'm sort of happy with the result here. Of course, I've created a monster, so I know I need to always win every tournament."

He continued: "Well, winning every other week, you know, lose a set and people say I'm playing bad. So it's my own mistake, I guess."

Obviously, Federer is aware of his place in history and the chance he has to put everyone else who has ever played this game behind him. I haven’t heard him talk about the pressures involved in that challenge--the pressures of being Roger Federer--in this way.

This loss was important in another way: it's the first time something out of Federer's control has impeded him at a major event. He has remained remarkably healthy over the years, largely because of hard work. This year, however, he caught a stomach virus before the tournament began. I didn't think he had suffered any long term effects from that illness--and the hiccup in his preparation--until the last two matches, against Tomas Berdych and James Blake. Federer didn't move as well as he usually does. Arnaud Boetsch, the former French pro who sat in Federer's box tonight, said the virus had taken its toll.

"I just arrived a few days ago but against James Blake, already I felt that he was a bit behind the ball, he was not moving so fast, forehand is always a bit late," Boetsch said. "And today it was, I don't want to say worse, but you can see it because Djokovic is really on the ball, is a fighter, is a control player. Usually [Federer] is flying on the court. Remember when he won the U.S. Open or this kind of event? He's just flying, he's everywhere."

Federer didn't take flight tonight. But I'm guessing it won't be long before he does again. Until then, applaud the first first-time Grand Slam title winner--either Djokovic or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga--since Rafael Nadal won his first French Open in 2005.


112 Comments

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Posted by climbuphigh 01/25/2008 at 09:37 AM

First!

Posted by Eric the Red 01/25/2008 at 09:38 AM

I completely agree with your comments on the impending doom. And he's right about the monster. We are all so used to seeing him win; when he loses, it's front-page news. I think it's also time for Roger to seriously consider hiring a coach. My choice would be Annacone, but oddly I haven't gotten a call asking my advice.

Posted by Mlelly 01/25/2008 at 09:39 AM

Agree 100 percent with everything you wrote here Tom... In retrospect, the result seems a foregone conclusion when you look at the progression of the matches. Federer will be the last to make excuses for his loss, but he's too intelligent not to realize that a deficit like the viral infection will blunt his chances in a grand slam. He's amazing and he will rebound with his confidence in tact, but he's got to know that each of the remaining slams will be more hard fought and won than the previous twelve.

Posted by SwissMaestro 01/25/2008 at 09:40 AM

Tom,

Rafael Nadal wonhis firs FO in 2005.

Of courser Federer will win more majors, just not at that incredible pace.

The true measure of a champion is not to see how long he goes without a defeat but how he bounces back after a defeat.

Expect Federer to take Dubai, IW and Miami. Inthe meanwhile all the credit to Novak and Tsonga (hope he wins the whole thing). And can't wait for RG.

Posted by Sher 01/25/2008 at 09:47 AM

>the first first-time Grand Slam title winner--either Djokovic or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

Not to be picky about an otherwise good article, but doesn't "first first-time" mean the first final you contest? Tsonga fits, but Djokovic's second final is upon us.

Posted by Markic 01/25/2008 at 09:49 AM

He may have fallen off the plateau, but Nadal's the one who's really in danger of being swamped. Look for Feds to win at the French.

Posted by Rolo Tomassi 01/25/2008 at 09:50 AM

I was disappointed that Fed gave the illness any attention in his presser - but I can't remember if he brought it up or not. Wish he had just said it wasn't a factor - you know, that old thing about if you decide to show up, you play and you win or you lose - no excuses.

He clearly didn't seem himself on court, but one has to wonder if nerves played a role - they certainly do when he takes on Rafa, and in Nole he's facing somebody who beat him in a Masters final last year, and had serious chances against him in the Open final.

I have no idea what will happen in the final - as you pointed out yesterday, Tom, attacking Tennis is alive and well with Tsonga and if he really brings it against Nole, anything can happen. For some reason, in my mind, it's Tsonga I see hoisting the trophy, not Nole, although Nole has been my pick since about five minutes after the US Open final last summer.

