One of the best, and cruelest, aspects of tennis is that there is nowhere to hide.
Football, soccer, rugby, cricket… in all of these sports, one can rely, or even blame, other teammates for a day’s performance or bad mistake. Individual stars aren’t expected to shine every time his team takes to the pitch.
Even the judges, referees, and coaches can be blamed for a “subpar” performance or unsuccessful game plans.
In tennis, you might be an all-time great—even the all-time great—and yet you are only as effective as the forehands, backhands, decisions, and tactics you are making on any given day.
Roger Federer stands exposed, in all his brilliance or all his disarray, in every match and every appearance he makes.
While it might take some time to realize that an athlete or star in another sport is vulnerable, tennis provides an abundance of evidence. And fast.
It is in this ruthless world that Federer has had to struggle simultaneously with physically and mentally damaging mononucleosis, a physically and mentally strengthening Rafael Nadal, and a physically and mentally maturing tennis field.
Federer is devolving from the single shining star, the lion with a killer forehand, into an edgy mortal with performance anxiety and overflowing frustration.
He has won one tournament since his 13th Grand Slam victory at the US Open last year and has not won an event in four attempts so far this year, with the clay-court season—a difficult territory in his tennis kingdom—now underway.
So far, Federer has not left us guessing how much it hurts. The painful, emotional tears in defeat at the Australian Open epitomised his frustration, sadness, and anger as he faded in the fifth set against Rafael Nadal.
There was the racket smashing at the Masters 1000 event in Miami early in the third set of his error-strewn semifinal loss to one of his recurring devils, Novak Djokovic.
Still, in these brief outbursts of emotion, Federer did not lose his typical cool completely. In Miami, he simply reached down to pick up the battered frame and flicked it in the direction of his courtside chair.
But for an understated champion to whom appearances matter, it was as if he had begun yanking out his hair and shrieking “Why me!?” to all who listened.
Perhaps these recent on-court outbursts are exaggerated to fuel our countless thoughts about the future of this star. Perhaps we are thinking too much about a rapid demise too soon.
Federer will be 28 in August. Despite his fluid, effortless game, even he will admit that the days of relentless domination and drawn-out winning streaks are a thing of the past. But will the opportunities for Slams—and with them the holy grail of equalling or beating Pete Sampras’ 14-Slam record—keep materializing?
The beloved world he ruled so autocratically, so splendidly, is now governed by a triumvirate of Nadal, with Djokovic and Andy Murray quickly acquiring territory and treasure.
Yes, Federer’s quality of play against these ferocious players has disappeared under the highest pressure. Yet, he has beaten the likes of Fernando Verdasco and Andy Roddick, both of whom have played convincingly in tournaments so far this year.
Equally, his love for the tennis tour and traveling appears unchanged, which is due to his intelligent scheduling and his companionship with new wife, and soon-to-be mother, Mirka Vavrinec.
Sampras also hit patches of weariness and vulnerability in the later stages of his career. Yet he emerged, at the age of 31, with a 14th Grand Slam title at the 2002 US Open to become arguably the best of all time.
Naturally, any change can be daunting. It is clear that the greatest adjustment must be mental. Habits have to change—not easy in an often stubborn, single-minded superstar.
Overwhelming opponents from the back of the court with persistent, heavy shots is no longer a totally successful tactic. The shot that used to produce the winner now doesn’t, but of course only against a small percentage of the field.
Against all the others, Federer can play the way he always has, which makes tactics even harder to change.
Applying and executing solutions for the nastier, pressure-filled matches is up to Federer himself and his mind alone on the tennis court. Perhaps he is too intent on achieving results, or purposely changing his natural manner of play; perhaps there is something personal or private affecting his mental state on the court.
But knowing what we know, it would be both unfair and unwise to write him off just yet.
(Published on Bleacher Report; April 22, 2009)