Federer’s Fall

Written by  //  August 17, 2010  //  Sport  //  4 Comments

As he sunk to a crushing defeat against Tomas Berdych in the quarter-finals of the Wimbledon Championships earlier this year, I wondered if Roger Federer’s aura had dissipated to the extent that unqualified greatness would perhaps evade him. Statistically, Federer stands at the summit of tennis. Sixteen Grand-Slam triumphs, including a victory at each of the majors, place him at the highest of roosts, but his inferior head-to-head record against Rafael Nadal, his greatest rival, coupled with the Spaniard’s growing prominence put not only his records, but also the contentious ‘greatest of all time’ tag at peril.

Sport, Simon Barnes, a former chief sportswriter of the Times, says, “is all about greatness: the search for greatness, the falling short from greatness, the rare, rare achievement of greatness.” A definition of greatness is however, ever elusive. There are no clearly delineated criteria to identify greatness and any analysis on those lines is rarely objective. Yet, people argue that Federer is the greatest tennis player to have drawn breath.

Popular wisdom, presumably, would make us look first at the numbers. There Federer is nearly peerless. In lifting the French Open in 2009, he not only equalled Pete Sampras’s tally of 14 Grand Slam triumphs, but also became only the third player in the Open Era to own all four majors. Since then, he has gone on to lift his sixth Wimbledon title in 2009 and his fourth Australian Open in 2010. It is also astounding that Federer’s 16 triumphs have come in the span of a mere 29 tournaments, while Sampras’s 14 titles were achieved over 49 majors. Grand Slams aside, the Swiss has won 62 titles and has raked up prize-money in excess of U.S. $ 55 million. The statistics are so mind-boggling that some have argued that Federer is not merely the greatest tennis player, but that he also possesses a good claim to being the greatest exponent of any sport in history.

It must, however, be said that statistics are a tricky indicator of greatness. Is Federer’s dominant record indicative of his own pre-eminence or is it merely a product of the mediocrity of his opponents? Can it be convincingly argued that Federer would have defeated Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors or Pete Sampras, when they were in their pomp? There are no answers to these questions and there lies the contradiction in a study that describes a person as the greatest of all time.

Even otherwise, the argument must not end in numbers that merely showcase Federer’s overall records. In any debate on greatness, the head-to-head record against rivals becomes a crucial consideration. While Federer has been terrifically dominant against Andy Roddick (19-2), Marat Safin (9-2) and Lleyton Hewitt (17-9), his main challengers in the early phase of his career, he has won only a paltry seven times in twenty-one matches against Rafael Nadal, presently his chief competitor. Although he has lost only five times in fourteen meetings to Novak Djokovic, he has been overcome six times in eleven outings by Andy Murray; records, which suggest that he has not merely struggled occasionally, but that he has come-a-cropper on numerous occasions against his most formidable rivals. It must however, be noted that an analysis on these lines can be deceptive, for a player could have dominated a specific opponent in Grand Slams, where it really matters and could have failed in inconsequential events. But the fact that Federer has lost to Nadal in five out of seven Grand Slam finals, indicates that Federer may not even be the greatest of his own generation, thereby making the argument that he is the greatest of all time, practically preposterous.

It is therefore, time to leave the debate on greatness aside and marvel at the gorgeous gifts that Federer is endowed with. His transformation from a precocious, yet cantankerous teenager to a player of sublime skill and serene disposition has been quite remarkable. After quarter-final appearances at the French Open and at Wimbledon in 2001, with the latter involving a triumph against Sampras, regarded by many as a change-of-guard of sorts, Federer won his first Grand Slam, quite fittingly, at Wimbledon in 2003. A straight sets defeat of Mark Philippoussis in the final, splendid in both its elegance and its ruthlessness, was a sign of things to come.

Wimbledon has always held a cherished place in Federer’s heart; he has reserved most of his best tennis for the holy grass, winning six times in all, only one short of Sampras’s haul. With the grass slowing down in recent years, players have tended to play from the baseline; a phenomenon that has suited Federer, whose nimble feet has made his movement a joy to behold. Over the years he has showcased an extraordinary mastery of the geometry of a tennis court, managing to create strokes, particularly on his forehand of terrific angular precision; the tennis racquet has at times looked more akin to a magic wand in his hands.

The backhand however, it must be said, has never been his strong suit – it has taken him years of toil it to turn into a force of reasonable strength. Excellent on the volley and on overheads, off both wings, Federer is at ease when at the net, but it is his serve that represents the most underrated aspect of his game. It may not be particularly speedy, but possessing the ability to vary it in myriad ways and to produce astonishing angles, he has turned it into a weapon of substance.

