Long before he was a disgraced, doping cyclist, Lance Armstrong came up with a wonderful title for his autobiography: It’s Not About The Bike. I’m tempted to say that despite all the talk about Federer’s decision to change to a larger racquet with a 98 square-inch head, the headline for a story of about the state of his game ought to be, It’s Not About the Racquet.
Federer met ATP No. 45 Florian Mayer in the Hamburg quarterfinals today and barely squeaked out a two-hour, three-set win, 7-6 (4), 3-6, 7-5. Very little of what went on seemed to have much to do with adjusting to his new racquet, unless you want to take the really, really long view, arguing that Federer just can’t find his game with the thing and has utterly lost confidence because of it.
The more likely explanation from my angle is that he’s in a state of crisis alright, but the racquet is a relatively small part of it. For this match was one of large-scale momentum shifts and a kind of equality of proficiency that would have made it an excellent spectacle—were the men both the same class of player. The command, poise, and superior response to pressure that has characterized Federer’s game for so many years seemed to be lacking.
The start was ominous. Mayer held and then forced Federer to play a long game to get on the board. Through the first five games, the men looked evenly matched—if anything, Mayer had an easier time holding. In fact, the 29-year-old German had a break point in the sixth game, but made an unforced service-return error to give up the advantage. Federer went on to hold for 3-all.
Mayer responded with an easy hold, punctuated by an ace.
The set spooled out on serve, and Federer bagged the first mini-break of the tiebreaker when Mayer botched a volley on the very first point. Mayer recovered to serve at 3-4, but lost both of his service points. Federer took the set with a blazing forehand down the line—shades of old times.
Mayer fought off two break points in the second game of the second set to tie the score at 1-all. Then Federer went into the kind of swoon that he can ill afford against a journeyman, never mind one of his peers. He was broken when he made three consecutive groundstroke errors (two of them backhands) and an emboldened Mayer ripped an untouchable forehand down the line. Mayer staved off two break points in the next game and broke with ease again, parlaying a critical forehand error off a service return and an excellent volley off Federer’s second attempt to pass him (Mayer’s attack was superb) at break point.
In the blink of an eye, it seemed, Federer was down 1-5. He earned back one of those breaks, but was broken for the third time in the set to end it.
Federer had won the first set thanks to his cooler nerve in the tiebreaker, but he was overwhelmed in the second by a better, more consistent player. The third set began with a pair of holds, after which Federer got the first breakthrough for 2-1, with serve.
At about this time in the program, Federer in days of yore would have found a higher gear and left Mayer far behind in the rear-view mirror. But he played a wretched game, setting up a Mayer break with a woeful smash at 30-all. He never recovered sufficiently to reach game point, and Mayer broke him at his second opportunity when he tracked a drop shot that clipped the netcord, dumped it back cross-court, and watched as Federer’s forehand dig sailed wide.
If there was a turning point in this match it was in the next two games. Federer eked out another break with an excellent passing shot off a Mayer volley for 3-2, then held with authority as his opponent's game just went away. It might have been the critical breakthrough, yet Federer found a way to let Mayer back into it. The underdog held, broke an error-prone Federer for 4-all, and held to go up 5-4.
Federer will undoubtedly take heart from the way he played a solid, poised game to even it at 5-5, and that momentum helped earn the last break of the match. Mayer, to his credit, kept attacking, but Federer’s returns were too hot for him to handle up at the net, as was a beauty of a cross-court forehand to drive the score to 0-40. Mayer escaped the first break point with a winning drop shot, but could only watch, helpless, as Federer returned his ensuing second serve with a whistling cross-court forehand to break for 6-5.
Unlike yesterday, when Federer wasted five match points, he converted the first one he had today, at the two-hour mark in what had turned out to be a protracted, sometimes ugly struggle. But as long as Federer is willing to roll his sleeves up and get down and dirty, there will always be hope that he’ll weather whatever crisis he’s facing.