Roger Federer has lost his aura of invincibility

2009-01-23 00:00

WHAT a difference 12 months have made for Roger Federer. When the Australian Open began last year, the only question seemed to be when the world number one would go past Pete Sampras’s total of 14 grand slam victories. The previous year had been one of such success that only the French Open had eluded his reach. Many thought it was still within Federer’s capability to claw in all four slams in a single year.

From the first matches in last year’s Aussie Open, it was apparent that something was amiss with the great man. Matches that he should have put away with ease troubled him. Errors flew from his racquet. His service lacked the bite and accuracy of former years. At times he seemed listless. His speed about the court was down. It was no surprise that he eventually succumbed in straight sets to Novak Djokovic.

We now know that he had been struggling to recover from a bout of glandular fever and that he should not have been playing any tennis, let alone an arduous grand slam tournament in the middle of an Australian summer. But even when Federer was fit again, he was unable to recover his majesty of 2007 and by his standards the rest of the year was a disappointment.

He lost his position as the world’s number one to Nadal as he began to be beaten by a variety of players who once would have been fortunate to have taken a set off him. Nevertheless, the year did yield him the U.S. Open to bring him within one of Sampras’s record, and it was that victory that gave us hope that this year would be different.

We realised that Andy Murray had joined Rafa Nadal as one of the two players who seemed to have the wood on Federer, but that was then. We convinced ourselves that the new year would find Federer rejuvenated from his vacation and ready to remind these pretenders of their place in the jungle. Federer himself began talking up his chances of the French title notwithstanding the lock clamped on that championship by Nadal.

It was in that frame of mind that we settled down on Monday to watch Federer play Andreas Seppi in the first round down under. For 23 minutes, Federer was everything we hoped he would be. Winners of astonishing virtuosity streamed from his racquet as though last year was an aberration to be forgotten. His serve was fast and accurate. He looked sharp and hungry. Poor Seppi was nothing more than collateral damage blown away by the full range of Federer’s deadly skills.

Then, out of nowhere, last year’s model reappeared. His first serve faltered and Seppi swarmed all over the second serve. Like the journeymen who beat Federer last year, Seppi began to pound his backhand. The match that should have been done and dusted by 11.30 pm Melbourne time dragged on into the early hours of the morning.

In the end, Federer eventually put his man away, but his failings from last year were still apparent. At his best he had the uncanny instinct of a predator to sense when his opponent’s resolve began to weaken. He had the ability to move in and finish his prey off in a flurry of brilliant, killer strokes. He was once merciless at the death of a match, but against Seppi one felt that Federer was in danger of squandering one chance too many. Even his indefatigable Myrna wore the look of someone about to scour the airlines for tickets home on Tuesday morning.

In his post-match interview, Federer professed himself satisfied with his match. He had played well, he said, because he had had to in order to get past a good player who had put up a great fight. I think he was kidding himself. He must have known that there was too much of last year’s shaky form in his play. He will know that he cannot afford to play like that again if he wants to reach the semi-finals, let alone contend for the title itself.

The question is, can he play at his best against opponents who not only know how to beat him but also have the skills to execute a winning strategy? Can his backhand withstand the hammering that it will certainly receive from the two-fisters that are increasingly dominating the game? Will his first serve work well enough to protect him from the assaults that await his weakening second serve?

At his best Federer can win another slam, but only at his best. Nothing else will do for him. Gone are the days when he could get away with a series of off days. He is still good enough to create the chances to beat any one in the field, but if I was in his camp I would be worrying about his ability to win the big points against the better players.

He has lost that aura of invincibility along with the confidence of the killer instinct that once finished off his opponents. Murray, Nadal and Djokovic, two-fisters all, still respect Federer enough not to dismiss him but they are no longer afraid of him. The rugged beasts of the modern game have begun to make life awkward for the most lethal panther ever to prowl the courts.

I have a sad feeling that the Sampras record is safe.

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