It's Not About the Racket

Friday, April 03, 2009 /by

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by Pete Bodo

[Reminder: Jackie has a new Deuce Club up, which I just trampled. But it's a good one so check it out as you get ready for the second men's semifinal from Miami]

Sometimes, my colleagues here in the press room truly amaze me. Like today, a banner day for amazement, given what we witnessed on the stadium court in the first men's semifinal of the Sony-Ericsson Open. Roger Federer came into his presser, sat down, and bunched his shoulders so closely, tugged the bill of his trademark cap so far down over his eyes, and thrust his chin so deep into the cowl neck of his white track suit that I feared he would disappear. In the ensuing interrogation, he assiduously avoided eye contact, snapped out comments, and thereby revealed just how badly this loss really hurt.

So what does everybody want to talk about? The freakin' smashed racket. Maybe it's me, but isn't that just an anecdote in an otherwise compelling tale of woe? Sure, it was eye-catching. The Mighty Fed has a brief, violent outburst; he flings his Wilson stick head first into the asphalt, where it bursts with a loud, satisfying crack. It was unexpected, out of character, and unusual, certainly emblematic of something, maybe a basket of things, starting with the sheer amount of frustration Federer must have felt while playing what has probably been the worst match of the golden era of his career. But when you see that Exit 13 sign on the highway, you don't pull over and park under it, for gosh sakes. You continue on the ramp, make a left at the light, and drive the rest of the way to your destination. 

Q: When you fired  your racket into the court, did that feel good?

Q: Do you remember the last time you broke a racket, Roger?

Q: Did you feel the like the crowd got behind you after you smashed the racket?

Q: Can I have that racket, Roger, I want to put it on E-bay!

Okay, I made that last one up. But seriously, do you wonder why these guys sometimes look at the press like they're we're a gaggle of ill-dressed goat herders who just wandered in from the hills of Dopistan?

Q: What was different about today that you just lost it there for that moment?

A: I didn't lose it. I was just frustrated. Just because I smashed that racket doesn't mean I lose it. Didn't feel great. Didn't feel - it's just a natural thing.

Okay, I've had plenty of (mostly minor) issues with Roger over the past few years, but I really, really felt for the poor guy when he had to explain that. Remind me to quote him directly the next time my wife asks why I threw that torque wrench across the floor of the pole barn; the only real difference is that it's a lot easier to smash a racket than a torque wrench.

So let's drop this subject and move onto something that actually has some meat on the bone: How much pressure was Federer feeling out there?

"Not a whole lot," he answered. "I haven't been winning twenty tournaments in a row, so nobody expects me to win, really. No, look, it's been a tough last year or so, especially in the hardcourts. My game never really clicked, you know, except for the Open, where I thought I played great. I think when I was finding my form again, you know, it hit me with the back problem. It was unfortunate, you know, but thak God the hardcourt season is over."

Thank God the hardcourt season is over, says the greatest hardcourt performer of the Open era - and a guy soon sallying forth into the kingdom of Nadal, with its vast deserts of red clay and endless loop of high-kicking serves to the backhand. Sheesh, maybe this guy spent too much time in the sun today without his trademark RF hat.

The disturbing aspect of today's result is best understood in terms of Federer's performance in his previous match, against Andy Roddick. Remember what he said?

I almost, you know, lost the match there for a second when I was down a couple of break points in the third set. You know, I was - this is the type of matches exactly that I need right now, you know, in this part of the season. When I get through those kind of tough matches, sometimes I go on to win the tournament and I don't never look back. I hope that's what's going to happen right now.

In my post, The Cold Ghost  I characterized the remark as a strange combination of boast and wishful thinking, and it appears the latter was the case. That underscores the perilous straits Federer has drifted into, with nobody's hand but his own to guide the tiller. TMF recognized what a bold, gritty win like that could do for his fortunes, the only real question was whether he would muster the enthusiasm and focus to make the most of it. He couldn't do it; the failure was more glaring than startling.

