Federer's Worries Extend Beyond Nadal
"The arrogance of age must submit to be taught by youth." - Edmund Burke
Roger Federer said last week he would definitely play tennis beyond the 2012 London Olympics. With Federer's extraordinary conditioning and seeming lack of burnout, there's little reason to think he won't be at least a threat in the major tournaments for a few more years. Undoubtedly, tennis is better off when the most consistent and prolific champion in history is present.
And let this be known: It isn't easy being a champion in the latter stages of a career. It can be downright cruel as others question why one stays in a sport he no longer dominates as in days past. It's almost as if people are questioning one's character for choosing to stay in the fight.
This habit of questioning one's reasons for persevering is brought up in tennis with every generation. Jimmy Connors faced these queries - and then resoundingly refuted them by remaining a force in the sport until he was 40.
The most direct corollary to Federer's situation is the man with whom he is compared most frequently, Pete Sampras. Though he had won his seventh and final Wimbledon the previous year, by 2001 Sampras was constantly hounded that he should give up and bow out gracefully, whatever that means. But the Californian would loudly shut up his doubters when he defeated Andre Agassi in the 2002 U.S. Open final.
In those last couple of years, Sampras was humbled but steadfast in his self-belief. He knew he had few chances left, but he also was sure he'd get another shot at glory. And he did.
But Federer is more arrogant. He will refuse to admit his salad days are behind him, that he no longer intimidates players the way he used to. There's a detectable sense of denial with Federer that should be alarming to his staunchest supporters. For sure, he'll accept that he won't dominate again, but he's also resolute in his belief that he'll be an intimidating force for several years.
No matter how ill-founded this sentiment may be, why blame him? He's been so brilliant for so long, and an unyielding self-belief is a trait in geniuses from all fields. So why should Federer apologize for his way of thinking?
But this stubbornness will eventually devour the mighty Federer. Maintaining a belief system that has an increasing rate of failure is a recipe for disaster. The fact that Federer hasn't acted on the most obvious advice of coming to the net more often, where he can use his wonderful volleying skills to shorten points, is proof enough that he's not ready to admit that he has to change things up. Message to Roger: You can no longer win points at will from the baseline at crucial moments.
And make no mistake, Federer's days of winning Gand Slams are fast coming to an end, as evidenced by his failure to make it past the semifinals in the last four majors. It's also clear that instead of just his personal kryptonite, Rafael Nadal, several other players are beginning to get the great one's number.
This point was driven home Saturday in the final of the Dubai Championships, where Novak Djokovic, on the heels of his triumph over Federer at the Australian Open, notched his second consecutive victory over the Swiss with a 6-3, 6-3 triumph. Djokovic has now claimed five sets in a row against Federer. And as in Australia a few weeks ago, he made it look easy in Dubai.
It was the manner in which Djokovic won that was most telling. With his confidence still palpably ascendant since his second Australian title, he appeared little bothered by Federer's occasional flashes of brilliance. Even when down a break in the second set, Djokovic, who in the past was prone to panicky play and emotional meltdowns against Federer, was even more resolute in sticking to his game plan of driving the ball deep to Federer's backhand side and waiting for the inevitable error. This is basically the hardcourt variation of Nadal's game plan when facing Federer, relentlessly hitting balls up by Federer's left shoulder.
With another resounding victory against Federer, Djokovic has a rightful claim on the No. 2 ranking. Indeed, he'll have a chance to overtake Federer in the rankings over the next several weeks. Furthermore, Djokovic still hasn't lost a match in 2011.
It would be a shame if this is the way Federer goes out, by turning into a frustratingly predictable baseline player who doesn't utilize his multiple gifts. It wouldn't befit the man who many have declared is the finest player to ever wield a racquet.
Federer could probably be ranked in the top 10 until he's 40. But I highly doubt that is his goal. He wants another Slam title. But it's increasingly unlikely unless he takes seriously the notion of changing his stubborn baseline ways and shortening points. For now he has not just that lefty from Spain, but Djokovic and others to deal with.