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Steve Flink: Federer looks for ways to climb back up the mountain

7/30/2013 1:00:00 PM

The man heralded in many quarters as the greatest player ever to pick up a tennis racket has fallen upon some hard times recently. Roger Federer suffered an astonishing second round loss at Wimbledon against Sergiy Stakhovsky, who was ranked No. 116 in the world at the time. He then switched from his trusted 90 square inch Wilson frame to a 98 square inch racket made by the same company, venturing out onto the clay of Hamburg and Gstaad in hopes of rebuilding his confidence, getting some much-needed match play, and adjusting to his new equipment. But adding those tournaments to his schedule yielded little that was positive for the Swiss Maestro. He bowed out in the semifinals at Germany after collecting three unconvincing victories, losing to the gifted yet inexperienced left-hander Federico Delbonis of Argentina in a pair of tie-breaks. On went Federer to the clay in his home country, but he was soundly beaten (6-4, 6-3) in his opening round contest by Daniel Brands, whom he had beaten the previous week.

Compounding Federer’s growing list of issues has been an ailing back, a problem that has become increasingly burdensome for the Swiss over the last five years—but never more so than these past couple of seasons. As he approaches his 32nd birthday next week, Federer finds himself ranked No. 5 in the world, striving to reclaim an eminence he once took for granted, searching for ways to climb back near the top of the mountain in a sport where he once was unassailable. Not since he headed into Wimbledon in 2003 and subsequently claimed his first major there had Federer been ranked lower than No. 4. He is scheduled to play the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 hard court events in Montreal and Cincinnati next month, and he is the defending champion in the latter. Holding on that title and then faring well at the U.S. Open will be awfully difficult given his current state of mind, his racket experimentation, and the fragility of his back.

I spoke with Mary Carillo last weekend. Carillo has followed Federer’s career closely ever since he turned professional way back in 1998, and has called an extraordinary number of his big contests during her celebrated broadcasting career. She says, “I think Roger’s back has been bothering him for a while, even though he has always kept it obtuse about his injures. This is the only serious ailment he has ever really had to suffer through. It is affecting his movement and is certainly affecting his serve. Maybe he was looking for some power through technology anyway [with the racket change] but if his back was feeling better he would be moving a lot better, serving better, and would just be more confident, especially at the majors where he has to go three out of five.”

Looking at the reasons why Federer elected to try out the new racket this summer, Carillo said, “Most of the time when a superstar changes their equipment, it is because someone is throwing millions of dollars at them. Obviously, Roger Federer is not one of those players. Clearly, he is looking for some kind of technological advantage that he feels needs to be gained at this stage of his career. That is a silent statement, isn’t it? That’s how I see it. Especially if you have lost a step on the courts, if you are straining to get to the ball and perhaps not hitting as cleanly and you are not behind every shot the way you normally are, you are going to need a little bit of help.”

Federer did not seem very comfortable from the backcourt with the new racket in his loss to Delbonis, and was misfiring flagrantly at times off the forehand and miss-hitting an inordinate number of topspin backhands. His slice backhand was biting nice and low, but the rest of his baseline game was untidy and his serve could not bail him out. Furthermore, he did not play the big points with authority, squandering a 4-2 lead in the opening set tie-break and making three consecutive unforced errors—two off the forehand and one off the backhand—from 4-4 in the second set tie-break. Against Brands, he failed to break serve in two sets.

Says Carillo, “Brands is exactly the kind of guy that can take out a Roger Federer or a Rafa Nadal, a one or two shot guy. I am assuming that apart from the ridiculous guarantees that players like Federer and Serena Williams get for playing clay court tournaments after Wimbledon, I am sure Roger was hoping he would get some lesser ranked clay court players as opponents who would allow him to hit a lot of balls and really groove his shots, play longer rallies and feel good about the new equipment. Unfortunately for him, that didn’t happen. It is tough to see him struggle like that. But the good news is that he clearly still thinks he belongs and he is looking for answers, looking for whatever it is that might help him counterbalance what is happening to his body.”

