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LaRosa's Sweet Spot: April 13, 2011

4/13/2011 4:00:00 PM

LaRosa's Sweet Spot Archive |

Saturday, April 2, 2011. Do you remember where you were that fateful day? I remember it like it was yesterday. I woke up a babe in an innocent world, where flowers bent toward the sun and people still believed in Jesus.

And then came Rafael Nadal’s back alley mugging of Roger Federer, 6-3, 6-2 in Miami. And we would never be the same.

Or something.

Before we begin, let’s agree on one thing. That Miami SF was a mugging. In the History of Fedal, that battle would go down as its biggest wash, akin to Paula Jones v. Tonya Harding on Celebrity Boxing (99% of you have no idea what I’m talking about but Paula Jones actually tried to hide behind the referee. Don’t get me started).

But no sooner did you hear “Game Set and Match, Nadal” than the tennis world (particularly the press) launched into an attack mode nearly as merciless. Not only did Twitter explode with the notion that Federer’s days of dominance were over, journalists were actually speculating about his retirement.

Seriously?

Forget the fact that Federer made back-to-back semifinals in Indian Wells and Miami, besting his showings from last year (ditto Doha). Forget that the only players who’ve beaten him this year are Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic (two players it should be noted he beat back-to-back a mere four months ago in London). Forget that Federer hasn’t been beaten in a single tournament before the semis since WIMBLEDON. It was clearly time to go.

I am no great protector of Roger Federer. He doesn’t need protecting. Partially because defending him after all he’s accomplished in his career would be insulting. And partially because, if you’ve ever been in a press room with the guy, he’s pretty good at protecting himself. And by that I mean, for all his dorky Uncle Roger giggling and goofing, when it comes down to business, he’s one scary dude. He not only gives off the air that he could take out his cell, hit speed dial and have you erased from the planet before you finished your question, he also most likely could.

Who's counting this man out?

It’s perhaps this impenetrability met with the first real chink in his armor that has the sharks out for blood. (for a taste of the feeding frenzy, see: http://www.tennis-prose.com/articles/sportswriting-101/) I’m all for getting the straight talk, but the fervor in which some in the pressrooms are going after Federer lately have come off as vaguely personal, like deer suddenly able to bully a wounded lion.

Has Roger made it easy on himself? No. He’s never been one to admit vulnerability easily, and on a day when he could’ve given up lots of juicy quotes about his threatened place in the game, he said, you know what, it’s all good. Is he an idiot? An optimist? Terminally deluded? Or is that just swagger? To beat the best, you have to believe you’re the best. Looking back, will he someday say, “Oh wow, Rafael Nadal. What a pain in my ass that kid was.” Or “Ugh, Novak Djokovic. Like that Rebecca Black song, I just could not stop that from happening.” God I hope so. But today, with a tennis war on, talk like that might not gas up the old tank the way it needs to be.

I get that people would want to see his empire fall. Eras ending are high drama. And specifically Federer’s empire crumbling would be an enormous spectacle. The guy doesn’t sweat, he keeps his hair tucked perfectly behind each ear, he dresses in gold for God’s sake. And yet lo and behold, Federer began his clay court run in Monte Carlo absolutely crushing Philipp Kohlschreiber in 50 minutes, 6-2, 6-1. That’s less time than it takes to watch an episode of “Giuliana and Bill” (99% of you have no idea what I’m talking about and yet season 4 premieres in July. Don’t get me started).

Make no mistake, tennis is a war at the top right now. One in which, for a change, Federer is playing a supporting role in. He’s undeniably aging (who isn’t) and undeniably having a little trouble v. the No 1 and No 2 players in the world (again, who isn’t). But one match, even the four he’s lost this year – compared to the 22 he’s won – does not a funeral make.

At the end of the day, it’s no fun (at least for me) seeing someone win over and over and over again without breaking a sweat. With every hair in place. Dripping in gold. I’m much more interested in seeing someone having to fight through obstacles and figure out how to maximize what they do have. Which is why I’m almost giddy about this part of Federer’s career. It’s certainly not the end, but it’s certainly past when things came easy. And if there’s anyone whose fifth gear I’m dying to see, it’s Federer’s. He won’t be perfect. But he might, instead, be human. And that’s a Federer worth watching.

So how about we throw the bulldozers in neutral and enjoy the show.

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Follow James at twitter.com/JamesLaRosa.