If this isn’t an End, Federer Must Start Believing in His Changes

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.

Follow me on Twitter @gregcouch

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

3 responses to “If this isn’t an End, Federer Must Start Believing in His Changes

  • julie richman

    well done article. i have been an avid roger fan since he started his notariety. however, i finally have come to the conclusion that nadal is the #1 player in the world…..and not djokivich. had rafael been healthy he would have taken out ferer easily. roger’s glory days are behind him; racket change or not.

    • gregcouch

      Thanks. I don’t think ALL of Roger’s glory days are behind him, though. And a racquet change would help. I don’t see him winning several more majors, but maybe another one or two?

    • Jordan

      there was another line by Roger that went: “rafa is my greasett CHALLENGER”…….uhhh—it’s more like Roger is ONE of Rafa’s challengers…..since it’s roger that stands at 6-12 since 200FIVE…..2-5 in MAJORS FINALS…and if you get generous and SUBTRACT 2 of RAFA’s FO Finals wins…it’s STILL 2-3 rafa in Major’s finalsbut if you are REALLY “fair” and SUBTRACT ALSO one of Roger’s wimbledon finals (you pick between 2006 or 2007) it’s down to 1-3 rafa on ALL surfaces..in Majors finals…so …WHO’S THE BETTER PLAYER in Majors between rafa and roger? on ALL surfaces.

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