“I have missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot... and missed. And I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why... I succeed.”
-- Michael Jordan
This is what the insiders say. Roger Federer is 30, half-a-step slower, the father of two, no longer invincible and his one-handed backhand can be broken down. He doesn’t even hit as many winners as he once used to, he gives up five years to most of his opponents. He is on the decline – not terminal but the slow, unstoppable kind that forces all sportsmen to eventually call it quits.
For the first set and a half during the Wimbledon final against Andy Murray – it all seemed to be true.
Federer was going for outright winners and more often than not, missing them. It seemed like the wrong strategy to begin with. The crowd was firmly behind Murray – the local hero – and to hand over the momentum to him was dangerous. He could have ridden the wave to victory. But then it started raining, the roof closed and the match turned on its head.
“This year I guess I decided in the bigger matches to take it more to my opponent instead of waiting a bit more for the mistakes,” Federer said after the final. “Yeah, this is I guess how you want to win Wimbledon, is by going after your shots, believing you can do it, and that’s what I was able to do today.”
When Federer lost to Djokovic in the semi-finals of the Australian Open in 2011 – he looked like a man who had come up against a wall and for the first time in his career, he had looked clueless. It was also the second straight major where Djokovic had knocked out the Swiss Master. The writing was on the wall and as clear as it could be – the others were catching up. And over the last two years we have seen ample evidence of that.
The irritation was writ large on his face and in his actions. During the first set, he had words with the umpire, objecting to Djokovic’s interaction with the coaches in his player’s box. During the third, he complained about the length of time - 13 bounces - that the Serb takes between each serve. Stuff you would never see him do, normally.
But even then, you only had to see the look in Federer’s eyes to know – this man wasn’t beaten. Not yet. There was something in the way he carried himself; there was something in the way he dismissed questions about his decline; there was something about the way he believed that at his best, he was unbeatable.
He was defiant but to the world at large, it was a façade – we all wondered how much longer could he keep it up?
To find an answer to the genesis of this confidence, one needs to go back to Shanghai in 2006. Federer had then explained the one thing which helped him turn his career around after the slow start when he regularly lost to the top players such as Lleyton Hewitt.
The 30-year-old had said his career finally took off when he learned not to panic on the court when he was down or under pressure - and that rather than giving up; he now “hangs in there and hopes for the best whenever things are down.”
And that’s what he did against Murray as well – he hung in there. He kept playing as well as he could and by the end, he was playing, in his own words, some of his best tennis. The commentators were calling it genius.
Many players believe that confidence is directly related to how many matches you win. But Federer realised that in order to become a champion, he needed to start thinking like one. Most players believe that ‘the belief will come’ but Federer believed and then made it happen.
In Federer’s mind – he is already a winner. Even before he steps on to the court – he sees himself playing brilliantly in every department of the game.
He never talks himself down. If he loses, it is because he didn’t play well. The opponent no matter who… did not beat him. He beat himself. Some thought of Federer’s attitude as arrogant but he was making sure that the inner dialogue in his mind was positive and upbeat at all times.
But most importantly, he needed to keep telling himself of all that he had won. The records, the trophies and that bit would have come to Federer pretty easily. The papers, the net, the television – they were all reminding him that history was his for the taking.
Belief is, in most cases, a fragile little thing. It often takes one little crack to destroy it. But when you consider how long Federer has lasted, one can’t help but think that his belief is made up of something different – it might suffice to say; it’s the stuff of champions.