Roger Federer Faces Reality About His Perfection

from my column on AOL Fanhouse

MELBOURNE, Australia — Roger Federer was becoming obsolete. Not only that, but he was in denial about it. It was the worst of combinations.

The game was starting to blow right by him, and he was still insisting that his losses were from bad weather, tiny back pain, or whatever else he could think of to keep his greatness current.

“People make it sound like I was just pushing the ball into play,” Federer told me Tuesday after he crushed Stanislas Wawrinka6-1, 6-3, 6-3 to advance to the semis of the Australian Open. “I don’t think that’s how anybody ever saw me play.”

Let’s be real honest: Pushing the ball is exactly what he was doing, in contrast to the new generation of players. But plenty of Federer fans were in denial, too, pretending they couldn’t see how much better Rafael Nadal had become than their hero.

Be honest.

But also be honest about this: what Federer has done now is truly remarkable. He has made the change this late in his career. The amazing thing isn’t that he was able to do it, but that he was willing to.

In hiring Pete Sampras’ former coach, Paul Annacone, in July, Federer was finally admitting that he had a problem. Step One. Now, Federer is stepping into his backhand, ripping topspin instead of floating slice, and attacking the net at times.

He has decided to attack before being attacked.

Good enough to overtake Nadal again? I don’t think so. But he’s back in the fight. And let’s not ruin a nice story here.

The change in Federer is not just his backhand, but also his psyche. When I asked him why he felt the change was necessary, he opened up, at least a little, that maybe his perfection wasn’t as perfect as he had thought. 

“I think just at crucial times, it haunted me to play a bit passive instead of trying to take it to the opponent a bit more,” he said. “You know, with success sometimes you get a bit comfortable: because it’s working, why change it?

“Sure, I was always trying to look for new ways. But there were times, you know, it didn’t work against a few players. I ran into a few players at the wrong times, maybe. It just stuck in my gameplan. Instead of changing … I got a bit unlucky at times, too. Who knows.”

I love that answer. Look at how conflicted it is, how much it shows he still struggles to admit there were flaws.

He says he was passive, too comfortable, haunted, stuck. Or unlucky against only a couple of players.

Federer talked about getting his confidence back. Had he ever admitted that it was slipping?

Annacone is getting a lot of credit, and he deserves it for preaching aggressiveness. But Federer is the one who made the change, and more importantly, the one who acknowledged that he needed to hire Annacone.

So what had happened? Tennis technology had moved fast. The average sports fan can’t see it, because today’s rackets and strings look roughly the same as they did 20 years ago. In truth, the change in the past couple years alone, as new rackets match up with polyester strings, is even more dramatic than the change from the old tiny wood rackets to the big-headed rackets.

I had asked Federer about this several times in different places in 2010, with him denying each time that it was a problem for him.

“I don’t think it has much to do with technology, to be quite honest,” he said in Cincinnati. “There are other reasons maybe behind the losses or other reasons for their victories. So now, I haven’t made any changes in myself.”

Federer is using an old racket, and said he is using half-and-half modern strings and old ones.

Denial. Not much to do with technology?

“Maybe fractionally,” Annacone said Wednesday. “You can hit as hard as you want, and it doesn’t go out.”

For an opponent to have that, it is not a small fraction. “It helps Roger, too,” Annacone said.

Not with that racket. But Federer was just so talented that he could still keep up.

Bigger, stronger players such as Juan Martin del Potro and Robin Soderling came along, using the technology to blast the ball and push Federer backward.

“Losing in the quarters of Wimbledon and the French is a disaster,” Annacone said sarcastically. “He won the Australian (in 2010). … Pete used to tell me if he would win one Slam a year, he had a good year.”

Annacone is still massaging Federer’s ego, which is probably smart. The dynamic between them is interesting, as Federer is used to being solely responsible for his greatness.

What have he and Annacone been working on the past six months?

“We didn’t have that much time, to be quite honest … ” Federer said. “Maybe down the road we’ll have more time to work in the offseason. It was just more getting to know each other a bit.”

Based on that, I’m surprised Federer can even remember Annacone’s name.

