Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - The Return of Reality
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The Return of Reality 07/01/2010 - 2:35 PM

Rf “We need to see some more genius now.” This was BBC commentator Boris Becker’s on-air coaching advice to Roger Federer during the fourth set of his match with Tomas Berdych on Wednesday. That’s a pretty tall order, wouldn’t you say? 

Genius on command: It sounds like on oxymoron and seems like a logical impossibility, but, unfortunately for Federer, that’s what he’s made us expect will happen every time he steps on court. First we watched him in his years of unprecedented dominance. More recently we’ve seen his nervy comebacks from the precipice of defeat, one of which he’d pulled off just the week before, against Alejandro Falla in the first round. Put it all together and most tennis fans, and even observers as knowledgeable as Becker, believe that when Federer doesn’t reach perfection or turn his game around at exactly the right moment, that something has gone wrong—with him, with the sport, with the universe. There’s a disquieting element to a Federer loss at Wimbledon, because at this point it’s more than an individual failure. It’s almost as if he’s failed us, failed to prove that good—i.e., the superior player—will always win out in the end. Down a break at 3-4 in the fourth, with Berdych serving at deuce, Federer went for a big forehand return, caught it a hair late, and sent it just over the baseline. Becker’s BBC boothmate was, in his understated British fashion, flabbergasted. “We’ve not used to seeing that,” he said. Two games later, at 4-5, Federer had a break point and a look at a second serve; this was the moment everyone had been waiting for, when he would turn on a dime, raise his game from iffy to brilliant, and break his opponent's heart. But Berdych hit his second ball with a little more depth and firmness than he had been, and Federer’s forehand reply slumped and died on its way to the net. This time both commentators cried, with real disbelief, “What happened?”

What happened was exactly what’s happened to every tennis player, including Federer, since the game began. When a pro misses, it's not just because he couldn't find the court; it's because he couldn't place the ball exactly where he wanted it to go. At that level, each player needs to calculate how risky or conservative he can make each shot, judging by the score and by what his opponent can do in reply. In the final game, knowing Berdych would be nervous, Federer’s calculations leaned to the conservative. He played a series of low slice returns and low slice backhands, trying to force his 6-foot-5 opponent to hit up on the ball. It worked. Federer got to 15-30 and had Berdych on the move in that rally. The Czech made a brilliant backhand save from the corner and eventually won the point with a backhand volley that just touched the sideline. Despite that, Federer still reached break point, where he netted the return that so shocked the BBC's announcers. It appeared that Federer was sticking with his conservative calculations—they’d gotten him to break point, so why not?—by trying to poke a forehand return low and down the middle. But, surprised by Berdych’s gutsy second serve, he put it a little too low.

In a broader sense, to answer Becker’s question, "what happened" was a tennis match. Perhaps the biggest tribute to Federer’s achievement over the last six years—and to Rafael Nadal’s similar achievement on clay over the last five—is that everyone seems to have forgotten that fact when he plays. As anyone who has ever played one knows, a tennis match can go in any direction at any time; miss as few as two shots in a row (and we’ve already seen the calculations that must go into every one of those shots) and the whole thing can change complexion in your head and head south in a hurry. This particular match was one that, going in, was even less of a given for Federer. His last two Grand Slam losses had been to Juan Martin del Potro and Robin Soderling, both of whom, like Berdych, are tall guys who pummel high, relatively flat balls off both sides. All of them, when they’re clicking, have the power to knock Federer back and keep him from moving them side to side. Most important, this spring Berdych had beaten Federer for the first time in six years. He knew it could be done, and aging legends like Federer live off the fact that most of the guys they play don’t know that it can be done (see Falla).

Berdych won this match because he got low for Federer’s persistent slice backhands—I love how balanced the Czech is on both sides, but particularly when he gets in his stance for a low backhand; great preparation on that shot. He won because Federer’s forehand went off for a couple of games in the first set, long enough to surrender his serve. Berdych won with his wide serve into the deuce court. He won by taking advantage of second serves. He won because Federer was unsettled enough to play ill-advised drop shots on key points, when forehand drives would have done the trick. Berdych won because, when Federer had a game point at 3-3 in the fourth, he anticipated where he was going with a forehand, kept himself in the point long enough to win it, and went on to record the decisive break from there. He won because, while he wavered a bit in the final game, Berdych never played outside himself. He believed in his game, and in his ability to finish against Federer, enough to take his last forehand and do exactly what he would have done with it at any other time: Drill it for a winner.

So another tall man has sent Federer packing from a major, this time at his beloved Wimbledon, where he had reached seven consecutive finals. Does this herald a new future for men’s tennis? There have always been tall players on the men’s side, and there have always been bombers. But guys like Krajicek, Ivanisevic, and until now Soderling have been primarily a sideshow, dangerous on any given day but a little too inconsistent to take the sport over from its more well-rounded champions. With Berdych and del Potro, though, we’re beginning to see big guys who are also well rounded; they can bomb, but they can also move and rally. Berdych gets an immense amount of power with a very smooth and effortless-looking swing, something we’ve rarely seen from a guy his height. It remains to be seen whether he and his fellow big men can finally take center stage, and whether the ideal tennis frame will go from 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, where it has been for 20 years, to something larger. Who knows, Federer may appear to future generations the way the 5-foot-9 Rod Laver looks to us in old clips today.

As far as Federer himself goes, is the end of his era? Is he in terminal decline now that his Wimbledon finals run has come to a close and he has dropped to No. 3 in the rankings? Well, we asked the same question two years ago, and he came back to reclaim the No. 1 spot in 2009. At the same time, his three-Slam seasons are almost surely a thing of the past. Players whom he has owned are beating him, and he’s finding that he can’t turn it on at the majors the way he has been in recent years. He’ll also need to find some kind of answer to the big boys; what that is, I don’t know. Still, there’s no question in my mind that he will win more Grand Slams, simply because he’ll always put himself in contention. Unless he really falls off the map, though, I don’t think “decline” is the right word for what will likely happen to Federer. I’d call it a  “return to reality." Maybe, as he loses more often, we can all realize again that tennis matches aren’t sure things, that winning them over and over and over is not normal, that even Roger Federer can’t always measure the perfect return of serve every time he needs one.

Afterward, Federer said he had leg and back issues. I’m not sure why he volunteered this information. Maybe in the past he felt that he had kept quiet about injuries and illnesses after losses only to feel the need to mention them later, and this time he wanted to be up front about it. My first reaction was that he had dug in his heels in front of the press, which is what happened after he lost to Marcos Baghdatis at Indian Wells this year. We’d tried to get him to praise Baghdatis’s serving, but Federer wasn’t having any of it. He’s one of those champions—Pete Sampras and the Williams sisters are three others—who don’t believe they should lose if they’re playing the way they should. It’s a useful attitude to have, and a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it can also make these players search for excuses, extenuating circumstances, for losses. That’s what I thought Federer was doing here when I read his remarks, and so did Berdych when asked about them later. And to a certain extent he was. Federer even blamed “unlucky” bounces and Berdych’s ability to hit the ball “on the line over and over,” as if that were about his opponent's luck rather than his skill.

Federer is right to be honest about what happened on the court. That’s why he’s in the press room in the first place. Still, talk of his injuries perpetuates the idea that I mentioned earlier: That he can’t actually, really, officially lose a tennis match. It’s the same for Nadal on clay. His fans want to believe that he couldn’t possibly lose at the French Open to Soderling unless his knees had hindered him. Like I said, it’s a tribute to Federer and Nadal that they've made people think this way, that they've made people believe that the laws of tennis have been suspended for them. Nevertheless, Soderling won in Paris, and Berdych won yesterday. I believe Federer when he says he was hurting, but when I write about a match my rule of thumb is that if I can’t see any visible sign of an injury from a player, any slowing down or wincing, then I’m not going to consider it a factor in the outcome. As Federer also said at Indian Wells this spring, every player has some physical issue going on most of the time. If you go by those words, Berdych probably did as well yesterday.

