Federer closes in

2014-11-01 00:00

IN a year of often grim news, will sport’s story of the year be that of Roger Federer’s rise from decline to glory?

For that to happen I imagine he will have to lead Switzerland to a Davis Cup victory and win the Master’s finale indoors in London. So good is his form that such a double, improbable only six months ago, is certainly not impossible.

Federer has consistently demonstrated that he has long been difficult to beat indoors where his artistry is not compromised by the vagaries of weather or the inconsistent bounces of natural surfaces. Even during his years of apparent decline he was more than a match indoors for those outside the gang of four that has dominated men’s tennis for the best part of a decade.

In his present attacking mode of play he is brushing aside most of the new generation of pretenders with dismissive ease. He took less than an hour to see off David Goffin in the Basle final whereas Andy Murray took over three hours to defeat Tommy Robredo in a different final played on the same day.

By refusing to be drawn into slugfests from the back of the courts with players who are both younger and stronger than he is, Federer is not only taking such opponents out of their comfort zones, but is preserving his own energy for the sharp end of tournaments.

I cannot help feeling that when Federer looks back on his remarkable career he will regard the years between 2010 and 2013 as “lost years” when his defensive mindset made life easier for his opponents.

For too long he stubbornly resisted any advice to play the more attacking game of his younger days when net play was a feature of his arsenal.

The received wisdom had become that, with the advance of racquet and string technology, net play was futile against the top players, who liked nothing more than a target for their booming forehands and double fisted backhands.

As Federer began to show his age, his ability to win protracted rallies against the big hitters deteriorated to such an extent that enormous pressure was placed on his service just to keep him in matches, let alone win them.

His service was usually good enough to see him through to the latter stages of most tournaments and even to win the couple of Grand Slams he needed to take him past Pete Sampras’s record, but he began to falter at surprising moments. His failure to defeat Juan Martin Del Potro at the U.S. Open in 2009 should have been a warning to Federer that something needed to change.

In that match he surrendered a lead of two sets to one when the big Argentinian found his range from the back of the court and blasted an increasingly irascible and frustrated Federer off the court. To be fair to Federer, 2009 was a pretty good year. Had he beaten Del Potro, he would have won three of the four Grand Slam tournaments.

It was too easy for Federer to dismiss the Del Potro loss as one of those things that happens in a long career, but it was a sign that the pack was closing in on him.

It was no longer just Nadal that threatened his supremacy. The younger generation realised that Federer was beatable if they could attack his backhand and weaker second serve. It was time for Federer to move forward on the court and shorten the rallies, but he was reluctant to change a game that had brought him so much success.

The fact is that since the Del Potro defeat, it is only the defensive minded Andy Murray that he has beaten in a Grand Slam final. The stronger, heavy hitting players have been too much for him in the five set matches.

One should accept that a bad back spoiled 2013 for him. It was the first time in his career that injury played a part in reducing his effectiveness, but it was also the year in which Federer came to accept that, if he wanted to stay in the sport, he needed to make changes.

He began by employing Stefan Edberg, one of the greatest serve and volley players, to work on his dormant ability to approach the net and volley.

The changes did not bring immediate results, but, importantly, Federer began to believe again. He could see that with improved execution he still had all the skills and physical wherewithal to make the strategy work.

Far from denting his confidence, his close loss in the Wimbledon final to Djokovic was an assurance that he was on the right track. He may have been hammered off the court by a red hot Cilic in the U.S. Open semi-final, but the ease with which he has cruised to three titles since then has set him up for a glorious Indian summer that has excited his fans and given them hope for more to come in the new year.

Just how glorious his finish to this year will be remains to be seen. The Davis Cup final against France will be played over five sets per match on clay. Some argue that clay is not Federer’s favourite surface, but, had it not been for Nadal, Federer might well have been regarded as one of the best clay court players of all time.

His likely opponents in the singles, Benneteau and Simon, are both nursing wounds from recent matches against the great man, but for Switzerland to win the Davis Cup Federer will need some help from the out-of-form and ill-tempered Wawrinka.

The Davis Cup final has not often attracted attention outside of the competing countries, but, with Federer in it, this one should be an encounter to savour.

Later in the month Federer will contest the Master’s finale in London. A win there will restore Federer to the top of the men’s rankings — an achievement that was unthinkable 12 months ago.

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