So once again, the mantra goes up: What's wrong with Federer?

Not long ago, I suggested that he was in the third stage of greatness - the sector in which he loses some matches he's expected to win, has trouble motivating himself to win anything but Grand Slam titles, and has to find within himself the confidence, determination, faith and tools - those all important tools, like employing a good coach, shaking up his routine, finding subtle ways to communicate to his rivals that he isn't just mailing it in as his appetite fades -  to realize a streamlined list of ambitions. This process hasn't started yet, probably because Federer still believes he's living in stage 2, in which a player of his caliber is firing on all cylinders and running on the auto-pilot of genius.

The most striking thing about Federer today was the degree to which he simply threw away his chances. He won the first set over a guy he may not own, but rents often enough to keep slightly cowed and pressured. But he simply lost interest. In many ways - and this was true of both men, although with Djokovic you could put it down partly to feeling pressure - both men played as if this were a Tuesday afternoon practice on a not especially good day. That is, very little was at stake, and it was easier to limp through than muster the intensity to get the most out of the workout. Djokovic, to his credit, turned it around. Federer simply buried himself deeper and deeper into a funk.

I asked Djokovic in his presser if playing an newly "unpredictable" Roger Federer influenced his approach and thinking on the court, and he said:

"Well, I needed to adjust, and that was really necessary after the first set. It was obvious that I wasn't doing something right, and that he wasn't playing anything special. He was just playing really wisely and changing the pace and playing a lot of short slices to my backhand. That's where he opened up the opportunity to make the offensive shot. Afterwards, I was the one who was changing a lot of pace and I was playing a lot of spins and just waiting patiently. So you always need to adjust in the match. Even though you prepare the tactics before, sometimes it doesn't go the way you imagined or planned it to be. You just have to change it in the match."

I pulled that quote for an ulterior motive, so follow me here. First, I don't think this loss was nearly as devastating, significant, or crushing as some will make it out to be. Do you think they're going to put an asterisk on his nameplate in the International Hall of Fame: *Lost in three sets to Novak Djokovic in the Miami semis of 2009. Threw racket! Of course not. But the dangerous part for Federer is the degree to which Djokovic now moves one step closer to thinking he's got Federer figured out, and how much confidence the loss will give Djokovic, and all his other rivals. Because no matter what a player tells you, his fate isn't always in his own hands. The other guy has something to do with how things play out. Always.

This deadly combination of flagging interest on the part of the great champ and the swelling confidence of those who would count coup on him presents a formidable challenge, not least because at some point the nerves come into it. This is something not often discussed, but almost always germane, in the later stages of any player's career. A high-flying champion (see "M" for Murray) doesn't have to worry about that; his nerves as are as effectively shut out as his nervous system is locked in. But the struggling champ is a little like that proverbial old gunfighter; one day, the hands begin to shake a bit. One day, the reality of mortality sets in. One day, a tiny voice has erupted like a dormant virus in the back of the mind, and as the player draws a bead on a forehand it squeals: What if you miss? You'd better make this one! Go ahead, miss just this one, it won't kill you. . . 

At times, it seems like every player is given X-number of beautiful, unfettered, carefree swings of the racket in his career. The really great ones get a lot more of them, and put them to best use; the really sloppy ones squander them, often thinking that the supply is inexhaustible. Then at some point tremors of doubt, insecurity, fear or even boredom begin to tug at the wrist. Tennis is a game relentlessly based on repetition; the ability to acknowledge and live with that, no questions asked, is a form of intelligence and all the great players have it - until they don't.

Even the greatest players rebel against the repetition at some point, albeit unconsciously. I've sometimes thought that it's just the product of some innate urge to keep things interesting. Some desire to add a couple of pegs to the bar when it already sits at the very top of the posts. I'm not sure Federer thinks the bar can be moved any further up, and it's gotten to the point where it's just too danged demanding and monotonous to keep clearing the same height, over and over.

The one thing I am sure of is that it's not about the racket. That done broke already.

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