In any event, it's nice to have a new Slam champ on the horizon. Should make the year awfully interesting.

Posted by Schwab 01/25/2008 at 09:53 AM

I am not surprised that Novak won the match against Federer but in straights, that is another story.
I am wondering the Nalby wins over Fed in Madrid and Paris laid out the groundwork on how to beat Fed on Hardcourts.

Posted by 01/25/2008 at 09:58 AM

"Not to be picky about an otherwise good article, but doesn't "first first-time" mean the first final you contest? "

The sentence is broken up, which confuses the meaning. But I don't believe it has to do with appearances in finals. Rather, it means the winner will own their first slam title, and it will be the first time since Nadal won in his first FO that we'll have a that scenario (as opposed to someone like Federer, who has won multiple slams, winning.)

Posted by Schwab 01/25/2008 at 09:59 AM

SwissMaestro,
Well, Fed's lack of preparation, due to his stomach virus, finally caught up to him today. Its amazing that he made his 15th consecutive Slam SF.

Posted by SwissMaestro 01/25/2008 at 10:00 AM

Federer struggles when he does not make his winners. What is this due to? It is due to not have had his best footwork today. He could not position himself well enough to hit half of those forehands he netted on the other side of the court. Again, credit to Djokovic, let's see if he can handle Tsonga's relentless combination of power and technique attacking tennis.

Posted by Rob York 01/25/2008 at 10:03 AM

We have been blessed in the last four years to have a truly good man who is fun to watch at the top of the sport. The only real downside to that time period is that he hasn't been challenged by anyone except Nadal on clay and Nalbandian at lesser events. The ease with which he has won, and the seeming effortlessness of his play do little to contradict the idea that tennis is not a "tough" sport to play. Let's hope he stays at the top, but loses once in awhile to make us appreciate what we have in him.

Posted by Stomach Bug 01/25/2008 at 10:04 AM

Stomach virus responsible for this? Come on, that was two and a half weeks ago, before Kooyong. If this was the first week of the tournamanet, you could perhaps argue there is a causal connection. An athlete of world class caliber, such as an ATP touring professional, however, should bounce back to normal in amount of time.

Posted by Marian 01/25/2008 at 10:08 AM

Markic:

"He may have fallen off the plateau, but Nadal's the one who's really in danger of being swamped. Look for Feds to win at the French."???

You must be smoking something strong man!
Fed to win the French? How about he was practically beaten at Wimbledon when Nadal injured his leg and had to recieve treatment on the floor? As for Fed at RG, his lacklustre performance there, was disappointing...If he didn't believe in himself last year, what makes you think he'll do sooo much better this year on clay?


As for him being injured and not properly trained, I guessed as much and even more so for Nalbandian, who played better tennis then them all in Dec 2007.

Tsonga and Djokovici, if they can keep it up will rule on hard courts, as they have more power, more accuracy and in Tsonga's case even a better technique/abilities overall...

I expect Nadal to still rule on clay (if healthy) and to continue to make headway on hard courts...And for Nalbandian to freaking train properly so he can be in top 3 and show us attacking tennis at its best (alongside Tsonga and Djokovic)!

Posted by SwissMaestro 01/25/2008 at 10:09 AM

Federer might now consider to play in Rotterdam before Dubai after all to defend his #1 ranking from disapearing.

Posted by becky 01/25/2008 at 10:09 AM

Come on guys, the reason Federer did not seem himself is because Djokovic made every point count. Just like Tsonga did with Nadal. Federer wants to beat Sampras' record but that does not mean that these young great players should be on stand by and wait while he does that. Fedex plays some beautiful tennis but he can be a bit cocky and let people think that he can always win. I think that is impossible unless you're half man half machine.

Well done for Novak!
I just think that this guy is ready and mature mentally for the best tennis of his life.

Posted by low chicago 01/25/2008 at 10:26 AM

Terrific post, Tom. I'll have to remember to re-read it a few times over the next few weeks as word of Roger's "fade" spreads.