This morning I watched Federer’s presser, and his words struck me a little differently. His heels weren't all that dug in, and he didn’t seem to be blatantly making excuses. He was much more even keel than I thought he would be. Did he even sound resigned to not winning Wimbledon? It seems incredible to me, considering the reverence he has for the place. When I read his line about the quarterfinals being "a decent result,” I'd assumed that he was covering up so he wouldn’t have to express his disappointment in public. And I’m guessing that was part of it. But Federer also put this loss next to his quarterfinal loss in Paris, as if it they were part of an unavoidable trend. He said, twice, that “I’m winning my matches,” as if getting into the second week was an accomplishment. Was this because of the injuries, or because his sights have been lowered? Was it all a rationalization, a cover, or was he sincerely OK with losing at Wimbledon? Was he just tired of shouldering all those expectations of perfection and wanted to shrug a few of them off? I don’t know. What I do know is that the day that Roger Federer says that the “quarters is a decent result” for him at the All England Club, we really have reached the end of an era. 

It will be different in the new one. Commentators won't be able to call for genius on command. Fans will have to stop believing that one player can suspend the laws of tennis. We may have to start accepting it: Reality has returned.

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Posted by Master Ace 07/01/2010 at 03:04 PM


Posted by CL 07/01/2010 at 03:13 PM

Steve -- thanks..very good read. I am sure it will ignite another round of Federer bashing, despite your perceptions, but such is life in cyberpace.

I don't really have anything to add or comment on except your last paragraph. I think his 'Q final streak' comments are pretty simple really...Roger has often been accused of being in denial or downright delusional when he is going through a bad patch, but I think that he is genuinely, honestly, and pretty straightforwardly a positive person..a 'glass half full' kind of guy. Patrick McEnroe commented on it and said he thought it was actually one of Roger's strongest and most valuable characteristics. His fans may get frustrated and think he is not seeing the state of his own game clearly, and his detractors just think he is arrogant and/or delusional, but to me, he is simply the guy who is always going to find a way to take positives from any situation and that ability allows him to plow ahead with confidence in his own abilities and the sense that things 'will come 'round right,' in the end.

Posted by Ross (FOE) 07/01/2010 at 03:24 PM

When I see Berdych, I keep remembering Krajicek. They both look like a Frankenstein's monster tennis prototype.

Posted by Christopher 07/01/2010 at 03:27 PM

Thanks for an insightful and interesting piece (as usual), Steve. As Hank (Dunlop Maxply) would often remark some years back, the level of excellence and dominance that Federer displayed at his peak is simply unsustainable for too many years. As a fan, I was both shocked and thrilled at what I got to see last year (and at this year's AO, lest we forget). My one hope for Federer (and his fans) is that he can still enjoy playing and competing when he can't call on his "genius" any time he wants. It will be interesting to see what new motivations he can find at this very different stage of his life and career.

Posted by Sherlock 07/01/2010 at 03:37 PM

Great stuff, Steve.

I saw the presser when TC replayed it last night. At first, I wasn't sure how to take the "quarters" comment either. But as I so hate making mountains out of presser mole hills, I blew it off. He IS right, after all. The first rounder to Falla would have been shocking, but a QF loss to Berdych is nothing to sneeze at. And certainly he feels, as he should, that if physical stuff is right, he is MORE than capable of winning that match come next year. He was still close yesterday, despite not playing that well, imo.

Posted by thebigapple 07/01/2010 at 03:38 PM

Thanks, Steve.

I am grateful to Fed....the elegance of play and creative shotmaking. However, an era may be over. Alas.

People forget that in a good year a player wins 1 major. Welcome back to reality indeed.

Posted by Meera 07/01/2010 at 03:41 PM

Very nuanced and perceptive. Thanks.

Roger, I think, has never had the utter, desperate need to win. And I mean this in a good way. The way some base everything on their wins; derive their self worth from their slams. Henin seems that way. And Ivanovic shows what happens when the desperation even slightly crosses over. So, however painful this might be I don't think Roger is broken - like he wasn't when he cried at AO (frustrated that Nadal took away another surface - yes, but still knowing like Venus that he 'rocks and rolls the game')

I hope he has enough motivation to work out the puzzle that these GiantMen pose.
He's been a good puzzle solver over the years - figure out how to beat the old guard of Sampras and Agassi; figure out how to decimate contemporaries like Roddick and Hewitt; figure out the pesky Spanish leftie (ok, that one’s an ongoing process). Next in line are these new breed of GiantMen.

It should be interesting.

Posted by Alexis 07/01/2010 at 03:42 PM

Good, balanced article, Steve. The one thing that stuck out for me is this:

"when I write about a match my rule of thumb is that if I can’t see any visible sign of an injury from a player, any slowing down or wincing, then I’m not going to consider it a factor in the outcome"

Rarely do I see a player in a match where a physical issue is *that* obvious. If it is, they usually retire. So what do you think of players who call for a MTO when there is no obvious signs of a hindrance? Does that make the problem more or less true? I don't know. So many players have said that ideally they don't want their opponent to know they are struggling as that makes them more vulnerable. It seems to me that many players hide their issues oncourt.

But, the bottom line is... when you take the court, you are saying that you are fit enough to play. Fed always says this, which is why he has never retired from a match. No matter how he was feeling yesterday, he was going to give it his best shot with what he had. Should he have mentioned the back/thigh? I don't know. I guess the fact that Roger so rarely does should warrant him the benefit of the doubt. But just like Rafa last year at the FO, it really doesn't matter. Soderling was the better man that day and Berdych was the better man yesterday.

And I'm glad you went back and rewatched the interview. It certainly isn't the ungracious crap most of the media reported.

Posted by Spitzenklanger Schickelgruber 07/01/2010 at 03:44 PM

This would have been a much better post, but my finger is injured.

Posted by Alexis 07/01/2010 at 03:51 PM

Christopher wrote: "As a fan, I was both shocked and thrilled at what I got to see last year (and at this year's AO, lest we forget). My one hope for Federer (and his fans) is that he can still enjoy playing and competing when he can't call on his "genius" any time he wants."

Last year is what makes all this tolerable for me, Christopher. All I ever wanted was for Roger to win the FO and surpass Pete's 14 majors by the time he retired. And I got it all in one month - a Spring/Summer to remember. My biggest fear was having to worry about both of those with every passing year knowing that his chances would dwindle each time. It was such a gift to know that he got these at age 27. Such a relief.

As for Fed still enjoying tennis despite not being TMF all the time? Fed said it perfectly in his BBC interview (how many champs would give another interview outside of the obligatory presser after such a loss???). He said that no matter the criticism from the press, he is enjoying this time on the tour with his wife and daughters and will continue to. He said he isn't going anywhere no matter what the press says.

Posted by Payum Payman 07/01/2010 at 03:59 PM

I thought this was a good read. I have read some of Peter Bodo's stuff before and think he is out of his mind sometimes. I played professionally for a year, just futures and etc. First, I want to say the effort and energy it takes to get ready at that level let alone the Grand Slam level is insane. If Roger was slightly hurt, then I think he would be affected big time. Remember when he had mono and his footwork was slower? He took time to get back and he won 2 majors last year.
If you think about it for a moment from 2008 french till this past french he either won or made the finals of all the slams. Sick!
The man has had 1 or 2 losses in the majors big deal, he already bagged the first one of the year. If he was coming into the Open without a major perhaps then we could start talking about a decline.
Next is that he won the aussie a few months back, you just do not wake up one day and all the sudden can not play great tennis or you lose your edge. Between the lung infection and not playing a bunch, and now some injury we are all saying its the end of an era, Fed is over. People said this about Pete in 1998 when he was losing early then the guy wins Wimbledon, gets injured semis of the Open Wins wimby 99 gets back injury before the open when he was dominating summer hardcourt circuit, then wins Wimby 00.

