It used to be so simple: a toss, a flick, a stroll, and a final glorious touch that sent the ball into acres of wide open court. The opponent wouldn't know what had hit him, the commentators couldn't explain how he had made it possible, and the crowd struggled to remember what good karma they had accumulated in their lives that they were lucky enough to witness the magic live.
When Roger Federer was winning matches with authority, everything seemed easy. All the mechanics of his game seemed perfectly in sync — the serve, the forehand, the volley, the movement. And it all happened so quickly that sometimes we didn't have the time to fully appreciate his genius. Not that we cared; it was enough just to see him do his thing.
Is it any surprise, then, that his recent run of mediocre results has looked so complicated? We accepted the good as it was; it was so simple that it just made sense, no questions asked. But when the tide has turned, it feels exactly the opposite: nothing seems to make sense anymore.
To be fair, Federer is not exactly in a crisis. He is old enough, and accomplished enough, to know that an eventual decline is inevitable. And even though he lost a surprisingly one-sided semi-final to Borna Coric in Shanghai on Saturday, what’s telling is that he reached the semi-final in the first place. That's no mean feat at the age of 37, even if you are named Roger Federer.
But there was something about Federer's run in Shanghai that made it feel thoroughly, well, un-Federer-like. The stats were seriously funky: he won less than 30 percent of his second serve points in the first two sets against Daniil Medvedev, and that number went down to an alarming zero percent in the second set against Roberto Bautista Agut. Even more strangely, he got broken as many as three times in that second set against Bautista Agut, despite putting in an astronomical 79 percent of first serves.
Federer not winning a set after putting in even 70 percent first serves is something that never used to happen. It just didn't. Federer getting broken three times after putting in close to 80 percent first serves? That's just all kinds of wrong.
Clearly, something is new about Federer's problems. He has lost matches before, and even lost his cool before. But he has never found it difficult to back up his serve; when that shot was finding its mark, you could be sure that the rest of his game was flowing freely too.
But that was far from the case in Shanghai.
The man himself had identified the cause for concern as far back as Wimbledon. Kevin Anderson's incredible comeback there had generated a lot of buzz, and everyone kept talking about how Federer had let a match point slip from his grasp. But what was lost amid the drama was how much Federer struggled to find the gaps with his groundstrokes. Anderson is not known for his movement, and yet Federer couldn't penetrate through his defence.
“I couldn’t really get the rallies going the way I wanted to, especially the 1-2 punch wasn’t working at all today. I don’t know if it had something to do with the breeze, just a bad day from my side,” Federer had said after his loss to Anderson. “Once I couldn’t get the 1-2 punch going, once I was in the rallies, it’s hard to get him moving.”
Federer, despite all of his handy wrist work and sly dinks from the back of the court, is an aggressive player; the kind that thrives on the 1-2 punch. If that’s not working for him, he’s in trouble — no matter who he’s playing against, or where. So it’s no surprise he has found himself in trouble so frequently ever since that Wimbledon loss.
Part of the problem, of course, lies in the fact that age has dimmed Federer's consistency. He doesn't have the patience, or the stamina, to keep making the big shot; he eventually makes an error if the opponent gets enough returns back.
But that has been the situation for a few years now; he lost his baseline consistency sometime around 2013. And he has employed a number of different ways to counter that — approaching the net more, slicing more, even changing his racquet — with varying degrees of success.
In 2017, he had seemingly found a permanent solution. He decided to stay rooted to the baseline at all times, and take the ball ridiculously early. On grass and hard courts, that worked like a charm. None of his opponents, not even Rafael Nadal, had enough time to react to Federer's all-out attack, and the Swiss ended up dominating the season.
2018, however, has been a different story altogether. He still won the Australian Open, but has largely looked like his pre-2017 self since then. There’s one significant difference though, as we’ve see this week: he’s now finding it hard to assert himself even when his serve is working, and even on fast courts — something that almost never happened pre-2017.
Shanghai is a fast court; one of the fastest on the tour. And yet Medvedev, Bautista Agut and Coric had little trouble returning Federer's big serves or attempted winners. On the contrary, they put him on the run so often that he was repeatedly forced to defend — something that he’s not comfortable doing anymore.
The serve itself hasn’t lost any of its mojo; the speed he generates off it is very similar to that of 2017. It is the forehand that is letting him down – and not just through errors. He has simply been unable to hit his favored wing with enough oomph to penetrate through the court, especially in neutral rallies.
The lack of juice on the forehand has also meant he’s had to play a few too many tough volleys when he has followed it into the net. Both Coric and Bautista Agut kept getting good looks at the first pass, often winning the point on the second.
Is that it then? Has the forehand lost its sting for good, rendering Federer a considerably less effective offensive player? Have we actually come to the stage where his backhand is his main weapon, and the forehand a liability?
The sample size so far is a little too small to make a definitive conclusion. And the man himself is no closer to deciphering the mystery than we are, if his press conferences are anything to go by.
“So it shows you that he connected well, he read my serve well or picked the sides well, I’m not sure,” he said after the win over Bautista Agut. “I hope he was more picking sides than reading serves, but overall I thought, you know, we had some tough rallies from the baseline, like expected. And conditions were — you know, they are what they are here in Shanghai, especially when it’s cool. Ball feels heavy, feel hard, and it’s sometimes hard to generate as much as you would like and it’s hard to outmaneuver the player, because you can’t go for too many angles because the ball skids nicely here.”
All these things that the Swiss is talking about — cool conditions, ball feeling heavy, ball skidding nicely — are things that have worked in Federer’s favour all through his career. But now, the script has been flipped, and he seemingly has no idea why.
If we’ve learned anything about Federer over the years, it is that he has never stopped looking for solutions. The forehand effectiveness, or lack of it, is a problem right now. What better way to try and correct that than spend time on it during the upcoming off-season?
This is an interesting period for Federer and his fans, but it’s also likely to be a period of turmoil. For all we know, he could well decide that he doesn’t want to work on anything during the off-season; that this is the precise moment when looking for solutions just isn’t worth it anymore. For all we know, he could slowly start fading into oblivion, or worse still, retire.
It’s a sobering thought. But it’s not all gloom and doom; there have been a few mitigating aspects amid all of this. For one thing, Coric played exceptionally well in the semi-final. He put an outrageous 80 percent of his first serves in, and hit with nearly flawless power from the baseline; there’s not much anyone can do against an opponent red-lining his game like that. In that context this wasn’t a terrible loss for Federer, even if his forehand did repeatedly fail him.
The other, more important, takeaway from Shanghai is that every once in a while, the old spark can still make an appearance on the court. It may not be a feature of every match that he plays, and it may be sandwiched between periods of intense struggle, but it is there alright.
Federer’s match against Kei Nishikori in the quarter-final was one for the ages. Even though it lasted just two sets, those two sets were arguably the best exhibition of first-strike tennis that we’ve seen this year.
The blazing footwork, the unreal backhand flick winners, the crazy angles with the forehand — it was all so very vintage Federer, that it frequently elicited the customary dropping of jaws. For those two breathtaking hours, everything made sense again; everything seemed simple.
While we keep debating what is going wrong with Federer, and when he’s likely to retire, that kind of throwback to simpler times might be just what we need to calm ourselves down. A toss, a flick, a stroll, a glorious winner: what else do we need, really?
Updated Date: Oct 14, 2018 09:34 AM