From my column on AOL Fanhouse
MELBOURNE, Australia – This is not a defining moment for Roger Federer. It looks like one, but it isn’t. It is a failed moment.
The new Federer had been reconfigured for aggressiveness and attack. No more sitting back, floating backhands and getting pushed around by the big, modern players.
It had been working, too, in all the tournaments since the U.S. Open.
But the majors are the real test, of course. And Federer didn’t just lose to Novak DjokovicThursday in the Australian Open semifinals. He was steamrolled, 7-6 (7-3), 7-5, 6-4.
The problem was that after that first set, after 57 minutes of tennis as intense as you will see, something happened.
Federer flinched. His nerve cracked. That new aggressiveness flickered on and off for the rest of the match. “It’s not the end in any way,” he declared.
It doesn’t have to be. But if he doesn’t start to believe in the new Federer, then really, this is the beginning of the end. It’s just too soon to conclude anything.
The loss did end one thing; the lock that Federer and Rafael Nadal had on the sport’s big moments.
No Nadal. No Federer. It is going to be the oddest of scenes, with Djokovic playing Andy Murray orDavid Ferrer. This will be just the second time in the past 23 majors that neither Federer nor Nadal will be in the final. The other time, Djokovic won the 2008 Australian.
“It is good for the sport to have more players able to win against Federer and Nadal,” Djokovic said. “All the credit to them for what they have done in the last five, six years. They’ve been very dominant and just a great example of champions.
“It was really hard to challenge them, especially in the big events where they play their best tennis. … We are still behind them.”
That sounds as if Djokovic does think something fundamental has changed. This is the second major in a row that he has beaten Federer to reach the final. I think Djokovic is finally becoming what everyone thought he could be. He has climbed to the mountaintop with Federer and, maybe, Nadal.
So this was a defining moment for him. And someone asked Federer if this signaled a changing of the guard.
“Yeah, I mean, they say that very quickly,” Federer said. “Let’s talk in six months again.”
Yes, that was quick, as Federer had just re-established himself as the world’s second best player, behind Nadal. Just 30 hours earlier, everyone would have said the Nadal-Federer rivalry was good to go for a while. The meaning of the tournament was based in whether Nadal would complete the Rafa Slam — winning four majors in a row — or Federer could stop him.
Then Nadal hurt his hamstring in the quarterfinals and lost easily to Ferrer. Next day, Federer is out.
Federer now has gone four straight majors without reaching a final.
His game was fast becoming obsolete, and only his incredible skill was keeping him near the top. He lost in the 2009 U.S. Open to Juan Martin del Potro, and then the French to Robin Soderlingand Wimbledon to Tomas Berdych. They are all tall with crushing, flat shots that pushed Federer backward. They use the modern racquets and modern strings while Federer continues to cling to his old racquet.
Federer hired coach Paul Annacone, Pete Sampras’ old coach, to help him to become more aggressive. I think he needs to go even farther, and change racquets and strings.
But he won’t. He did stop slicing his backhand and instead drive it with topspin. That way, he could attack first, before being pushed around.
It was working. He beat Nadal, Djokovic and Soderling to win the tour finals. He won several tournaments.
But maybe Federer was like an NFL team trying its hardest to win all the preseason games, hoping it would lead to confidence and momentum. It’s sort of a way of tricking yourself into believing something.
“I’m happy with where my game is at, with where my condition is,” he said. “I’m really excited for what’s to come”
What’s to come is that Federer is going to start believing for real.
On Thursday, he kept slipping back into his comfort zone. He sprayed forehands, or would stand up straight and try to force himself to swing hard on a backhand even though his body was slowing him down.
He led 5-2 in the second set, but couldn’t close. In the third set, at 4-all, he jumped on his forehand and put it into the net. Next point, he sliced a backhand too soft to go over.
Belief was shot.
“Last time we played in London, I could not get into the match,” Djokovic said. “He went on top of me and he just was in control of the whole match.”
That’s what Federer is going to have to do, and not just for three sets in non-majors, but for five sets, under the most intense of pressure, preferably with a new racquet.
Six months, huh? He’s got that much time to show that he can do this.
To show that this wasn’t an end.
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