“Hopefully,” Annacone said, “maybe I was a catalyst to some of it.”

Annacone said they talk every day, sometimes for 20 seconds and sometimes for 30 minutes. They also work together on the court, in varying amounts.

“Whatever needs to be done,” he said. “It’s very practically applicable.”

This was never about age. It was about a mentality. It was about stubbornness.

The clock isn’t ticking anymore. We’ll have to see, though, whether Federer will still have the nerve to rip backhands against Nadal at 4-all in the fifth set of a major final.

But at least if they do play Sunday, it won’t be one player in HD and one in black-and-white.

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 “Roger Federer Faces Reality About His Perfection

  • keith debro

    i assume you know something about tennis, but maybe yo have not been watching. roger has lost some confidence because his forehand has been really inconsistent since 2008. to say he is being overpowered is just not accurate. had he cut his forehand errors in half since 2008, he would have won at least three more majors including 2008 wimbledon. also remember that nadal has benefited greatly from the slowing of the grass. only the french is a slower court now. you mentioned soderling as one who overpowers him…he beat roger once. del portro beat roger(in 5), but he destroyed nadal. no one talks about that. i don’t expect roger to win another major though because of the forehand… misses to much. i could go on and on, but just to remind you that roger was the 2nd best clay-courter for three years. nadal was never the 2nd best hard-court player. i give him credit for winning the open, but he did not beat the defending champ. let’s see how he does against a health del potro. unfortunately, they may not happen unit the summer.

    one more thing, the federer forehand had gotten so poor at times, he’s lost to players who in recent years could only dream about beating him. watch him play and watch how many forehands he misses against everybody, but also how of those shots land woefully short… inside the service box. no top player can consistently beat other top players when that happens.

    • gregcouch

      Thanks for writing. I agree with most of what you’re saying, especially about Fed’s forehand. As for whether I’ve been watching, last year I spent the full 2 weeks at all 4 majors, and also went to Indian Wells, Miami and Cincy. I’m writing you now from Australia. I wasn’t trying to suggest that Soderling is better than Federer, only that he is physically pushing him around. Federer is way better, yet he lost to him on a surface where Federer is better. Fed has the talent. Soderling has the strings. (Yes, overly simplified). But I also think Federer has been helped by the slower grass — it suits his style — and the faster clay. Del Potro is still a big test for Nadal.

  • Bobby Jr

    Federer a pusher? Seriously, how much tennis have you watched in your life?

    No player in modern history has had an ability to impose his will on a match like Federer has, other than Nadal. He hits early – earlier than ANY of his peers – and hits with good depth which prevents opponents like Wawrinka from finding their comfort zone as often (as Roddick allowed Wawrinka to do all match long).

    You mention Juan Martin del Potro and Robin Soderling as players who push Federer around yet history shows they can only beat him when they’re having a great day while he’s having a nightmare. All other scenarios Federer makes them look half-clueless ball-bashers. (Fed’s record with Del Potro is 6-2 and with Soderling it’s 15-1). He even outhits them in forehand winners in the bulk of their matches. Doesn’t doesn’t like ‘pusher’ sort of stats.

    So far as Federer’s technology being a hitch – he consistently ranks in the top of average serve speeds (1st and 2nd). He also consistently ranks in the top 3 of winners to unforced error ratio season-long.

    Is 2011 the year for sports writers to jump on the already tired ‘Federer needs a bigger racquet’ and ‘everyone is hitting him of the court’ bandwagon as he consistently beats his peers?

    • gregcouch

      Thanks for writing. I never said that Soderling is better than Federer. I said he is pushing him around. He has half Federer’s talent, nowhere near his athleticism, yet beat him at the French. So Federer lost to Del Potro at the U.S., then beat dinker Murray at the Aussie Open, then lost to Soderling at the French and Berdych at Wimbledon. (You ask how much tennis I’ve watched: I was at all three matches). Do you see a thread? Del Potro, Soderling, Berdych. Big, strong guys who crush flat, driving forehands to Federer’s slice backhand. Also, yes, I think Federer’s racquet is outdated. I appreciate the argument.

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