Steve Tignor will return from vacation next Monday. In the meantime, we'll be running some past articles from Steve, including this one, a look at Roger Federer "in decline" in Canada, five summers ago:
This one is harder to explain.
Roger Federer has lost more often this year than in the recent past, but there were extenuating circumstances to his most significant defeats. They could be boiled, roughly speaking, down to two things: Illness and Nadal.
Federer’s loss in his opening-round match to Gilles Simon last night in Toronto, however, is tough to link to anything in particular. His own explanation was hard-court rust—he hadn’t practiced much on the stuff after Wimbledon—and the usual difficulty players have finding their groove right away in a first-rounder. Nadal himself suffered from the same thing when he went down 1-4 in the first set yesterday to Jesse Levine.
What made Federer’s match less explicable was that he didn’t have much trouble to start. He seemed determined to take the initiative against his counterpunching opponent, who looked a little overwhelmed by his first experience facing the world No. 1, and in an evening session to boot. Federer did what he could to increase that pressure by working to finish points quickly and at the net. Coming into the match, I had wondered whether Simon could give Federer trouble—they’d never played and the Frenchman won last week in Indy. But as the first set ended, I decided Simon was just too defensive for Federer. Like Nadal, he could run shots down; but unlike Nadal, he couldn’t respond to them with much force of his own.
There was a shift in the mood of the match early in the second set. Simon had settled down—he was finally ready to take his best shot and see what he could do—while Federer was showing signs of the forehand troubles that would explode on him at the end of the match. He was misfiring in particular on his approaches down the line; he looked like he was rushing and moving through them in an impatient effort to get to the net. Has he been listening too much to his many critical fans who have spent the last three years urging him to move forward, particularly against Nadal? (I think the Tennis Channel’s Robbie Koenig would like to see him take every ball out of the air. Which would be entertaining when you think about it.)
But no matter how many times he came to the net when he beat Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001, Federer is a power baseliner who can volley, rather than a natural net-rusher—his biggest advantage over other players will always be his forehand ground stroke—much the same way that Sampras was a server who could volley, rather than a classic serve-and-volleyer.
Or maybe Federer was just anxious because Simon had begun to get a read on his movement around the net and find the range on his passes. While Simon is an unimpressive presence (he's 5-foot-11, 150 pounds) and a less-than-imposing ball-striker—he caresses his backhand over the net—it’s hard to imagine Federer beating him any other way than running him off the court. He wasn’t going to out-defend him. Simon hits what looks to me like a tricky ball—low and slow, but not as slow as you might guess from watching his gentle swing, and just deep enough to keep his opponent from hauling off and hitting a clean winner on it. The Frenchman broke after a long game to go up 4-2, then gave it back by hitting a sitter volley into the tape. Again, I assumed he was going to lose, this time because it was clear he wasn’t ready to actually take a lead against Federer.
That still seemed to be the case even after Simon won the second set. He reached 30-30 on an early service game of Federer’s in the third, then went away again. Federer went up 3-1, and then played a superb game to reach 4-3. Still, the forehand was a problem. It even got to the point where Simon began serving into it on crucial points.
No matter how up and down Federer was through the evening, I don’t think anyone was prepared for the final game of the match. He served at 4-5 and immediately hit four wild, highly unforced errors. This was the point where Federer usually hangs on and survives an early-round test; instead, he “lost” his forehand. The only thing I could compare it to was a similar meltdown that Steffi Graf suffered against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the early 90s. We forget that Graf did anything other than mow down her opponents. But she had her days when she couldn’t keep her forehand inside the doubles alleys.
Graf relied utterly on her forehand, but it was a flat, late shot that was dependent on her athleticism more than her technique. In other words, it could go haywire. We’ve always thought of Federer as a complete player, and his forehand is much smoother than Graf’s was. The German's shot was a raw force of nature; Federer's is a kind of Platonic ideal of the stroke. But from a practical perspective, how much does he also rely on it to elevate him above his opponents? How much would his game suffer if it went just slightly more haywire, slightly more often? It’s a beautiful shot, but he takes risks with it by hitting it early and on the rise. With his ascent to the top of the rankings came a major decrease in the number of shanks he hit on both sides. But his whippy technique, on both his forehand and backhand, didn’t change or become any less risky.
Federer will be 27 on August 8. When Sampras turned 27, in August 1998, he was in the middle of his sixth and final full year as the No. 1 player in the world. Federer’s relinquishment of that spot at some point was always inevitable. And so was his increasing inconsistency. As much as age slows you down and robs you of explosiveness, it also does something more basic: it makes you miss more often. That to me is the simplest explanation for why Lleyton Hewitt is no longer in the Top 5. His game was predicated on not missing; as he got older, he missed more.
But what isn’t inevitable is seeing Federer lose his shots, particularly his forehand, completely. The times when Graf did were painful to watch. There was something not right about seeing her blast that famous roundhouse stroke 10 feet wide—her nickname was Fräulein Forehand, after all. There was something not right in seeing Federer do the same with his effortlessly lethal and elegantly efficient forehand as the match went on last night. Maybe it’s the pressure of the Slam record. Maybe it’s the rise of Nadal. Maybe it’s the Wimbledon final. Maybe it’s the lack of hard-court practice. Maybe it’s the aging process. Maybe it's the "monster" of expectations. Maybe it was just one match. Maybe it won’t last. I’m all for changing of the guards at No. 1, and I understand that losses happen. But as with Graf, if nothing else I want to see Federer hit his forehands in. Her force of athletic nature, his Platonic ideal: Those shots were put on the earth to work. The sport just wouldn't seem right otherwise.