People relax Fed's era is not over. No one can guarantee anything but I strongly believe Roger has another 5-7 slams in him. He can easily win the Open and put another 2 or 3 on next year.

Posted by lilscot 07/01/2010 at 03:59 PM

Steve, great piece. I think Pete could learn a thing or two from your writing style. Fair and balanced. I'm sure there will be some who try to see you as criticing Rog, but I see what you wrote as quite complimentary towards him and his legacy.

I know it's difficult for any of us to watch our favourites decline but, like death and taxes, it's just a given. I had to go through the same thing when Andre was sliding and it hurts deeply.

It's going to be the same when my new hero Rafa starts his decline in due time. But, for now we still have Rog and Rafa and a whole crop of new big guns around to keep making this the most beautiful sport in the world.

It's Rafa all the way for me baby, but I tip my hat to the GOAT and pay him his much deserved accolades. What an astonishing career, and one that is still not quite yet finished I believe.

Vamos Rafa!

Posted by Sher 07/01/2010 at 03:59 PM

[Maybe, as he loses more often, we can all realize again that tennis matches aren’t sure things, that winning them over and over and over is not normal]

Yeah we do realize that (some of us) which is why this loss isn't shocking.

I do think that it annoyed Federer over the years that the press did not give him credit for being prepared/ready to win a slam, while many other players were injured. He's hidden many problems in the past, and I think in part now he is definetly saying, there, I can get injured too. That's just my feeling, obviously.

And yes, QF is a decent result. Not good, but not bad.

Posted by Sher 07/01/2010 at 04:01 PM

"As a fan, I was both shocked and thrilled at what I got to see last year (and at this year's AO, lest we forget). My one hope for Federer (and his fans) is that he can still enjoy playing and competing when he can't call on his "genius" any time he wants. "

Exactly, Christopher.

I hope that he maintains good humour about it.

Posted by Sushil 07/01/2010 at 04:06 PM

Your article is the one I was looking for. Surprisingly, most experienced tennis commentators on the web have either spoken too early on Federer's interview (Bodo) or chosen to keep quiet (Wertheim).

I do object to 2 comments:

a) I do not think you can always tell whether and how much a player might be injured by looking at him play. (You can probably tell if you played him then and did in the past as well.)

b) To lose a match at these stages is devastating for anyone, regardless of the stature of the player. I see no point in analyzing each word they said over and over again. With a hot mind, you may not make the best call on what should and should not be said during the interview. Players have to defend their chances for future (in that to keep other players from thinking that they are on a decline, if for some reason they are) and still have to appear as honest and likeable, it is all difficult for someone whose primary job is to play and not speak eloquently publically!

Posted by thebigapple 07/01/2010 at 04:17 PM

Of course, if one has spent years playing like the nectar of the gods then starting to serve lemonade is decline. This is decline even if everyone else if serving lemonade and water. Even if the #1,2,3,5 and everyone else is serving weak lemonade and stagnant water.

Still grateful to have nipped at the nectar.

Ok then, "Ice with my lemonade, please...extra sweet."

Posted by Ramos 07/01/2010 at 04:25 PM

I think hereafter there will not be any single player dominance afer Federer in the rankings since the very thin skill dividers and highly competitve skills build up. It will be free for all among top five players like musical chair. Nadal also can not contnue for long,the way he exerts extremely from his physical body.

Posted by Michele 07/01/2010 at 04:26 PM

Thanks for the fairest piece I've seen so far. It's been frustrating to see how quickly and gleefully the press (and some Nadal fans) have celebrated this loss and proclaimed the end of an era. As fans of the sport, you'd think there'd be more respect for the guy and what he continues to give to the game.

Be careful I say to those who might be reveling. You may not realize it now but you, too, will miss him when he's gone.

Posted by Tony 07/01/2010 at 04:26 PM

Question about this...

"Still, talk of his injuries perpetuates the idea that I mentioned earlier: That he can’t actually, really, officially lose a tennis match. It’s the same for Nadal on clay. His fans want to believe that he couldn’t possibly lose at the French Open to Soderling unless his knees had hindered him. Like I said, it’s a tribute to Federer and Nadal that they've made people think this way, that they've made people believe that the laws of tennis have been suspended for them."

Does Nadal claim he shouldn't lose on clay or is it just his fans? There's a big difference if you are trying to lump Federal and Nadal together in this.

Posted by Manly Norris 07/01/2010 at 04:26 PM

Peter Bodo put it best when he said that it seems "Federer is playing not to win, but not to lose." After beating Sampras' record and winning the French Open, most people, including Federer himself, liked to say the pressure had dimished, dissapeared even, because every pinnacle had been summited and surpased. The dynamic certainly did shift, but now towards the preservation of his image as the greatest player ever, which created a new, more cerebral kind of pressure in Federer's head. He's too competitive to blame in on motivation, and plays too effortlessly too blame it on injuries. This new mental pressure of self-preservation is source of his struggles.

Federer's reverence and respect for the history of the game and tradition only add fuel to this new pressure he feels. Look back to his loss to Nadal at the Australian Open 2009 when he broke down at the trophy ceremony. There he revealed not only his passion for the game, but also the weight of our expectations on him to uphold his dominance. Not only does he not want to let himself down by losing, he doesn't want to let his fans down. His unbelievable feeling on court comes from an acute self-awareness, which lends itself to excellent press conferences, but also to self-consciousness of his reputation, which is handcuffing his ability to play freely.

Posted by Alexis 07/01/2010 at 04:27 PM

Sher, you make an interesting point about maybe Fed finally wanting to say "hey... see I play with physical issues too sometimes". He's very aware that some media actually questioned the validity of his mono. I remember him saying that he was shocked by that - like why would they think I would lie about that??? Roger is one of the few top players who has been extremely guarded about his real physical status. He almost goes out of his way to always say "I'm fine" and I think he means it when he says it. He may not be 100%, but if he is planning on taking the court, then he's 'fine'.

It was unusual for Roger to offer up a description of a problem after a match, but it's not like he hadn't mentioned it already. He did say he was having trouble with his thigh at Halle and that's why he was wearing a thigh bandage during his second match. He did say he was 'fine' afterwards but as with many ailments - they can feel good one day and not so much the next. Rafa has said pretty much the same with his knees - good one day and bad the next.

Who knows? Maybe between the disappointment of the moment he just felt like he needed to be honest about his frustration. But good lord, it's not like Federer dissed Tomas and blamed his loss entirely on his back/thigh. He certainly didn't do that.

I get that some might not like that he mentioned a problem, but it's not like he does this often. He rarely does. And this was a guy that just the other day was very honest about how damn lucky he was to win his first match and that Falla should have won. Whether you think he was less than sporting yesterday (I don't), he is almost always gracious and certainly deserves a break after what had to be a tough, tough time for him.

Posted by Frances 07/01/2010 at 04:33 PM

Om man this sounds depressing but true

Posted by Ozone 07/01/2010 at 04:37 PM

Even Wertheim came out with an end of era article.

Look, I feel there is some decline, and there is aging etc. But, it is also a case of comparing this with the insane bar he had set before.

That is why this peice from Steve seems a bit more balanced.

Btw, I agree that, if you are fit to show up, then you are fit to play. Most players call MTOs for general massage, and Federer tries to not do this.

And it was not a good thing to mention those, for his own good. But, is it ok to mention the injury a little later (like his Mono, or Rafa's recent declaration that he was hurt when Roddick beat him in Miami)? Why is that better?

