Reading the Readers: July 31

Wednesday, July 31, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

As always, it seems too early for August, but here we are, just a few hours away. Before mid-summer turns sadly to late summer, I give you one more Reading the Readers. If you have a question or a comment for this column, please email me at stignor@tennismagazine.com.

*****

Steve,

Yes or no: Will Roger Federer still be playing next year?—Gerry

Steve,

What do you think are the chances that Federer “pulls a Sampras” and wins the U.S. Open?—Maxine

These seem to be the two default modes when it comes to Federer at the moment: Blind hope and all-out panic. I’ll address them one at a time, panic first.

Gerry, I’ll give you the same short answer to your question that I’ve been giving everyone else: Yes, he’ll be playing next season. I can see where a fan who reads that Federer lost to Federico Delbonis and Daniel Brands in consecutive weeks would begin to think that the end is nigh for Sire Jacket. But headlines don’t come with context, and there is context to consider here. Federer’s back was hurting in Hamburg and Gstaad; he wasn’t even walking like his normal self in between points. The matches were on clay, his least favorite surface. He was trying out a significantly larger new racquet. And Delbonis and Brands can both hit the ball; each is better than his ranking at the time indicated. Still, there’s no question that it hasn’t been a good couple of months for the 31-year-old Federer.

Recently he has taken to saying that he “plans to play for many more years.” I think he says that partly to fend off the inevitable, and inevitably irritating, questions of retirement; after his Wimbledon loss he volunteered the statement as early in his press conference as he could. His goal of making it to the Rio Olympics is also a good way to fend off questions of decline. I’m not going to guarantee he'll make it to 2016, but I also don’t think this summer slump is a reason to write his tennis obituary.

Federer reminded us last week that he has been in this position before and has come back to win majors. That’s true, and worth remembering: For much of 2011, he had trouble closing big matches, and it appeared that Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, who played four straight Grand Slam finals during one stretch, had passed him for good. I wrote then that I didn’t think Federer would ever be No. 1 again. He proved me wrong by going on a tear through the end of 2011 and the start of 2012, which he capped with his 17th Grand Slam title, at Wimbledon. 

As the years go by, though, each time his results drop off, there’s a little less chance they’re going to bounce back up to the stratospheric heights of the past. In 2011, Federer turned 30; in a few days, he’ll be 32. His ranking is now No. 5, his streak of 36 straight quarterfinals at the majors is over, and Andy Murray has joined Djokovic and Nadal in the Grand Slam winners' circle.

Federer claims he doesn’t know what he’s ranked right now, which is a little harder to believe than the idea that he’ll “play for many more years.” He also claims that he doesn’t care what he’s ranked. How true that is might be the key factor in how long we see him play. Federer once said that he didn’t like being introduced before matches as the “world No. 3”; that was a few years ago, and I’m guessing he’s gotten over it by now. The question is, what can he live with? If Federer does start to lose earlier at the big events, as he did in Paris and at Wimbledon, and if he continues to have trouble with his back, will he be able to maintain his famous enthusiasm for competition? He may not care about being No. 1 anymore, but he should probably be concerned about his ranking for at least one reason: The lower it goes, the earlier he'll have to face the other top guys in tournaments. We’ve heard many many times that Federer loves tennis and loves to compete, but like anyone else, what he really loves is to win. We’ll have a better idea of how long he’ll last on tour if and when he starts doing less of it.

OK, now for some blind hope. Maxine, you seem to have gone for the “can history please repeat itself?” angle when it comes to Federer. In 2002, Pete Sampras lost early at Wimbledon and slogged his way through a long, hot, bad summer of early losses and retirement questions, before catching fire at the U.S. Open and winning his 14th and final Grand Slam. Does Federer’s poor streak of play portend the same surprise happy ending? Do champions have a way of getting off the mat and proving people wrong?

Champions do have a way of getting off the mat and proving people wrong—except when they don't. Sampras's 2002 U.S. Open was the exception; there have been plenty of bad runs of form that have just led to more bad form at the next Grand Slam. And Sampras always had an unbeatable weapon, his serve, in his back pocket.

But the thing about tennis is: An historical repeat is possible. This isn’t a team sport, where a long losing streak will leave you out of the playoffs entirely, with no chance to even compete for the big prize. Whatever Federer does coming to New York, if his back allows him to play 100 percent here, he’ll have an opportunity to win the U.S Open. And in the future, whatever is ranking may be, he'll still have an opportunity to win majors—if this year’s Wimbledon showed us anything, it’s that draws can open up in a hurry.

Will he win another Slam? If you had asked me at the start of 2013, I would have said yes. Now I don’t know. What I will say is that if Marion Bartoli can win one, so can Roger Federer.

*****

I see that the U.S. Open has announced another pay increase; the winners will get $2.6 million, the most ever. How much is too much in an economy like this one?—James

That’s a good question. On the plus side, this isn’t just a case of the richest getting even richer. The champions will get a 37 percent raise, but so do the quarterfinalists, and second- and third-round losers get a 43 percent bump. I don’t believe, as some do, that tennis needs more money to attract more and better athletes; a young LeBron James didn’t reject tennis as his sport because he didn’t think it would pay enough. But we talk a lot in this country about how blue-collar jobs no longer pay people a middle-class wage. The recent across-the-board raises at the Grand Slams should allow more tennis players to live a little more securely. 

On the minus side, a fan can reasonably ask: Where is this money going to come from? Higher ticket prices? More tickets sold, which will mean more people on the grounds? More expensive concessions? A longer tournament, with more watered-down sessions? It's going to be made up somehow, that much we know. We'll see what happens to the prices and the experience at the Open this year and in the future. For now, I still say that, compared to other sporting events, when you attend a first-week session at Flushing Meadows, you get your money's worth. It takes a lot of quality tennis players, not just a few stars, to make that true.

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