And yet, Carillo believes Federer might go back to his old racket frame in time for the U.S. Open. As she puts it, “I wouldn’t be surprised if he gave it another couple of weeks and then went back to his old racket. He is staying with Wilson, so it is not like Djokovic a while back when he really struggled with his new frame but he had made a commitment to a new racket company so he really had to tough it out. Roger is not in that position and that should help him make a cleaner, more thoughtful decision about this. Honestly, I think if his back gets better in the coming weeks and he can do some nice rehab and really relax, he will get quicker and won’t feel the need for this bigger racket head. It is hard to change from something that has been an extension of your arm pretty much for your whole career.”

Carillo is fundamentally correct about that because Federer’s racket changes across the years have been relatively minor. He said of the new frame in Hamburg, “It’s definitely a different kind of racket. It’s a prototype that Wilson has worked on for many years. I’ve been testing rackets in a way my whole career. I’ve had changes to my old racket in the last sort of ten, eleven years, ever since I changed here actually in 2002 from the 85 to the 90. After I lost at Wimbledon I thought this is a good time to go and test some rackets, to take some time off and add some tournaments and see if there was enough time or not. I’m happy I did the change.”

Elaborating on that point, Federer explained, “I’ve been close on numerous occasions to changing rackets in a bigger way. But then very often time was the issue and maybe just because of the records at the Grand Slams, I was always keeping on playing quarters and semis all the time. So I guess then it was a bit more difficult to change it because of the time. All of a sudden [after Wimbledon] I had the extra ten days or two weeks I was looking for. I really was serious about it. Wilson flew to Switzerland and we went through the whole process and I was happy with how things went.”

After his defeat against Delbonis, Federer said, “I don’t think it had much to do with the racket today. I mean, I’m in the semifinals. I know how I’m feeling. I tried hard. I tried everything I could at this tournament. It’s been a difficult week throughout. But I’m happy I fought through many matches….It’s disappointing but defeats like this happen sometimes.”

Federer had plainly believed his four matches in Hamburg would sharpen him up for a good run in Gstaad but Brands served him off the court. Moreover, his back was apparently a big factor in how he performed. He conceded that he had considered the possibility of defaulting that match. “I decided after today’s warm-up whether I would play or not. I’m happy that was able to play because I’ve had problems for some time now, already in Hamburg. But it didn’t get worse during today’s match. It will be tricky for Montreal.”

If Federer has to pull out of Montreal, his hard court preparation would be reduced solely to his appearance in Cincinnati. That would not auger well for his chances in New York. I believe he needs a strong showing somewhere before he heads back to the Open. Federer captured five titles in a row on the New York hard courts from 2004-2008 but has not secured another championship in Arthur Ashe Stadium ever since. How important is it for the Swiss to turn in a sterling performance in either Canada or Cincinnati as he sets his sights on an 18th Grand Slam championship in September?

In my view, it is crucial. Carillo agrees. “It is important for him. Very important. Apart from everything else, he is surely losing the locker room edge if he keeps taking these hits. People won’t be as intimidated by him and that is never easy when you lose that locker room factor, which he has had for so long now. Back to back hard court events seem like a bit much. I am sure Roger is trying to figure this all out and that he is furiously doing the match, too, in terms of ranking points and where he might get seeded at the Open. Lord knows that he doesn’t want to face one of the big guys in the quarters at the Open.”

But, almost inevitably, Federer will confront one of the top four seeds in the quarters because he is just about destined to be the No. 5 seed. His preference, of course, would be to meet David Ferrer (the current world No. 3) in that round; the Spaniard has never toppled the Swiss in 14 career head to head duels. The fact remains that he will need to navigate his way through the increasingly treacherous waters of the early rounds in New York. Federer’s days of automatic journeys to at least the quarterfinals of majors are no longer inevitable. His astounding record of reaching 23 consecutive semifinals at the Grand Slam events lasted from Wimbledon in 2004 all the way to Roland Garros in 2010, when Sweden’s Robin Soderling stopped Federer in the quarterfinals of the French Open.