Posted by SwissMaestro 01/25/2008 at 10:28 AM

becky,

You might be right, he even admitted it in his press conference after the match "I have created a monster" he said refering to the fact that he has us all used to see him winning everything he plays. It is alright, this will only make him hungrier and will motivate him, Novak did him a favor.

As for the final. I'd take Tsonga's game against Nadal than Djokovic's over Federer. Those drop volleys are beautiful killers.

Posted by The Original French(ie) 01/25/2008 at 10:44 AM

If I remember correctly it was not Federer who broght up the illness factor. It was a question, then later on during the presser he talked about it again.

"End of an era": well I'm not sure actually. He was also derailed by Safin in 2005...and??? We are now in 2008.

What is more problematic now is the addition of several factors: that he does not have a coach, the rise of a new guard and him getting older and having to break all these records day in/out.

It's more challenges but I see them as the end of anything yet. If after the USO we have no Federer name tag on any of the trophees, we might start to get ready for a change. When Federer loses the number 1 ranking (it probably won't be the same guy that will win the 3 slams this year) then yeah I will agree with that.

It's still a (very)long way though.

Posted by skip1515 01/25/2008 at 10:45 AM

Statistically, it would have been more of a surprise for Federer to make the final again, and then to win, than for him to lose on the road there.

He is right: he's set the bar incredibly high, higher than it's ever been before, really, and the weight of the expectations have to take their toll at some point. That's especially true when you factor in the public's perception, of which Federer must be aware, i.e., that his every loss is a harbinger of the coming of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

As you say, Tom, what comes next in his 2008 campaign will be the truly interesting part. And that doesn't even begin to consider how fascinating Nadal's story will be this year.

Posted by Heidi 01/25/2008 at 10:45 AM

To be honest, I also thought Federer was a touch slow (for him) against Blake. If it was a factor, it was a factor. Doesn't detract from the fact that Djokovic played confidently and well, either.

Posted by The Original French(ie) 01/25/2008 at 10:46 AM

sorry for the typos

brought up
It's more challenges but I DO NOT see them as the end of anything yet

Posted by Marian 01/25/2008 at 11:02 AM

SwissMaestro I agree with you, I'll take Tsonga and his volleys that haven't been seen since Ilie Nastase's (Nasty) times...

Besides Tsogna destroyed Nadal when the later had only 4 errors in the first two sets, while Fed has been off the whole tournament (including with Djokovic).

I also concurr with Heidi and if I may add; not only was Fed slow, but he doesn't seem to have the same powerful shots as Tsonga, Djokovici, Nalbandian, Tipsarevici...Were are the times when his forhand was considered best in the world? I'd take a coach, if I was him (at least he has a physical trainer on try out, or does he anymore?)

I hope Tsonga keeps rockin' in the final and so does Nole! :D

Posted by Nguyen 01/25/2008 at 11:02 AM

I haven't seen the match, but I thought Djokovic would win. Simple, even in the last match between them in the US Open final, Djokovic had set points galore in the first set and match, he just couldn't convert it, probably due to inexperience in a Slam final or nerve. Of course, he's learnt. And, Federer is only getting older.

Posted by South_Paw 01/25/2008 at 11:09 AM

It's amazing to me that there was even a question asked by a reporter and that Roger even bother trying to explain it.
- A seasoned pro would/should just dismiss it, anything else is poor sportsmanship or someone looking for excuses.

-> here's mine to you Roger : you are human and you can lose matches even if you play your best. That's life. It's happened to everyone. <-

Let's just say that Novak seems to not only get under Federer's skin but into his game like few people out there ... SuperMan has his kryptonite, Roger has his few nagging opponents that he must be wary of : Nadal, Novak, Nalbandian (all have 'N's somewhere). Thank God for him Jo-Willy doesn't ;-)

Let's keep a sense a humour about this too - it's just one match - and I for one, don't mind having 2 new faces in a final ... when was the last time Roger wasn't ?!

Let's just hope both play up to par now.

Enjoy !

SP.

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