WIMBLEDON: That Wasn’t an End for Roger Federer. It was the Start of his Agassi Phase

 

We are too fast to bring in the next generation, and now, in the case of Roger Federer, too quick to kick out the old.

So many people have characterized Federer’s five-set loss to Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon final Sunday as his last, best chance. I have something to say about that:

No. Way. Where most people saw the end for Federer, I saw a beginning. Federer is now moving into what I’ll call the Agassi Phase of his career. The Agassi Phase is a time when someone finds another gear, another avenue, another strategy and another wind beyond the time when age says it’s possible. Andre Agassi did it, re-inventing himself and reaching the U.S. Open final when he was 35, when his back was such a mess and his legs so beaten down that it looked like he was tripping over the paint on the baseline while trying to run down a forehand. Agassi crowded the baseline and cut off all angles so he wouldn’t have to run much.

A prediction: Federer, who is 32, will now be among the handful of top favorites again at the majors for another two years, and an outside favorite for another year after that. Last year, he never had a shot.

Welcome back to the top of the mountain, new old Roger. Or, old new Roger. Whichever.

Federer’s re-invention didn’t involve duct-taping broken parts back together, the way Agassi had to do it. Federer can still run just fine, though not as fast as he used to. In the fifth set Sunday, Federer was in better physical condition than Djokovic, who’s 27. Federer’s body is also in better shape than the 20-something bodies of Rafael Nadal (sore back, lost a step), and Andy Murray (back surgery).

It’s about making changes and adjusting to realities. As of 10 months ago, I didn’t think Federer had it in him. Oh, he had the skills, but I thought he was too stubborn to

make the changes needed for an Agassi Phase. I used to say his game was obsolete and that he was playing in black and white. Federer fans assumed I had some sort of bias. And being honest, their stubbornness and unwillingness to face facts was exactly the same thing that was holding back their hero.

Watching that match Sunday, and watching what Federer did throughout Wimbledon, the warmup events and even, to a lesser extent, the French Open, it’s clear that he has started his Agassi Phase. He could have started it earlier. God knows how many majors he threw away by waiting.

Going forward, Federer has a better chance at winning majors than he has since 2010. Even the last two majors he won, which goes back four years, he won because his draw managed to keep him away from the big basher. He beat thinker Andy Murray in the finals.

This is a process. It starts, ridiculously enough, with his choice of tennis racquet. He could not bring himself to stop using his old racquet, the one he used to artfully win 17 majors. It’s a classic Wilson racquet with great touch. But it’s too flexible to use against power hitters today, who, with less talent than Federer, could crush shots at him. His racquet, mixed with his one-handed backhand, were just too weak for that. Opponents pushed him backward.

It was basically the same racquet Pete Sampras and Jim Courier used. And yes, they weren’t playing TOO long ago, but 15 years of technological advancements in racquets and strings have changed everything since then, even if it’s not obvious to the naked eye or casual fan.

Think about what cellphones looked like 15 years ago.

A source told me that Federer’s people had been trying to get him to modernize racquets for years. Whatever brought him to the conclusion, he finally did it. He tried to switch last summer, but then felt he wasn’t ready, and switched back for the U.S. Open. As a result, he had no chance of winning that Open, or, I thought, any other major ever again.

But then he switched again for good. And he said during Wimbledon that this switch is permananent and he’s getting used to it. The progression into Agassi Phase wasn’t just the physical racquet, though. Federer had to adjust his thinking. Actually, he had to stop thinking so much and ATTACK. Federer is always playing the odds on every. . .single. . .shot. Sometimes you just have to hit the low-percentage shot. It can turn a match the way Djokovic did a few years ago against Federer at the U.S. Open. On match point for Federer, Djokovic swung as hard as he could on a return of serve. Ball went in. Match turned.

That mental change on court is still a work in progress for Federer. He is attacking far more, and hitting his serve and backhand better than ever. He started serving and volleying more — maybe a little too much — theoretically on the advice of new coach/old serve-and-volleyer Stefan Edberg.

But that is not a move with the odds anymore. And Federer talked about the mental challenge it is for him.

“A traditional serve-and-volley player, which I’m not, clearly, anymore, they’re used to taking return winners (against them), passing shots,” he said. “It’s the overall picture you have to be able to see that it’s worth it, it’s putting the pressure on the opponent. Knowing that any short ball will be attacked, there will not be too much rhythm out there. . .It’s really the bigger picture.”

He still has a ways to go to buy into that fully, but it’s coming. If you noticed Sunday, when he fell behind, he attacked Djokovic’ serve. That’s how he came back from a 5-2 deficit in the fourth set. But when Federer was ahead in sets, he was too careful again. He also sprayed forehands throughout the match. That wasn’t age talking. It was a guy still trying to get used to a new racquet. That will improve.

But the main thing is that Federer believes again, at least when he’s not playing Nadal. Last year, Federer told Andy Roddick on FoxSports1 that he was so happy to have his confidence back. Yet it was obvious to anyone who watches that he had no confidence whatsoever.

Now, he does. And the young smashers can’t just push him backward anymore on a great day.

“I don’t feel like a huge threat by them. . .,” he said. “There’s a lot of dangerous players out there, but I feel if I’m playing well, I control the field to a degree.”

So Federer can fend off the next tier easier. Those young kids moving in, such as Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Ranoic are not as good yet as Federer, Agassi-Phase. Teenager Nick Kyrgios might be the one guy who can emerge now and cause Federer trouble immediately.

But at least Federer has the weapons to fight back now, one in his hand and one in his head.

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About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

4 responses to “WIMBLEDON: That Wasn’t an End for Roger Federer. It was the Start of his Agassi Phase

  • Alison Walters

    Did Agassi have kids? Don’t think so!

  • joogroo

    Agassi’s kids were born in 2001 and 2003, way before he made the US Open final in 2005 and before he retired in 2006…

  • rothrocks

    This is what I think too. With Edberg, he has found a second wind or a third wind or whatever people may wish to call it. None of the top players play such an aggressive brand of tennis anymore so just the challenge of having to deal with it, along with his incredible variety, will make him a top contender. I am skeptical about his prospects of actually converting this into more slams but, as a Fed fan, would be overjoyed if he does. But the Agassi comparison is very apt indeed. It looks as if Fed will age gracefully as the grand old man of ATP, at least as of now. 2015 could well be different. One never really knows with Fed, the post 2008 version of Fed that is.

  • gregcouch eats donkeydicks

    greg couch eats donkey dicks for breakfast, lunch, dinner and desert too!!

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