Also, Federer, if had back or thigh problems, may not have been big enough for him to not show up and everybody plays with some issues, but when you treat him like a normal player, then it is all good. But, if you are looking for "Genius on demand" which he has gotten everybody used to, having these issues wont help, particularly if your opponent is also playing well.

I think that is what happened here, all put together.

Posted by Prakash Sri 07/01/2010 at 04:40 PM

Very Meaningful article Steve. With few more history to be broken (Max. no of weeks as No.1, Olympics gold and Wimbledon 7th slam), I think Federer will be up for contention and would do everything to broke those records. He is a man with limitless love to Tennis and that is basically what the difference is between him and others. Coupled with natural talent he will come back and be even smarter than he has been on the court when playing big players.

He figured out the way to beat Djokvic, Murray and even Nadal to some extent. So it is not going to take a lot from him to do the same with those big guys is my feeling.

Posted by Benny 07/01/2010 at 04:40 PM

This is a great autopsy you wrote.
My one impression from the press conference is that Roger is very angry, probably more at himself than his opponent or the press. Hopefully he will recognize the adjustments he needs to make to offset these so called power players starting with Toronto. Mainly stop chipping the BH return on the deuce court and watching it get murderlized versus moving over a step or two as Cahill suggested, and look to return with the FH. A coach could help, but I guess he is to stubborn at this stage of his career.

Posted by Alexis 07/01/2010 at 04:41 PM

Tony.... in the Steven Tignor quote you post, he does say that the Fed and Rafa FANS don't believe their guys can lose without a physical problem.

Posted by Cata 07/01/2010 at 04:41 PM

"Unless he really falls off the map, though, I don’t think “decline” is the right word for what will likely happen to Federer. I’d call it a “return to reality."

but 'decline' is the right word for what you are describing (if anything, too weak a word). it doesn't matter that federer started from, let's say, supernatural heights and descended to merely the best (or one of the five best) mortals - it is still a decline. i really see no point in pretending otherwise.

Posted by Bookshere 07/01/2010 at 04:45 PM

Very nicely considered review of the match and of Federer's overall performance at Wimbledon. In this sentence, however, there's a little contradiction, don't you think?: "It’s almost as if he’s failed us, failed to prove that good—i.e., the superior player—will always win out in the end."

Superior players do usually win in the end - it just isn't always Federer that is the superior player, as Nadal has shown on 14 out of 21 occasions when the 2 men have played each other. Federer is a great, great player, but when confronted with great play (as with Berdych yesterday) or with great players like Nadal, he doesn't always have the tools to win.

Posted by Fernando 07/01/2010 at 04:47 PM

he needs to change his NOW !!!!! if he want to keep up with younger and stronger players...

Posted by Alexis 07/01/2010 at 04:47 PM

As a Fed fan, I don't have a problem with the media questioning whether an 'era' is over or not. There's no doubt that the Federer era where he dominated week-in-and-week-out... like his 2006 where he made the finals of every tournament but one... is over. At almost 29 and with a family, he is never going to duplicate that. I mean, he had the best 3-year run of any #1 ever where he won double-digit titles and had single-digit losses.

So is THAT era over? Sure. But Fed himself is not over. He'll play like TMF again and he'll probably win a few more majors.

Heck... the fact that my boy has an ERA is pretty damn awesome!! :)

Posted by TB 07/01/2010 at 04:48 PM

Good article, very balanced and reasonable. I fint that people in general are total bandwagoners, and are quick to make bold judements and predictions off i or 2 incidents. Fed is getting older, and guys in the late 20s just start losing more, why analyze it to death. No, its unlikely he will dominate or even be number 1 again, but to conclude he is finished is absurd reasoning. It seems quite likely he can still win 1 to 3 more majors, and continue to be a major threat at any tourny he enters. I think the big guys taking over tennis theme is a tired played out narrative.

Posted by Alexis 07/01/2010 at 04:50 PM

Bookshere wrote: "Superior players do usually win in the end - it just isn't always Federer that is the superior player, as Nadal has shown on 14 out of 21 occasions when the 2 men have played each other. Federer is a great, great player, but when confronted with great play (as with Berdych yesterday) or with great players like Nadal, he doesn't always have the tools to win."

Okay, Berdych was the superior player 'on the day'. Soderling was the superior player 'on the day' against Rafa at last year's FO. But I don't think anyone thinks Berdych is the overall superior player to Roger or that Soderling is the overall superior player to Nadal.

Posted by Rockin'Robin 07/01/2010 at 04:51 PM

Great piece steve.

Heres the thing guys: I LOVE Federer, but the dude is a human being, not a robot. And he IS getting older. What did people think? That Fed would win 37 grand slams and retire when he was 44 because he is embarassed and wants to give other people a chance??? Fed will continue to be a factor, no doubt. But he IS on the decline because he IS getting older. Personally I think he'll win two more majors before he retires and at the very least he'll get one more. But 17 grand slam titles isn't exactly what i'd call a bad career ;)

Posted by mightywind 07/01/2010 at 04:54 PM

Steve - great column. I have been one of those perplexed by the way Roger plays at times. He seems to really prefer utilizing the short ball, whether it's the backhand slice or, as you pointed out, the netted forehand at 4-all, break point in the fourth. No one else seems to rely so exclusively on this strategy. Even Murray, who is a wizard at changing speeds, seems to realize that in this new day, depth is critical. Roger did not make a lot of UFE's yesterday. He simply left a load of balls short of the service line that Berdych...I don't know how else to say it...SMOTE. I agree that it's hard to figure out what exactly Plan B is against the Lurches who are crowding the top 10. You have to take their legs out, like Rafa does. I'm not sure what else works.

Posted by Alexis 07/01/2010 at 04:55 PM

And heck... is Lu the superior player to Roddick? No! But he was superior the other day, that's for sure.

Posted by Alexis 07/01/2010 at 04:58 PM

"You have to take their legs out, like Rafa does. I'm not sure what else works. "

But how long can that work? And does it really work? Before Delpo got hurt he had beaten Roger the last two times and Rafa the last THREE times they played. So, Rafa's plan isn't necessarily the right one either.

Posted by FED FRED 07/01/2010 at 04:58 PM

Excuses Excuses....

What a poor sport Fed was by not giving Byrdich any credit.

Posted by ActionFlunky 07/01/2010 at 04:58 PM

Nice article. Liked the focus on the match itself, the slight elegy regarding his career, and giving him the benefit of the doubt in his presser.

And yes, like a few have already mentioned here, it was that QF line that threw me more than any injury talk. The ground has shifted beneath Federer's feet, and he knows it. But that's okay. He's no dummy, and as Tignor and others have indicated, he should still compete for Slams and be a threat to make a little noise in the second week.

But yes, the Roger of three Slams is gone for good. He ain't ever coming back. These last two Slam losses (SF streak over at FO; Wimby finals streak cut short) are enough evidence for this fan. Twilight is upon us. Funny enough, in some ways I think the guy who might miss Fed's domination the most will be Toni Nadal.

Posted by agastya 07/01/2010 at 05:00 PM

as a huge Fed fan, as much as I was bummed yesterday, I got to say I'm really looking forward to the semis and finals frazzle-free and without a horse in the race. All the remaining guys have a game that's fun to watch! I'm rooting for Murray to go all the way for purely sentimental reasons - I felt for the guys after the AO!

As for the Fed - He's not going anywhere and will be giving us fans a few more years of "genius" moments. That I am sure of and all I ask for, and in any case, this is why DVD's were invented in the first place! Men's tennis is in a good place now and Del Potro and maybe guys like Gulbis will enter the naraative next year..two more exciting guys to watch...its all good!

Posted by Tony 07/01/2010 at 05:02 PM


"Tony.... in the Steven Tignor quote you post, he does say that the Fed and Rafa FANS don't believe their guys can lose without a physical problem."

