Too Soon to Panic?
On Friday I began by quoting from Gordon Forbes’ amateur-era memoir, A Handful of Summers. Since you can't really beat the man’s writing when it comes to tennis anecdotes and humor, I’ll open this post by referencing his second book. No quotes are needed; the title alone should be enough to give us a theme. It was called Too Soon to Panic.
You know where this is going. Is it too soon to panic? This is the question that many fans of Roger Federer are asking, now that he’s lost his 15-match win streak over Lleyton Hewitt, as well as his title in Halle, which seemed to have come with a lifetime guarantee. If my own club is any indication, it might be the Fed fans who are most likely to answer with an emphatic “yes.” This weekend I asked the club’s pro, a diehard Federer-ite, when we should start worrying.
“If he loses to Hewitt today.”
“Well, he lost.”
“He lost? I’m worrying.”
A few minutes later I mentioned the upset to another member who has a more neutral view on the subject. His response, which he said out of the side of his mouth as he walked past me, was to the point: “Whatever.” In other words, no need to panic, or worry, or think twice about it. It's Federer, relax.
So what does his loss to Hewitt mean, if anything, for his chances at Wimbledon? Generally, it's harder to predict Federer's Slam form based on his tune-up form than it is Rafael Nadal's. He's not as much of a confidence player as Rafa—with Federer, the confidence is ingrained but the shots can go haywire; with Nadal it's the reverse. Look at 2008: It was clear that Nadal was on a roll when he came to Wimbledon that year, and he did end up winning it. The opposite was true with Federer when he came to the U.S. Open. He'd lost to Gilles Simon and Ivo Karlovic in Toronto and Cincinnati, but he rebounding to win at Flushing Meadows. A similar phenomenon happened in 2009, when Federer had a horrible spring before winning in Madrid and at the French Open, and again this winter, when he lost to Davydenko in Doha, then came back to beat him in Melbourne on the way to winning the tournament.
Federer's most recent performance at a major offers a slightly different possibility for his immediate future. He started the clay season horribly, shanking his way through losses to Gulbis and Montanes and struggling with his forehand, the way he did at times against Hewitt in Halle. In Madrid, though, Federer willed his way through a win over Gulbis and found an acceptable clay-court form in losing to Nadal in the final. It was pretty much the same form that he carried into the quarters in Paris, and which wasn't enough to get him past Soderling for the first time in his career.
By that think piece of evidence, we can say that draws will become more important to Federer's success than they have been in the past. In Paris, aside from Nadal, Soderling was probably the worst quarterfinal opponent Federer could have played. I’d say Federer is in a similar position going into Wimbledon. The loss to Hewitt, a guy he’s owned, shows that, while Federer will be on his best surface rather than his worst in London, his current form leave him with just a sliver of vulnerability, one that could be discovered and exploited by a big hitter who happens to land in his quarter—a Berdych, a Gulbis (if he plays), a Soderling, an Isner or a Gonzalez. Maybe even Hewitt. This is a reason to worry, naturally; but worry is the natural state of all fans. Is it a reason to panic? Not quite. With the right draw, any vulnerability in the Federer serve or forehand could easily go undetected during the fortnight.
OK, let’s change the question slightly, moving from Gordon Forbes to ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption. There they play a game they call “Too Soon?” As in, is it too soon to make a prediction about a player’s future based on one limited and perhaps incidental event.
The two Andy’s, Murray and Roddick, who floundered in Queens, are in trouble coming into Wimbledon.
“Trouble” is too strong a word, so it is too soon to use this phrasing. But neither is where they want to be at the moment, for slightly different reasons. Murray, though he’s still ranked No. 4 in the world, hasn’t been a dominating force for most of this year, and he can’t seem to find a way out of his essentially defensive game. He’s been hit off the court this spring by Soderling and Berdych, and beaten twice by Mardy Fish, including once on grass last week at Queens. He was in a funk for most of that match, but he won’t be—he can’t be—next week. The wild card for Murray is the Wimbledon Thing: Last year, he thrived on the excitement early in the event; it counterbalanced his usual moodiness and gave his sometime wayward emotions a focus (sort of like the focus that Marat Safin gained when he played Davis Cup). A boost from the fans and the atmosphere could be just what Murray needs. Otherwise, he looks vulnerable.
While Roddick suffered a rare loss to a significantly lower-ranked player—Dudi Sela—at Queens, his problem isn’t form as much as it is momentum and rhythm. He hasn’t had enough match play to build either since way back at Key Biscayne in April, and Roddick gets antsy when he has to sit around waiting to get out there. This could have an affect on him in the early rounds, if he draws a quality opponent.
The Other Americans—as in Fish, Querrey, and Isner—are a legitimate part of the Wimbledon conversation now.
Too soon. All of them have the serve-based games that can work on grass; of the three, I think Isner, with his dominating delivery, is the most likely pull off a tiebreaker-heavy upset of a top seed. Just as important, he's the most outwardly ambitious and grittiest of them; he seems to have willed himself against great odds into the Top 25. Fish also has the strong serve and a shot-making style from the ground, but he got tight at the end of the second set in the Queens final and gave the match away. After a nice week, he ended it on the sidelines with his towel over his head, and some of the wind out of his sails going into Wimbledon. Still, he'll be unseeded, and the definition of a "guy no one wants to face" in the first round.
As for the flavor of the day, Querrey’s win at Queens was impressive for two reasons: (1) The way he cleared his head so quickly and completely by taking a week off—when he left Paris, I wondered if we’d ever see the guy again. He’s a levelheaded and self-aware kid with the strength to be honest with himself and the media. (2) For the way he put himself into position to hit as many forehands as he did in the Queens final. He didn’t need to run around his backhand all that much, but somehow the ball kept coming back to his forehand. Patrick McEnroe has praised Querrey’s “court sense,” that nebulous, know-it-when-I-see-it term that’s the rough equivalent in the NBA to “basketball IQ.” Querrey gets it, but does he get it at the majors? That we haven’t seen. Going back to the NBA (I’m turning into Brad Gilbert here, I know), the Slams are what you might call “playoff basketball,” which means there's more intensity, rougher play, and a cutthroat mentality. Querrey’s even-keel style has worked well in the low-key world of the regular season—he’s won three 250s this year—but hasn’t gotten him deep in the playoffs. But if Sam has shown us anything since the French Open, it was way too soon, for him or his fans, to panic.