Forgive Roger Federer for getting old. It happens, and at this point he can still deal with it. But does that mean he has to be scared and stupid, too?
Federer lost to Andreas Seppi 6-4, 7-6 (7-5), 4-6, 7-6 (7-5) Friday in the third round of the Australian Open. It was bad enough that he said his body didn’t feel right and he didn’t know why. Then, he moved around as if his shoes weighed 25 pounds. The truth is, he didn’t move right in the second round, either.
Whatever. He’s 33 and there will be days like this now.
But when Andre Agassi got old and his legs wouldn’t straighten and he’d stumble over the paint on the baseline, he actually moved in even tighter to the baseline and cut off all angles to reduce running.
He dealt with it and figured out how to win a little longer. Federer? He panicked. Before Friday, he had been getting used to a new, modern racquet and developed a more aggressive style with Coach Stefan Edberg.
Well, what happened to that guy?
“It was just an overall feeling I had today that I couldn’t really get the whole game flowing. . .” he told reporters. “I think that was because overall I wasn’t feeling it quite as well. I had to play it a little bit passively at times when normally I would play aggressive.”
John McEnroe and Chris Evert were both on ESPN talking about what happens when a great player starts to get old: You have inexplicably bad days when your body just won’t do what it’s supposed to. They were having flashbacks in Federer’s match.
But they were remembering an advanced stage of tennis aging. Federer
is just breaking into it. For him, this is going to be about adjusting and adapting. When he says he wasn’t feeling right, so he got passive, that was a mental reaction to a physical problem.
And it was the wrong reaction. Federer was back to dinking and slicing and pushing the ball, scared to hit it. So he would decelerate his swing and SHANK. He wasn’t feeling good, couldn’t move AND removed his weapons? On top of that, he had the lead in both tiebreakers and then got too scared to close them out, double-faulting away the lead in the second one. He didn’t even seem to know when to come to the net.
Oh, this was ugly.
This isn’t a career obituary. It’s too soon and Federer is too stubborn. Besides, he has been beating top players lately and is ranked No. 2. He’ll still be a contender in majors for the rest of the year. He’s not even at that stage yet where he’s looking for one last-run gift from the tennis gods (Venus Williams might be getting that gift now.)
Federer can still beat anybody not named Rafa Nadal. There are just more people he can lose to now. Until today, Federer would lose to Nadal, could lose to Novak Djokovic and maybe Andy Murray. He also would lose to tall, flat-hitting power guys who could push him backward when their strokes worked.
That was the point of switching racquets, to fight off those guys who were beating him just because they were using modern technology and he wasn’t.
But Seppi, ranked No. 46, doesn’t fall under any of those categories. He is an aging journeyman-plus who Federer has dominated for years winning 10 out of 10 times without losing a set.
This could go down as one of the worst losses in Federer’s career. Or, it could be the start of a successful last stage. That’s going to require admitting to himself what just happened and why.
If he goes into denial, which he has he has tended to do (think: realizing he needs a modern racquet), then he’ll fall apart at times, with increased frequency, and not know why. If he realizes what’s happening, he can adjust and maybe even win another major.
Agassi reached the final of the U.S. Open when he couldn’t have outrun a light post.
Seventeen majors. But I guess I’m not in the mood for a eulogy here, because I don’t think he’s done. Looking back, my only feeling is that he threw away at least four more majors by being stubborn about switching to a stiff enough racquet that could withstand the modern power of his opponents and create his own power.
He finally woke up, and now is using the right stick. If he’d have just switched three years earlier, well. . .
On Friday, with his body not feeling right you could see the fight in his head. He would try to attack and come to the net, but he had to force himself. And he did it poorly and at the wrong times. It wasn’t working and it’s not his nature. So mostly, he went back to playing the way he did with the old racquet, hitting high, higher and highest percentage shots, afraid to make a mistake.
“It’s not like I’m playing shocking or I’m feeling shocking,” Federer said. “It’s one of those things you look back and maybe, yeah, I didn’t feel so good. But if you win, you never even question it. If I were you, I wouldn’t read very much into that.”
It’s not about us. It’s all about how Federer reads into this and what he admits to.