A fourth round defeat in the U.S. Open in 2003 was only a blip, as the following year saw Federer lift three out of the four Grand Slams, with only the French Open proving the proverbial Achilles heal. The Australian Open marked a seminal moment in his career. Not only did he dismantle Marat Safin, arguably the most talented of the generation, in straight sets in the final, it marked the first of twenty-three consecutive appearances that he made in Grand Slam semi-finals, indicative of his extraordinary consistency. At the French Open, he lost to Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals, an opponent to whom he’d lose in three consecutive finals between 2005 and 2008. The year however, saw Federer also claim the title at Wimbledon, the second of his five consecutive and six total triumphs at SW-19, and the U.S. Open, the second of his five consecutive victories at Flushing Meadows.

Between 2004 and 2008, Federer dominated tennis like never before. In the eyes of many though, it was his victory at the French Open in 2009 that established Federer’s superiority over tennis players across generations.

“This could be my biggest victory, the one that takes off the most pressure,” said Federer, who was in tears, not for the first or last time, after the 6-1, 7-6 (1), 6-4 victory over Robin Soderling, then an unheralded Swede, in the final. “Now for the rest of my career, I can play relaxed and never hear again that I never won the French Open.”  There were sceptics who felt that the fact that Nadal, himself a victim of Soderling, was not standing in Federer’s way diminished the triumph in some ways. This however, is quite irrelevant. The nature of a Grand Slam is such that the last man standing has more than a worthy claim to victory and Federer’s success may not have been the most memorable, for he himself may have preferred to defeat Nadal, but it nonetheless qualifies as an outstanding achievement. Had Nadal been injured or had he withdrawn from the tournament for any reason, the argument that Federer’s victory was soured may still have stood. But as it stands, Federer’s victory at Rolland Garros saw him join an elite band of five who had won the singles title at all of the Grand Slams; Don Budge, Fred Perry, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver and Andre Agassi, with only Laver and Agassi having achieved the feat in the open era and with only Laver having won all the Grand Slams in a single calendar year (a feat that the Australian managed twice, once as an amateur and once in the Open Era).

Federer has been a more than competent clay court player and his forays at Roland Garros had up until then been brought to a grinding halt only due to the superiority of Nadal and not due to any perceptible weakness in his own game. By reaching four finals at Paris, including the triumph in 2009, Federer has exhibited an ability to play on all surfaces, a virtue hugely indicative of his overall brilliance.

Immediately after his victory at the French Open, he briefly played as if the shackles had been unleashed, romping to a sixth Wimbledon title; albeit one achieved after a 16-14 final set score against Andy Roddick in the final. However, he did lose in the final of the U.S. Open to Juan Martín del Potro, a tall Argentinean with a style not too dissimilar to that of Robin Soderling and Tomas Berdych, an aspect, which I’ll discuss later. These may have been early signs of a weakness in Federer’s game, but with Nadal plagued by tendonitis in his knee, it seemed that there wouldn’t be an answer to his matchlessness.

Federer started 2010 with a storm, displaying a rare concoction of brutality and beauty, in dismissing Andy Murray in three easy sets in the final to lift his 16th Grand Slam title. Murray held the superior record against the Swiss going into the final, but Federer at times lifted his game to dizzying heights of brilliance. Serving like a dream and walloping his forehand with precision of both timing and accuracy, he quelled Murray’s threat with an exhibition of tennis that was as exceptional as it was gorgeous. I have felt in the past that the grace in Federer’s game is at times overstated. He does make tennis look ridiculously easy at times, but that, I felt was being confused for elegance. In the final at Melbourne, though, I was for the first time convinced of the beauty in his game. Even the backhand, not his most natural stroke, was being struck to perfection with an artistic flourish.

It was only six months ago that Federer seemed invincible; marching on endlessly, it appeared, to goals that he himself may have been oblivious to. But six months is often a long time in sport. Berdych’s victory in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon may not represent as seminal a moment as Federer’s own triumph over Sampras in 2001, but nonetheless the manner of the loss left a feeling that we may never see Federer at his best again.

Leading up to Wimbledon, Federer had had his travails, losing first in the quarterfinals of the French Open to Soderling and then to Hewitt in the grass courts at Halle, with the former ending his phenomenal streak of twenty-three consecutive appearances in Grand Slam semi-finals. Having failed to win a tournament since he lifted the Australian Open, the loss at Wimbledon did not come as a particular surprise, but the fashion of his submission told a separate tale.