I agree with the notion that fans are that way, but I did not interpret that as what Steve was saying. Witness:

"He’s [Federer is] one of those champions—Pete Sampras and the Williams sisters are three others—who don’t believe they should lose if they’re playing the way they should."

It sounds as though he was talking about Fed having this attitude, no?

Posted by Rafalicious 07/01/2010 at 05:03 PM

Alexis, Fed hasn't been superior since the AO. He has had an incredible career, but clearly he IS on the decline. Either that or he needs to figure out a way to get past these big flat hitters. Unless he is willing to change and adapt, expect more early exits.

Posted by Rockin'Robin 07/01/2010 at 05:05 PM

for fun, here are my predictions for the semis:

Berdych defeats Djokovic in 4 sets

Nadal defeats Murray in 4 sets

Nadal defeats Berdych for the championship.

Please feel free to let me know if you guys agree or disagree :)

Posted by Vijay 07/01/2010 at 05:06 PM

The one thing that irks me as a Fed fan is his stubbornness to continue with the same equipment when there are better options out there. I guess all great ones fall under the stubborn category - like when Sampras lost to Kuerten for the first time, Kuerten was the pioneer of co-poly strings while Pete stuck to his 85" frame with 80lb tension. If you watch the highlights, you can see the amazing guga (or Safin or Hewitt) neutralizing Pete's serve with newer equipment. I lamented Sampras' stubbornness then and I am lamenting Roger's stubbornness now. Heck, Hewitt switched to 93 from a 90 and has found some some late improvement in his game. It's exasperating watching probably the greatest talent in sporting history going to waste due to this.

Posted by SimonSays 07/01/2010 at 05:07 PM

Excellent read once again.

i think Berdych played great. i also like the comment "who don’t believe they should lose if they’re playing the way they should."

this reminds me of the late great Arton Senna... he believed that no one could or should be better than him, and when he finally soften up after all those years he died. im not trying to say that Federer is going to die, but when these types of players start to become soft in a sense, their decline is very dramatic

Posted by noa 07/01/2010 at 05:09 PM

about that "new breed" - there's nothing new bout them! Fed has beaten Delpo 6 times before DP got the better of him. he owned Sod about 10-12 times and kicked Berdych's ass 8 times.

what does that tell you? Fed knows how to beat those giants, but nowadays he is slightly older, half a step slower, slightly less focused and not as hungry as before. this is why those big guys, as well as a bunch of other talented players that never bothered TMF, are now beating him.

Posted by Vijay 07/01/2010 at 05:10 PM

Why is he still trying to prove he can win using the same stick? We all know how great Roger is, and it won't diminish anything by accepting that at his age he needs a little more help from your equipment. Heck he switched to a 90 from an 85 as a kid years ago, so moving to a 93 or a 95 is not going to hurt him, especially when the courts are not getting any faster...

Posted by Alexis 07/01/2010 at 05:13 PM

Rafalicious, Fed hasn't been good at all since the AO. But I believe that when Fed is at his best, he is the superior player to Berdych. When Rafa is playing his best, he is the superior player to Soderling. That was my point.

Posted by Alexis 07/01/2010 at 05:18 PM

Tony, I think that every great champion believes that about himself - that if he is playing great, he should win. Absolutely! Serena is probably more vocal about that attitude than most, but I think all great ones feel that way - Jordan, Tiger, etc. And yes, Sampras and Fed as well. I think Nadal certainly feels that way on clay.

Posted by JJB 07/01/2010 at 05:18 PM

To me the biggest news of the past 1.5 years is the ascendence of players in "mid-career" when we thought they already peaked and had acquired the labels "underachievers". Berdych is the most recent example but there's also Verdasco, Soderling, Davydenko, and Isner. A couple years back everyone became fixated on the new wave of Djokovic, Murray, Gasquet, Monfils, and Querrey. Then there was another wave of Del Potro, Cilic, and Gulbis. And all this time the veteran players have excelled. I think this is good news for pro tennis, showing that players can still improve when we've written them off and it's not only about young, raw talent.

Posted by Alexis 07/01/2010 at 05:21 PM

Hey Vijay... didn't Sampras say after retirement that he regretted being stubborn about his racquet? Maybe he can convince Fed to at least look into changing.

But honestly, I get why both Sampras and now Fed would be resistant. Hard to tell a guy who has won so much that what they are using is not working.

Posted by FoT 07/01/2010 at 05:23 PM

Alexis - you've posted some great post here! Thumbs up to you! I agree with everything you said!

Steve - good article.

The one thing I don't like about sport writers (or some) is that they try to get the 'oh my' headlines to get people to read their stories. And they try to start stuff in the interview like some kept pressing the question to Berdyce about what they said Roger said. Thank goodness Berdych didn't take the bait.

I think we need to cut all these players some slack. When players lose, they are upset and to answer all these questions right after a lost is too much to 'disect' word for word. Someone said Roger didn't get Berdych any credit. Wrong. Instead of just pointing out that Roger said he was slightly injured, he also said:

ROGER FEDERER: Uhm, well, I mean, I don't think I played poorly. But, uhm, I think he went after it. I mean, I know Berdych. I think I've played him 10 times already before. That's the way he plays, you know.
I think he's been able to play more consistent last year or so..."

ROGER FEDERER: But, you know, he's been playing well, and these guys do play very well. I played these guys 10 times

ROGER FEDERER: Yeah, I mean, his mistakes and my mistakes. You know, he played well when he had to. It was brutal for me. Every time he had a chance, he took it. On the breakpoints, he played great on those.

Posted by ActionFlunky 07/01/2010 at 05:25 PM

"but 'decline' is the right word for what you are describing (if anything, too weak a word). it doesn't matter that federer started from, let's say, supernatural heights and descended to merely the best (or one of the five best) mortals - it is still a decline. i really see no point in pretending otherwise."

Agreed (and I say that as a Fed fan). "Return of reality" just seemed like a euphemism and more respectful way of putting it. And FWIW, I thought Fed lost a quarter/half-step a couple/few years ago. Anything post-25 or 26 is usually gravy for most of the legends in the open era. I give Fed a ton of credit for putting off age and "reality" as long as he did.

Posted by Alexis 07/01/2010 at 05:32 PM

Yeah, there is no doubt that from the level Roger was at... he's definitely declined from that. How could he not?? He still his brilliant play, but the consistency has been AWOL for a while now. I've noticed his RoS being a real liability for a few years now. He's got some work to do, no doubt.

Posted by JD Lewis 07/01/2010 at 05:33 PM

Manly Norris - re: Peter Bodo put it best when he said that it seems "Federer is playing not to win, but not to lose."

seems is the operative word here. an injury will make things seem this way.

correct observation. wrong conclusion.

all one has to do here is listen to TMF himself. but what would he know, right. he's just so out of touch with reality that he won 16 major titles. yeah, that's pretty out of touch alright! untouchable, i'd say! :-)

the press got their "knickers in a twist" because TMF suggested they to do their own work as opposed to bring him into a sucker's story line about Murray. Fed has to much respect for his fellow players to do that. so they took their revenge. pathetic.

Posted by Alex 07/01/2010 at 05:51 PM

Don't worry, Federer will still win 18-20 slams.

Posted by FoT 07/01/2010 at 06:02 PM

This is an interview with Roger and the BBC after the match. Maybe this will stop the people who said Roger was only blaming injuries on his loss. He gives Berdych a lot of credit in this interview and also talks about these 'same media' folks! lol!

Posted by charlie 07/01/2010 at 06:10 PM

The fact is that Fed needs a coach, a new racquet, new strings and a new wife... to stay on top.

