Giants fall too: Has Roger Federer's decline begun

2008-06-13 00:00

Many years ago, my parents took me to listen to a famous concert pianist who was scheduled to play in the Johannesburg City Hall. At the time, my musical appreciation did not extend beyond an LP with the dubious title of Bawdy Songs and Backroom Ballads, so I felt this was an act worthy of reporting to the society that protected children from cruelty.

My evening was saved, however, when the poor pianist, who was apparently in the throes of a marital crisis, was unable to complete her first piece and fled from the stage in tears, never to return. To this day, I can still remember the stunned look on the faces of all the deprived musical lovers as they trudged from the hall.

I was reminded of this last Sunday as I watched the faces of the crowd gathered round the Roland Garros centre court, as the men’s singles final drew to a close. They had gone to witness what they hoped would be an epic struggle between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. What they saw was an abbreviated slaughter unparalleled in the history of tennis. The game has seen many one-sided grand slam finals, but never one — to my recollection — where the No. 1 player in the world was on the receiving end. It was like watching someone shoot Bambi with a machine gun.

Federer has given much pleasure to tennis lovers for so long that his many fans may have been unwilling to acknowledge that the gap between him and his rivals has been decreasing ever since the Wimbledon final last year, when Nadal ran him so close. Grass is supposed to be the surface on which Federer is unbeatable, but who knows what would have happened last year had Nadal not suffered a minor leg injury when he seemed to have had Federer at his mercy.

This was not lost on Federer’s rivals. Djokovic failed to beat him in the final of the U.S. open for want only of a few ounces of self-belief. By the end of the year, however, the pack began to close in on the increasingly vulnerable champion. David Nalbandian beat him twice in succession by stepping up the pace of his ground strokes and depriving Federer of the precious milliseconds he requires to unleash his extraordinary array of strokes. In particular, Nalbandian began to attack Federer’s second serve with such success that the world No. 1 began to find it difficult to retain his service unless his first serve was in good working order.

For Federer, this year has been clouded by a glandular fever illness from which, despite what he says, he may not have fully recovered. At no stage this year has he appeared at ease with his game. He suffered a series of surprising defeats, and won just one tournament prior to the French Open. With Nadal at the very top of his game, it seemed far-fetched to imagine that this would be the year in which Federer would finally capture the elusive French title, but few foresaw the humiliation that awaited Federer in last Sunday’s final.

The question now is not whether Federer will ever win the French Open. That hope has surely gone for as long as Nadal stays fit. It is rather whether Federer will ever win the next grand slam title he needs to take him past Pete Sampras? It may be premature to write him off, but the omens are not good unless he can take his game to greater heights than we have seen these past nine months. Wimbledon represents his best chance because it has been on grass that he has been supreme, but, on current form and confidence, Nadal will beat him there. Nadal has lifted his game since last year, while Federer looks some way off his best. Of course, someone might do Federer a favour and take the Spaniard out in the early rounds, but Djokovic is also breathing down the champion’s neck.

If Federer serves well throughout the Wimbledon fortnight he might just win for a record sixth time in a row, but if that peerless serve falters for a couple of hours at any time, there are enough hard-hitting young guns in his part of the draw to cause an upset. Is it the case that the years without a coach have begun to take their toll on Federer? Even the best athletes need someone to tell them both the things that they might not want to hear and that they might not know.

Federer has played at such an elevated level for so long that he possibly began to believe all the hype that he was the greatest player of all time. Such a belief, however, can often be the prelude to trouble. Champions need a certain amount of arrogance in their make-up, but too much can lead to a blind spot in detecting and correcting the weaknesses that creep up on even the very best.

Federer is too intelligent a man not to know that this Wimbledon will be his most difficult to date. How he copes with a bunch of rivals that believe he is beatable will be the story of the championships. If he wins again it may be the greatest victory of his career, but for once my money is not on him.

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