In 1995 Australia's Under-16 youth team cup played in Switzerland against the hosts: in the first round two 15-year-olds had their first look at each other, Lleyton Hewitt and Roger Federer. The quick Australian were supposed to crack on Federer's feeble backhand. Instead, Peter Carter's kid management leap-frogged logic and theories. The future number 1 of the world rankings won in three sets. One of the few successes in his junior career.
Federer enjoys playing Hewitt, he brings out the best from him. "When things aren't going so well, Lleyton can fight back. You know, the scoreline predicts 6 2, 4 1, but you don't feel like it's that much. You feel like it's 3 2, 30 All all the time. It's just tight". But Roger has won the last 15 meetings, and among the best-of-five matches, only the 60 76 60 in the 2004 Us Open final was more one-sized.
"The beginning of the match was just more important of giving a direction. I'm a great frontrunner, so I feel like if he gets the first set, it's gonna be a really close match; whereas if I win the first set, it's always gonna be hard for him" he said. And then, in the post-match press conference, he explained: " It's just maybe more comfortable being in the lead. You don't ask yourself any questions of, Do I need to change anything around, because what you've been doing has been working".
More or less the same tone he used after his Rolamd Garros triumph: no more pressures, no more questions, no more communications of a solitary mind with himself.
Beside his "new" mental toughness, so far from his initial mercuriality nurtured of swears, sulks and broken racquets, he has always worked to adjust his game, to add technical improvements to his strokes of genius, to become, as Agassi said after their meeting at the 2003 Masters Cup in Houston, the guy that changed our sport.
Last year Roger's great disappointments came on hard courts: the disintegration in the Australian Open final's fifth set, the rage for the down the line forehands, the HawkEye in the Us Open final against Del Potro, forcing in the shreds in a Grand Slam final for the second time, the frustration in Miami exploded in the once familiar "Safinesque" breaking of a racquet.
Alarm bells for a player remained at the top of the ranking for more than 260 weeks, and it is a testimony to him that he accepted to work ohn his game and found something to adjust yet.
He worked hard on his forehand. He hits earlier and from an advanced position. He can add great pace, with his unique racquet-speed, so decisive in Melbourne where the courts are sticky and the balls fluffs higher than the previuos years. Forehand has always been the fundamental key in his game, and during the years he garnered the adroitness to add varieties and solutions. He can play it with more or less spin, and he more and more preferred hitting it less flat, and when he goes crosscourt he closes the movement with the head of the raquet well above his shoulder. But, mainly, he regained confidence in playing it inside-in, down the line from the backhand side: the same stroke which sealed the epic 97 in the fifth defeat in the "match of the century", the 2008 Wimbledon final.
So, he can generate more pace and gain immediate advantage, and cashes in on the momentum hitting well inside the baseline, trying to verticalize whenever possible. In this way, even if he's not fit as in the golden years (2004-2006) he has to cover less ground. And doing so he could be a danger to Rafa Nadal, as the Doha final against Davydenko testified. When the Russian started to gain some meter on court, in fact, once he established himself oncourt he made Nadal crack with his flat and deet groundstrokes and his outstanding Agassi's style anticipation.
Last year he played better also from the advantage side, he gained enough confidence to risk more down the line backhands, and to prefer topspin to slice.
Variations became necessary when agility started to struggle with the identity card, when his enticing tennis, based on his athletic superiority, was covering with dust. One time he outpowered his opponents with rythm and pace and could focus almost exclusively in rocketing his topspin backhand, and had wittingly erased from his horizon serve&volley, sliced strokes, drop-shot. "I've always thought drop was a coward way of closing the rally: but I was wrong. I've discovered you can use it to maximise a point you've built".
The glandular fever, the reduced fitness in 2008, and then the 2009 Australian Open defeat, the tears made him realize the amount of weapons in your arsenal are nothing if you choose not to profit from them. So he started in risking with his first serve again, although he continued to suffer from the same giggles at his back mentally affecting his performance an year and a half ago, when he had slightly modified the movement fearing to worsen the situation.
And he left the dust from his game. So, blessed from having no real injuries so far, he brought his love for the game to untouched heights. Federer stopped to think he was obliged to be splendid to gain approval from others and satisfy his ego. He returned a not-reflexed, not mediated, pure dream of play.