Admittedly, Federer had his moments against Berdych; especially in the second set which he grabbed 6-3 when he unveiled strokes of emblematic grace and precision. But as the game progressed, he wilted under the pressure produced by the sheer ferocity of the Czech’s ground-strokes. Berdych has for long been considered a fine talent, one who was touted to belong to a new aggregation of stars alongside Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, only for his skills to be weighed down by the frailties of his mind. But having reached his first Grand Slam semi-final earlier this year at the French Open, he seemed confident and poised, and unleashed a barrage of thunderous strokes that jolted Federer’s generally serene appearance. The Swiss’ glittering career has no doubt had its low points, but none in recent memory have been so utterly mortifying.

Federer suggested rather ungraciously after the game that problems with his back and leg were at the centre of the troubles that he encountered. “I couldn’t play the way I wanted to play. I am struggling a little bit with a back and leg issue. That doesn’t allow me to play the way I would like to play,” he said.

Blighted by injury or not, the parallels between the loss to Berdych and the defeat at Roland Garros to Soderling are too stark to be ignored as a simple aberration. Federer was unable to match the bold and powerful hitting of either Soderling or Berdych, causing his game to be ultimately dismantled with apparent ease.

Do these brutal defeats indicate the fading or dare I say annihilation of Federer’s aura? Perceived wisdom would suggest otherwise. It would be foolhardy to write off someone, who has sixteen Grand Slam titles to his name and who continues to be hailed by many as the greatest to have graced the game. It is however, indicative of certain weaknesses which have crept into his game, assuming they hadn’t existed in the first place. He seems incapable of defying the force in the strokes of the Soderling’s and Berdych’s and his backhand which had undergone a remarkable transformation from a purely defensive stroke to one of potent attacking might has conceivably regressed. Also apparent in his defeat to Berdych was a loss of timing on his famed forehand, causing him to rely almost entirely on his serve, which it must be said, remains a reliable weapon.

As easy as he makes his tennis look, Federer has worked tremendously hard to attain greatness and is unlikely to yield without a tussle. We can fully expect him to go back to the drawing board, address his flaws and come back stronger for the American season, for he surely has a few Grand Slam triumphs left in him (He recently reached the final of the Roger’s Masters in Toronto, losing to Murray, after having overcome Djokovic and Berdych). But with the task of countering escalating injury problems as well as a new breed of fearless and talented youngsters at hand, question marks remain over whether Federer will be able to fill the fissures that have appeared in his game and dominate tennis as regally as he once did.

4 Comments on "Federer’s Fall"

  1. Subramanian August 18, 2010 at 4:01 pm ·

    Great Article Suhrith. Brilliant summary of Federer’s career.

    To be called great, a player needs to have both a great record and needs to have played attractive sport. For instance, V.V.S. Laxman is not a great because of his middling record and Shahid Afridi is not great because he almost always resembles an unsuccessful axe murderer.

    But to combine both these traits of greatness and to combine them to an extent greater than any former player or contmeporary should surely be enough to earn a player the ‘greatest’ title.

    Admittedly, the statistics may not convincingly show that Roger Federer is in fact undisputably the greatest player. But the amazing statistics coupled with his beautiful, mersmerising, non-chalant style of play, which on certain days looks like an angel playing tennis, I think, makes pretty much the strongest claim to the title that we are going to see for a very long time.

  2. Suhrith August 19, 2010 at 2:18 am ·

    Thank you, Subra. I must admit, that if there ever was such a thing as the ‘greatest of all time’, then Federer probably has the best claim to it. I disagree with you however, on the value of aesthetics. What you think is beautiful tennis, may not be beautiful to the eyes of another. For that matter, I’ve not always found Federer’s tennis to be particularly elegant. I think the ease with which he seems to play his game is often confused with grace (something which was – to use a cricket analogy – not true of Mark Waugh, who, to my eyes, made cricket look both elegant and easy). In fact, I know of quite a few people who find beauty in Nadal’s tennis (Yes, Nadal!).

  3. Anirudh Krishnan August 24, 2010 at 5:57 am ·

    To be considered a great sportsman I feel it is as important to deal with defeat in a gracious manner and comeback strongly as it is to play stylishly and win convincingly. On that count Federer has often been found lacking.

    Suhrith, I also agree with you that Federer cannot be regarded as the greatest of all time till such time he considerably improves his record against Nadal.

    On another note, I saw parts of the Sampras v. Federer exhibition matches that were played a couple of years ago. While Federer may have defeated Sampras in their only Grand Slam match, Federer struggled to defeat Sampras even 5 years after Sampras retired (and both of them seemed to treat the exhibition match very seriously) and even lost to him in one of the three matches.

  4. Suhrith August 24, 2010 at 2:01 pm ·

    That’s a good point you make about the exhibition games between Federer and Sampras; Federer certainly treated them seriously and I am sure he was quite embarrassed by the loss.

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