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April 4, 2009 - Federer's record is not improving--Time marches on
   

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 By Charles Bricker


His eyes were red (had he cried again after this 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 semifinal defeat?) and his ostentatiously monogrammed baseball cap was pulled down tight over his forehead as Roger Federer delivered a lot of predictable answers in his post-match press conference Friday.

Predictable for the most part. All but one answer. And it was an answer that left me blinking. " . . . thank God the hardcourt season is over."

Or, to put it in complete context: "No, look, it's been a tough last year or so, especially in the hardcourts. My game never really clicked, you know, except for the U.S. Open, where I thought I played great. I think when I was finding my form again (in 2008), it hit me with the back problem. It was unfortunate, you know, but thank God the hardcourt season is over."

Say that again, Fed.

". . . thank . . . God . . . the . . . hardcourt . . . . season . . . is . . . over."

Here's a guy who forged his career on hardcourts and grass saying he's glad the hardcourt season is over? Why? So he can move onto clay to compete on the only Grand Slam surface he hasn't mastered?

"It's the end," said Federer, closing out the January to early-April hardcourt season. "I don't care anymore. I'm moving over to clay, a new chapter."

He's locked into playing just two clay tournaments before the French. "Yes, it's going to stay that way," he said. But then, he caught himself. "Nothing is set in stone. You never know. I don't know."

So where in his career is Mr. Monogram (he also carries a script F on his shirt sleeves and the back of his shoes, though it isn't known if he also has a monogram F on his underwear or his velvet smoking jacket) as he struggles on to find that record-tying 14th major title?

I've been marking his slow decline since he was pushed to a fifth set at the 2007 Wimbledon by Rafael Nadal, though the legions of Federer worshippers have been in denial for months about his retreat from No. 1.

Two things are gone from the game that carried him to dominance for nearly four years -- the effectiveness of his running forehand, which was a signature shot, and his mental strength in deciding sets. I chronicled just yesterday how he's now lost 10 of his last 16 deciding sets since Nadal whipped him 9-7 in the fifth at the 2008 Wimbledon.

Why has he declined in those areas? You'll hear people tell you he needs a coach. You'll hear people tell you he'll be just fine once he gets over his injuries and/or illnesses. Federer needs a coach like Mozart needed a music teacher. Nick Bollettieri thinks he needs a coach to kick his butt, to tell him to just go out there and beat the crap out of Rafael Nadal. That sounds silly to me. The guy's got 13 Slam titles. He knows what it takes to win a major. As far as the injuries are concerned, I've heard enough about mononucleosis and especially about this year's big excuse, a bad back.

We're three months into the season and I can tell you there isn't a top 20 player out there that isn't hurting somewhere -- a wrist that is painful when you hit with too much top . . . a shoulder that stings when you try to crank up a 135 mph serve . . . a knee that tweaks when you pivot just the wrong way. But I don't hear anyone except Federer constantly mentioning injuries.

If you hurt, guess what. It comes with the ATP territory. Or does Federer think he's the only player out there who is handicapped in some way by a lingering injury?

You can't stay at the top of your potential forever, but that's not the only reason Federer is probably only the third-best player in the world and maybe the fourth. He's now lost a collective 10 straight to Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. There also are his competitors. He's 27 years old and he's not going to get significantly better. He's topped out his skill at an extremely high level while Nadal (22 years old) and Djokovic and Murray (both 21) still have upside. Nadal's second serve can still get better . . . Djokovic's mental strength can get more solid . . . and Murray could use a much better second serve. They're young and they're still improving. Federer is not going to improve. Figure it out.

That racket smash in the third set against Djokovic on Friday? It was significant only as a sign of just how tortured Federer has become by his inability to play at his 2005-07 level. Time marches on, people. Maybe Federer still doesn't believe that applies to him, but it does.

Charles Bricker can be reached at bricker@tennisnews.com

 

 


 

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