Another unimaginable streak was snapped when Federer lost to Stakhovsky at Wimbledon in the second round last month; he had advanced to 36 quarterfinals in a row at the majors across a nine year stretch. Refusing to let his guard down for that long took unshakable resolve, the deepest possible level of commitment, immense pride and even a bit of luck here and there. But the string of setbacks Federer has endured lately has humanized him among his peers, made him more vulnerable, and altered the outlooks of many opponents who once walked on court already beaten in the recesses of their minds. Federer is a total professional who does not reveal his innermost emotions, but this fellow is acutely aware of everything about what has happened to him over the years; he can separate fact from fiction.

After winning his 16th major at the 2010 Australian Open—his third triumph in the last four Grand Slam events—he has played 14 “ Big Four” championships, capturing only one of those tournaments. The seminal moment of that span was capturing his seventh Wimbledon singles title in 2012, capping a remarkable resurgence that lifted him back to No. 1 in the world. But in the 13 other majors he has played in these last three-and-a-half years, Federer has made it to only one final. Clearly, he is no longer the player he once was, but he has not by any means given up on himself.

No matter what has transpired, regardless of the considerable bruises to his psyche, come what may, he is still Roger Federer. That is no small thing. The reason that only a fool would rule out another major title run for Federer at some point in the next year is because his quest to succeed at the highest levels of the game is undiminished. He knows full well that many critics are writing him off, and that notion will only make Federer work harder to defeat the skeptics.

In the short term, Federer may be hard pressed to take his game to a place it will need to be. Winning the U.S. Open would be an exceedingly tall order for him. But he could be bolstered by remembering the plight of one of his heroes. Pete Sampras won Wimbledon in 2000 for the seventh time, securing a 13th major title in the process, making him the men’s record holder at the time. He unmistakably lost much of his drive over the next two years. Sampras played 33 more tournaments after that historic Wimbledon of 2000 on his way to the 2002 United States Open, and did not win any of them. He even was ousted by “lucky loser” George Bastl of Switzerland in the second round of Wimbledon earlier in that summer of 2002.

In fact, Sampras lost to Bastl on June 26th, the same day that Federer was beaten by Stakhovsky this year. But the towering American pressed on honorably, took the 2002 U.S. Open in style, and silenced his critics.  Seeded No. 17, he upended No. 6 seed Andre Agassi in the final, and that was the last match he ever played. Sampras was deeply aggrieved that so many people believed he no longer could summon greatness when it was required. Federer could well be driven by similar motives this time around. But, win or lose in New York, Federer will be out there at the majors in 2014, eager to make more history, ready to make amends for his many disappointments in 2013.

This much is nearly certain: to record another triumph at a Grand Slam event, some good fortune must come Federer’s way. To beat Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic back to back---or to defeat Nadal and either Murray or Djokovic—might be beyond Federer’s reach now. At the Open, he could potentially have to topple all three of his chief adversaries to take the title. That would be next to impossible.

Federer might even consider taking some time off during the upcoming autumn to rest his back and recharge his competitive engines. At 32, he will need to pick his spots carefully, make his goals realistic, look to move through windows and doors that are no longer as wide or available as they once were. As Carillo says, “If Roger has a tough summer including at the U.S. Open, it would be in his best interests to get himself [physically] well. He won’t be trying to chase down the No. 1 ranking and he shouldn’t be worrying about his ranking anymore. He says at this point he doesn’t worry about that, and I believe him. Pete Sampras wanted to win one more major at the end of his career and he did it. I hope Roger is thinking that way these days. He doesn’t have too much more to prove in those ways.”
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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.