Australian Open 2019: Roger Federer’s biggest weapon turns into his biggest enemy against Stefanos Tsitsipas

The post-match press conference in tennis, while sometimes a cruel imposition on the players, is almost always a huge storehouse of information. It gives us a fair indication of how the players take a loss, whether they are suffering any kind of physical trouble, and even – gasp! – Whether they are thinking of retirement.

In his press conference after losing to Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Australian Open fourth round, Roger Federer was short and straightforward with most of his answers, to the point of being curt. Mid-way through it he even decided to roast John McEnroe for claiming that Tsitsipas’ win was a ‘changing of the guard’.

Roger Federer reacts during his fourth-round match. AP

Roger Federer reacts during his fourth-round match. AP

“He’s in front of the mic a lot, so he’s always going to say stuff. I love John, and I’ve heard THAT story the last 10 years or so. From that standpoint, nothing new there,” he said.

As if that wasn’t enough, at the end of the presser he said something that left us confused whether he was being sarcastic or not. Asked whether he found the crowd in Rod Laver Arena to be ‘disturbing’ (read distracting) during the match, this is what he had to say:

“Disturbing? It was great! I love the crowd. I think they were fantastic. That there was an occasional excited guy screaming in the rally? It’s okay. I’d rather have it that way than the silent guys who don’t make a sound.”

In short, Federer let everyone know how he was feeling after this early loss: seriously pissed off. And that was a continuation his general mood from the match; he looked thoroughly annoyed throughout the 3 hours and 45 minutes that he was forced to trade blows with the young Greek sensation, right from the very first game.

He argued with the chair umpire, punctuated his errors by looking at his racquet angrily, and at one point during the third set tiebreaker gave the linesman such a fierce glare for making a wrong call that it seemed like daggers were about to shoot out from his eyes. Was his testiness a result of his erratic play, or was he making errors because he was not in the mood for the battle?

It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg kind of question, although Tsitsipas’ play from the other end had a big role to play in it too. The 20-year-old displayed nerves of steel every time he was put under pressure, somehow playing his best tennis on the biggest of points. You can’t teach that kind of temperament, which in itself is enough to suggest Tsitsipas will have a successful career going forward.

But if Tsitsipas played his best tennis on the biggest points, there’s little doubt that Federer played his worst tennis on those same points. He wasted break points (he had 12 in the match and still failed to break even once) through routine forehand errors. He lost mini-break leads through routine forehand errors. And when it was time to respond to Tsitsipas’ clutch play as Federer faced a break point of his own, he conceded the only break of the match through – you guessed it – a routine forehand error.

I assume you can sense a pattern here. Federer’s forehand has long been considered one of the most iconic and important shots in tennis history, but against Tsitsipas, when he needed it the most, it completely collapsed. And it wasn’t even like he was going for risky winners on those shots; most of the times he was merely trying to put the ball back in play.

In the crunch moments today, the most significant weapon in the arsenal of the presumptive GOAT couldn’t obey a command as simple as: ‘land in the court’.

The truly dumbfounding thing about this is that for the most part, Federer’s forehand was actually quite good. In neutral rallies, he frequently found acute forehand angles that put Tsitsipas out of position, and he was nearly flawless at putting away short returns.

Federer’s overall level was high too; he was moving well, hitting his backhand cleanly, and serving like a dream. This match was nowhere close to John Millman territory. And yet, the result might have left Federer even more disappointed than that unceremonious fourth-round exit at the US Open last summer.

“Definitely didn’t go the way I was hoping on the breakpoints,” he said in the presser. “I also didn’t break him in the Hopman Cup so clearly something is wrong. How I return him or what I’m trying to do…he’s doing a good job at it, to defend them, but nevertheless, it’s very frustrating.”

Trust Federer to be the best judge of his own play. There was definitely ‘something wrong’ with the way he was returning Tsitsipas’ serve. In particular, there was something wrong with his forehand return to the 20-year-old’s second serve.

Tsitsipas repeatedly hit loopy second serves to what is considered Federer’s stronger wing. And Federer repeatedly responded by either making an error or allowing the Greek to start the rally from a neutral position.

Federer’s second serve return has not been a significant force for a while now. But on this day, with his rally forehand also letting him down on the important points, the magnitude of the problem really hit home: his biggest strength had effectively become his worst enemy.

Why that happened, and that too in such a high-stakes match, is something that Federer’s coaching team will likely spend countless hours poring over in the next few weeks. But what will give them solace is that Federer’s loss seemed more mental than physical.

He matched Tsitsipas shot for shot throughout the match, and on several occasions even outwitted him through sheer skill. That he fell agonisingly short of the finish line – I’m willing to bet he’d have won the match if he had taken one of the breakpoints at 5-4 in the second set – was purely down to the fact that he couldn’t match Tsitsipas’ steadiness and self-belief.

Lost self-belief seems like an easier problem to fix than a permanently receded game. And although Federer’s game has declined bit by bit over the years, it is still good enough to keep him relevant at the Slams – and actually seems to be in better shape than it was at the end of 2018.

Maybe that is why the Swiss declared after the match that he would play the clay-court season this year. “I don’t feel it’s necessary to have a big break again,” he said, and he’s right about that. If he can remain injury-free, and if he can work on ironing out the chinks in his game, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t play as much as he wants to.

While the clay decision may have been an innocuous attempt to get some match practice (and some much-needed ranking points) in the lead-up to Wimbledon, it immediately sparked fears that he is going to retire from the game at the end of 2019. But think back to Federer’s irritation at his press conference, and you get the feeling that he still has unfinished business.

“I have massive regrets tonight,” he said in one of his more pensive trains of thought. “I might not look the part, but I am (disappointed).”

Those words don’t sound like they are coming from a man who is on the verge of calling it quits. They sound like they are coming from a man who is itching to make things right. And that can only be good news for his fans.

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Updated Date: Jan 21, 2019 12:21:13 IST

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