Posted by Corrie 07/01/2010 at 06:12 PM

Of course it's the end of the Federer era. Now on to support the next era of young great players. That's how it always goes in tennis.

Posted by noleisthebest 07/01/2010 at 06:16 PM

There is no need to historically judge Federer. It's like you're trying to bury a live person.
Life is not black and white. It's colourful. It's beautiful. Federer is his late summer is majestic in his vulnerability.

Posted by andrea 07/01/2010 at 06:19 PM

i like this article because it puts in perspective what the media and fans have been accustomed to seeing from someone who preternaturally dominated the sport for so long that we came to believe that that was the natural order of things: roger federer would win.

let's face it. no other player that i can recall has ever had such expectations on them. even sampras (outside of wimbledon) was never touted as being the one to win in practically every tournament. and since roger was that guy - the guy that always won, the guy that would find a way to get out of a sticky situation - we assumed it would always happen. at least in the GS's.

reality is right.

and for those who knock the fact that roger creamed everyone for those 3 years or so - claiming no competition - this article is for you. not only was roger that much better, but he was beating everyone all the time, which makes the losers disbelief grow and the winners belief that he can keep on winning grow. now the tables have turned and it's far more can roger carve out a win when he's not the top contender to win?

Posted by Ramana 07/01/2010 at 07:04 PM

Roger believes that he is better player than the others. Think about this; if you play USTA league and for the last 5 years you handily beat Joe Shmoe of the other team without dropping a set or even getting to 6-3 (considered as competitive by the USTA computer system logic)and then here is Joe S playing you the 6th year and you lose and go back to club house and your captain asks "What happened?" Mr. Tignor I am betting you will say "I did not play well/could'nt move well/was tired/etc etc" NOT "Joe Shmoe has improved tremendously and he is a better player than me"... Why are the pro's any different including Mr. Federer? Even if they say it on T.V I dont believe them. Just think about it Roger for most of adult life has beaten Davydenko/Soderling/Berdych/Ferrer just like you beat the hypothetical Joe Shmoe, why would he admit that Berdych is a better player - if he does he is lying

Posted by Mandeep Ghuman 07/01/2010 at 07:07 PM

An apt report on the match in particular and tennis (and life) in general. Steve's insights are objective and do not sensationalize the subject matter. He also doesn't fall prey to opportunism and a flip-flopping 'great in hindsight' analysis. This article was neither Fed's autopsy nor was it a criticism on his post match comments. Just a 'human' read on Fed.

Posted by Spitzenklanger Schickelgruber 07/01/2010 at 07:17 PM

Pete Sampras never made excuses for losing.

And he never said he thought he should always win.

After beating Agassi at the Wimbledon final in 1999? Sampras said specifically that he did not expect to beat Agassi every time they play, but was fortunate that day.

Posted by Spitzenklanger Schickelgruber 07/01/2010 at 07:20 PM

Federer seems to be lacking muscle tone.

Right now he has Olive Oil's arms.

He is not skinny enough to get away with it especially with all the big hacks he must take.

He should get Agassi's old trainer and run some hills and pump some iron.

But he has already accomplished so much in tennis, would that be worth it to him?

Posted by Geellis 07/01/2010 at 07:23 PM

I guess one interesting question is from what perspective we measure decline. Folks here are measuring it from the perspective of his results. Since he's not winning as comprehensively as before, he has declined. That's certainly one way to view this and it has a certain simplicity that makes it attractive. But I'm not sure it's wholly accurate.

I would argue that the truth is closer to a combination of factors that include fed's slight decline on the one hand, paired with the improvement of new players in the field on the other. Furthermore, I think the psychological edge he's lost is perhaps the single greatest difference in his results. We just see fewer and fewer players playing with fear against fed. I have always believed that Fed's greatest advantage over the field was not so much in his game, but rather in having decisively won the psychological battle in the lockerroom.

Now b4 folks go nuts, I am not saying that Federer was not "superior" to his rivals (esp. his contemporaries). What I am saying is that the difference was not as great as his win/loss records from '03-07 would suggest. He was not THAT MUCH better than the field. But they believed it then. And as a result, they pressed when they didn't need to and routinely snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. And the loss of this psychological advantage is, to my mind, the greatest flaw in Fed's admitted attitude towards the non-majors. The more common it becomes for nobodys to beat you at other large, though non-GS events, the more guys will be gunning for you at the majors. And that's what we've seen. Fewer and fewer players giving up. Fewer and fewer players trying to play beyond themselves in order to win. If players had always played Federe with this attitude, he would never have amassed the records he did. But, alas, they did not and he did. But things are different now and he's unlikely to ever achieve significant dominance again (though there's no reason to expect him not to continue to be a fantastic player; he is Federer after all).

Posted by Spitzenklanger Schickelgruber 07/01/2010 at 07:28 PM

I would say "Congratulations to Joe Schmoe - he outplayed me today and beat me."

Posted by Spitzenklanger Schickelgruber 07/01/2010 at 07:41 PM

Remember the end of the Sampras era?

It was when when Federer beat him at Wimbledon.

Posted by jim 07/01/2010 at 07:44 PM

are you lot nuts with your bodo bashing? he's the only one who can write on this site... this is journalism

Posted by Mardy 07/01/2010 at 07:52 PM

This is the best article I've read about this so far. I've been desperately looking for someone who understand that winning consistently is the exception, not the norm. Thank you for being intelligent enough to write this!

Regarding the controversial QF comment, my understanding is that RF thinks it's disrespectful to other players to call QF at a GS a disappointment, since many of them would love to be there. That's based on the context and some of his previous interviews. He doesn't want to be whining about getting knocked out of a QF when many others only dream of making it there, which is a commendable attitude.

Posted by eric 07/01/2010 at 08:09 PM

it's nice to see guys taking matches they should win against fed. it's really tiring to see so many guys outplay him, then lose because they couldn't stand the nerves of closing it out. now that federer's not getting any freebies, he's going to have to work harder and play his best every time. he just gets snotty that he's losing that aura of invincibility.

Posted by Bookshere 07/01/2010 at 08:22 PM

Of course, that's what I meant. Neither Fed or Rafa is always the winning player against any player with a great game day (as Rafa himself has said many times), but what I meant is that against Nadal, Federer is not the superior player, quite the contrary. But truly, up to now, against all other players, Fed HAS been the consistently superior player. That was my point in relation to Steve's article.

Posted by TheMightyFunk 07/01/2010 at 08:27 PM

Geelis - "I am not saying that Federer was not "superior" to his rivals (esp. his contemporaries). What I am saying is that the difference was not as great as his win/loss records from '03-07 would suggest. He was not THAT MUCH better than the field. "

Of course, no arguments there, and I'd add that's probably true of every dominant superstar in every sport ever - MJ, Tiger, Laver, Sampras, and today Nadal I'd think all had/have that advantage. The interesting thing would be to see when that "tipping point" happened when that "aura" set in and becomes an advantage...obviously all these guys have to win dominantly and consistently for some time without that aura in order for that advantage to kick in, right? Not making any point here - just think its quite interesting to follow the evolution of a superstar from talent to another player to star, to legendary superstar with aura...

Posted by Euphemism 07/01/2010 at 08:31 PM

Safin was a big guy who could hit bombs, but who also moved and rallied well (officially, he's listed in the ATP guides as 6'4", but McEnroe and others have pointed out that he's actually closer to 6'5"). He, perhaps more than any other player of his generation, prefigured this current wave of flat-hitting big-boy players. Safin's inconsistency came primarily from his personal eccentricities, not any flaw in his game, but he also was constantly bedeviled by serious injuries (back, knees, wrist) - a problem that bigger players seem to have to worry about more than most, and which Delpo is obviously the most conspicuous victim of right now.

