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.