At the Australian Open this year, Roger Federer put in a disappointing performance in his semi-final against Andy Murray. Not taking anything away from Murray, who played an outstanding match, many commentators have expressed the view that Federer, arguably the greatest player of all time, is in decline.
Any word stronger than decline is premature – Federer continues to win a slam each year and even spent time at world #1 in 2012 – but he is far from his old, invincible self.
Many have noted that Federer is slowing down, but that is to be expected. He has changed his game accordingly, like taking more risks and trying to dictate play from the centre mark, but what’s more worrying are other trends.
In years past, Federer was widely regarded as having the best serve on tour. He had tremendous variety on both deliveries, a first serve percentage consistently above 65%, and was a sure bet to drop a bomb on big points. He out-aced Roddick, a serve-oriented player, in their 2009 Wimbledon final 50-27.
Against Murray, he served five aces in five sets.
Federer’s accuracy is also down., although this used to be a good thing. As a youngster, Federer played the lines too much and took unnecessary risks, but coach Tony Roach tightened his play and worked hard to ‘cool off’ his star pupil. But now Federer frequently places his pedestrian attacking shots more than a metre inside the sideline. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his games against Rafael Nadal, where he is required to frequently rush to the net. These approaches come in behind shallow approach shots that don’t put adequate pressure on the Spaniard, who now easily makes the pass. Federer’s accuracy must improve.
These factors are important, but they pale in significance to the biggest contributor to Federer’s decline; the deterioration of his mental game. Any coach will tell you that high level tennis is a mental sport. The best players play their best tennis on the biggest points, where the rewards are greatest thanks to the quirks of the scoring system.
Federer used to be no exception, but now he chokes. Hard. He can’t buy a first serve on big points and often plays defensively instead of taking the risks commensurate to the rewards on offer.
This trend began with the infamous 2009 Australian Open final against Nadal where Federer cried after his agonising loss. Federer had thrown everything at Nadal but still came up short. However, the untold story of that match is Federer’s appalling break point conversion statistics (6/19) and dismal performance returning Nadal’s second serve. Nadal really messed up something in Roger’s head that day and things haven’t been the same since.
I still expect Federer to win big tournaments and beat the top players, but a return to godhood is inconceivable. He just doesn’t care enough, but I think that’s quite alright. After all, he’s still the greatest of all-time..
Mark Fabian is the head tennis coach of the ANU Tennis Club