Posted by Game Lover 07/01/2010 at 08:33 PM


While I see how a back and leg problems would slow anyone, including Roger down, wasn't he slow in the previous events as well? It seemed so to me.

My predictions:

Rafa beat Murray in 5
Nole beats Berdych in 4

Rafa beats Nole in 3 in the final :)

Ah and nice to see a Romanian (Horia Tecau 32 ATP singles) in the men's doubles final!

With a swiss against Melzer and Petzchner:

Championship Has not started
16 Robert Lindstedt / Horia Tecau
Jürgen Melzer / Philipp Petzschner

Have you guys been playing tennis yourselves lately? (I do practically daily and enjoy the new BLX Wilson 6.1.95 frame)


Let's go Rafa, let's go!

Posted by wilson75 07/01/2010 at 08:46 PM

Well balanced article. I don't understand the desire of some in the media to pronounce the end of Federer. I've no reason to doubt that he is struggling physically. It's quite possible that he's been having these problems since he came back in March but chose to play through them. I hope during his time off he can get back in shape and challenge for the USO and other titles. I wonder what the press would say if he ends up winning the USO.

Posted by roderick 07/01/2010 at 08:55 PM

I will allow Roger a lot of forgiveness for what he said or may have meant. I am just grateful that he came along and created a new generations of tennis players who had to rise to his standard in order to defeat him. We have a field that is very deep right now, and if it means that the taller players have to depend on more than a booming serve and volley in order to win Wimbledon or any surface, then we have Roger to thank for that.
Remember the "Funhouse" cartoons NBC would rattle when Roger seemed to just toy with his opponents? Unless the guys on the other side of the net improved, we would still be seeing them. Great tennis has been in our midst for many years, and will be for years to come because Roger played and because Rafa challenged. Thank you gentlemen; I am forever grateful.

Posted by Flyer 07/01/2010 at 09:22 PM

Do not agree with every statement - but overall this was indeed a thoughtful and balanced article.


Posted by grandslam10 07/01/2010 at 09:37 PM

Great post Steve

Posted by David 07/01/2010 at 09:42 PM

Hello everyone! Am I a complete idiot for not knowing what a "KAD" is??? Could someone kindly define this elusive term for me! Thanks (and praying Nadal wins his semi :))

Posted by Marty 07/01/2010 at 10:06 PM

Funny, thing is that if fed wins the US Open he has had a great year and all this goes away. But he is getting pushed around by the tall flat hitters. I have been watching Fed for years and it just seems like his reflexes are a nanosecond slower on service returns which is why he is having trouble breaking the big hitters. His reurns are weak and he can"t rcover to take control of the point. Really no way to adjust to that, I'm afraid.

Posted by CL 07/01/2010 at 10:08 PM

David - I doubt very much you are a complete idiot as you seem to be able to write in complete that's a good sign! :-)

A KAD stands for Kool Aid Drinker...someone who goes beyond being a fan of a particular player and into a kind of alternate reality, obsessive devotion to the player. Check Wiki or Urban Dictionary for a complete explanation of the term.

Posted by feedforward 07/01/2010 at 10:11 PM

Sam and I have been discussing for years how we have not seen the free flowing Federer of 2004 and 2005. In those days, each big match had its share of genius and Roger seemed to share our wonderment about his capacity to pull off marvelous shots when he most needed them. Now, as Pete has said, he really does play not to lose and we all know (no matter our level) that such a mentality never brings out our best. We have put that expectation of perfectoin on Roger and he has bought into it. Yes, his strong winning record has helped him win many matches when he was down, but it has kept him from playing glorious lights out tennis.

In cases like Soderling and Berdych, he has counted on their self destructing at crucial times like Berdych did at AO two years ago. But Berdych is not doing that and is winning a few key points that make the difference including saving a break point with a touch volley (backhand) when Roger hit a pretty good passing shot. Redo that set point in the third at Roland Garros where Roger got the overhead from way behind the baseline and yet Soderling pulled off the high backhand volley and lo and behold, Roger would be up two sets to one. Del Potro could not pull off the win at Roland Garros last year, but he did not miss when it ocunted in Flushing Meadow and Roger played a ocuple of points tentatively when he could have been up two sets to love.

Another thing--Roger (and other players) seem to be hitting sitters back at the opponent when the old Roger almost seemed to have sixth sense of when to go behind the player or when to hit into the open court. He was almost playing the Inner Tennis advocated by Tim Gallwey in the 70's, not only not being concerned about form but where to hit the ball. Now he is self conscious and while still marvelous, not the Federer unfettered by expectation. Really hard to see that again, although he could return at any moment when he lets go of these expectations and plays tennis for fun and freedom.

Yes, he should be free now that he has the 16 majors but he still has the pesky Nadal H2H and tries too hard against Rafael (witness the Madrid final when he should have at least one the second set but blew the easiest drop shot of all and then went AWOL). He really has forgotten how to win the big one (Baghdatis, Berdych, Montanes, Soderling, Davydenko) all matches he either should have won or should have forced to another set. Like they say about former champs in the pro leagues who cruise until the playoffs, few of them can simply turn it on at crunch time. Sure, Roger should keep his well regulated schedule, but should win at lesat two Masters series per year, if not more. Maybe his days of winning IW and Miami back to back, but he has not been to the finals in either for three years now. He should win at least one, one on clay, and either Canada or Cincy. No reason not to and they would take not that much more out of him than losing in the quarters.

So, will being #3 free him or depress him? Mirka, keep reminding him, "You are Roger Federer." Technically, he is hitting just enough top spin on his forehand to allow players back in the point (may be valuable on clay), but he did not nail a couple of inside out forehands against Berdych and they cost him as Berdych got the ball back as he did on one crucial point in the last game. Had Roger not let him get that lob back, he probably broken and may have pulled out the match.

As Steve said, in many of these key matches, the change of one or two points changes the outcome. It has been other worldy how many of these points Roger and Rafael have made over the years. This year Roger has not won those points and has not won since AO. Nadal did not win those points from USOpen through Hard court season and now he is winning them again. But he has not faced Del Potro playing his best nor Djokovic all year or beaten Murray in a while. Nadal has not played Federer except in Madrid in a long time either. The same big players who are giving Roger trouble have hit through Rafael (he did lose all three matches at YEC), but he seems to have solved Soderling, but not played Juan Martin, Davydenko, or Novak playing well this year.

If everhone is back playing well, I doubt anyone will win three majors in a season for a while, probably not even two. We will see.

Draws will always matter. Nadal had an easy draw in Roland Garros. What looked like a tough draw at W became a cake walk until Soderling as Gulbis was not well and Isner was crippled by that insane match against Mahut (Nadal did not want to play either in peak form). Roger looked like he had an easy draw but Berdych is tough now just as Soderling played great in Paris. Nadal was down two sets to one against nobodies. Who knows? Stay tuned. No physical resaon Roger cannot come back. Nadal's career was over late last year and now he seems super human again. It is really hard to sustain that top level of play. Just look--Justine is out the entire hard court season.

Posted by michael 07/01/2010 at 10:17 PM

No one can determine, only speculate, if Roger's career is on the decline.I am not so quick to write him off,for you cannot judge a remaining career based on a not quite up to par spring and summer.I think Roger feels some pressure, although I am at a loss as to where it is coming from, the nature of it. I agree, as some have stated,that maybe we have come to expect too much too often and for the record, I plead guilty. I have seen his unrivaled ability on display so often that I expected no less than near perfection between the lines. I can say with much exuberance that I have seen a mortal play this game the way it has never been played before and I count myself fortunate to have been alive to see it first hand, while it was happening,rewriting the record books and dominating like no one has before or will again. Yes ,I have been riding the Fed Express and have been enjoying the ride and it is a good ride, so good, I'm not ready to get off just yet.

Posted by JD Lewis 07/01/2010 at 11:16 PM

feedforward - superb analysis! thank you!

would only add that some of this free flowing has to be related to physical condition, as Fed himself pointed out.

Posted by t.ks 07/01/2010 at 11:31 PM

Fed's only 28 years of age, why all you guys think his lost to Berdych was a sign of his decline. He got so many tough years from 2003 to 2010 (8 years) 16 grand slams. Samprass got 14 slams from his 10 or more. It's good for him I think he lost so he'd have time to rest, take care of his back and his health. I always notice when Fed lost his match, just some of the writers support him, most try to blame and accuse him as if he's a criminal. It's differnt from what you behave to Nadal, many times in the court, Nadal took advantages from his opponents, time or coach from his uncle. Noone blamed him when he took too much time before serving. When he lost everyone supported his injuries.
Now Fed tried to say he got sth wrong with his back, noone believed in him, that means all you guys need Fed to retire because his era is ended from this lost? I think Fed is too good in and off court so you can do or say everything stupid to him. Well, let's see how far Berdych's ego takes him to what level in tennis from now on, oh ...think of Del Porto, when his wrist will become normal again (his wrist was in danger after taking US Open champ 2009). Look at his points perhaps he'll be out of top ten this year, poor.. Del Por. Wait to see Fed makes you all disappointed when he returns.

Posted by pat 07/01/2010 at 11:32 PM

Has anyone seen mention yet of how much practice Roger got before Wimbly? I wonder this especially because of the way he started against Falla; he looked positively rusty. Does anyone know what his training schedule was like before?

There have been two things I wonder about Federer playing on into his thirties as he claims:

a) does that mean playing on just to play, without being at the very top anymore, or do you really need to try and either win Slams and/or be Number One again?
b) is he prepared to work as hard to stay on top as he had to getting there? And is that perhaps becoming a bit of a challenge now with a family?

I wonder about the second part here. Maybe we got a glimpse of that at Wimbledon.

Posted by pov 07/01/2010 at 11:33 PM

It's funny - Federer is so esteemed (rightfully) that as soon as a couple tall players beat him people begin to wonder if tall guys will now dominate tennis. Well, at the moment Rafa and other top 5 players don't seem to be having any trouble sending the tall gents packing. We'll see what happens with Djokovic tomorrow.

I think Fed's main problem is that he stopped improving his game. He needs to pick up the slack.

Posted by pov 07/01/2010 at 11:40 PM

David Ferrer is 5'9" and seems to be doing alright for himself. Better than Berdych so far anyway

Posted by pov 07/01/2010 at 11:45 PM

There are plenty of ways to improve reaction time. Much of it is mind-set. And if you're going by by what the "scientists" tell you, some studies have had results indicating that people in their 30s have a faster reaction time than those in their 20s. So . .yeah . .no need to be all afraid and stuff.

Posted by pov 07/01/2010 at 11:49 PM

There are plenty of ways to improve reaction time. Much of it is mind-set. And if you're going by by what the "scientists" tell you, some studies have had results indicating that people in their 30s have a faster reaction time than those in their 20s. So . .yeah . .no need to be all afraid and stuff.

Posted by Geellis 07/01/2010 at 11:56 PM

I sometimes really wonder what matches some commenters on here were watching. You said: "Nadal had an easy draw in Roland Garros. What looked like a tough draw at W became a cake walk until Soderling as Gulbis was not well and Isner was crippled by that insane match against Mahut (Nadal did not want to play either in peak form)."

Honestly what planet were you on when these matches were being played. Since you obviously didn't personally watch the matches and only looked at the rankings, you should see if you can find clips of the matches themselves. Additionally, take a look at the amazing stats Nadal posted during these so-called "cakewalk" matches and, from that, you should get a pretty accurate sense of the level of competition posted by Haase and Petzschner. Honestly man, you have no idea what you're talking about. Tennis is not played on stat sheets. It's played on courts and Haase and Petzschner gave Nadal all he could handle. In the process, they helped prepare him for Soderling. And you say Nadal did not wish to face Gulbis or Isner in top form? Seriously, do you actually follow this game. Nadal, and three time Wimbledon finalist and one time champion didn't want to face Gulbis or Isner? Seriously. In the immortal words of Whitney Houston, crack is wack. Step away from the pipe dude. Gulbis has never made it beyond the first round at Wimby and Isner just played his first Wimby, yet you amazingly state that a guy who's been in the last 3 finals of the Wimbys in which he's entered (and seems likely to make it into a 4th consecutive final when he's played the tournament) would, somehow, be afraid of those two players? With their records at Wimby. It's such an absurd argument I should not have even responded. But I could not help myself.

Posted by Geellis 07/01/2010 at 11:58 PM

I meant, Gulbis has never made it beyond the second round and Isner just played his first Wimby.

Posted by Russ 07/02/2010 at 12:02 AM

After a day of seething, I cowboyed up to come here. Very nice read.

Posted by Vishal 07/02/2010 at 12:04 AM

Dear Steve,
Good Write...
You did mention (and i believe it too) that Federer may still win couple of slams but what i am wondering now is that how is he going to achieve that... With Rafa Roger lived for long in denial mode and now there are more losses against other players... i am not sure how long he can continue to rationalize them by not giving credit to the opponents. Do you think that he needs an external voice (in the form of a coach) which may give him a different and more realistic perspective to help him maximize the returns (in terms of titles) from his remaining career. It appears that a different attitude/approach is needed which Roger seems (as of now) incapable of ...primarily because he doesnt want to change the winning formula (attitude/approach) which has served him well for so long.

Posted by hello miami 07/02/2010 at 01:04 AM

i think in every sport all great athletes at one point start to loose and this is super normal. however, bashing roger in 2010 is a joke. he won australian open with 2 new born kids and wife. plus he is QF is wimbldn.

he has been a great champ and hopefully in the future someone replaces him as technical as him.

cheers !

Posted by charlie 07/02/2010 at 01:56 AM

Even beating all global records lately, Federer didn´t improve anything for the last 2 years, so his tennis declined long time ago.. if we take a look at Nadal´s, Djokovic´s, Murray´s, Berdych´s and Soderling´s numbers and we compare results and statts between Fed and them, including head to heads...

Big dominator Federer? Yes of course if we talk Roddick, Hewitt, Nabaldian, Safin and Davydenko...I mean his generation...

Not this one!!!

Posted by An Indian fan 07/02/2010 at 02:07 AM

A good article, much better than that of Pete's yesterday where he virtually trashed and lampooned Roger for his Presser. The champion certainly deserves a better Press, given his status in the game. Perhaps Pete got carried away with his thoughts and decided that the best way to draw attention to himself is by lampooning the Champion. There is no gainsaying the fact that many inferior players, including among his contemporaries, get much better Press than Roger, probably because their PR is better or give better gifts to the Press!

Posted by Sandra 07/02/2010 at 02:10 AM

I just don't know why Tomas is so upset. I heard Roger's interview and he basically stated that Tomas outplayed him. What is his problem. Did he think Roger was going to praise him from the roof tops for winning. He needs to watch what he says, it might come back to bite him on Friday. Maybe Thomas needs a few "gracious" lessons.

Posted by court1234 07/02/2010 at 02:39 AM

I just hope at this point...Roger doens't heed the greek chorus and get a With what's left in his career , whether one year of five,I feel he shold play it on his terms.

Posted by Storm 07/02/2010 at 03:02 AM

Yep. Federer has transformed tennis forever. He made is beautiful, stylish and heroic. I hope he plays at a top level for a few more years. Because once he retires, I don't see the Berdychs, the Djokovics, the Murrays or the Nadals generating that much passion as Federer has. None of those brilliant one-handeded backhands, topspin forehands and ridiculous drop shots. Just pure power and server. I hope its not the decline of the game.

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