The Championships hold good memories for Federer, writes Rohit Brijnath
Roger Federer was a man destined to be the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time), now some think he is playing like one. Critics are leaping off his bandwagon in unseemly haste, and even Bjorn Borg has said: “I pick Rafael Nadal as (Wimbledon) winner, my second choice is Novak Djokovic, my third is Roger.”
The champion has been ill, unsure, erratic, brooding, and has lately been dismissed by Djokovic off court and dismembered by Nadal on it. Said the Serb this week: “I think he’s a little bit shaken with that loss (in the French final) and mentally he has been struggling in the last couple of months. New names are coming who believe more they can win against him and I am one of them. Suddenly he is worried a little bit.”
But sometimes an athlete returns to familiar ground and is restored his powers. These days Federer resembles Clark Kent and perhaps Wimbledon will be his version of the telephone booth. Certainly for the Swiss, the All England Club is his spiritual home and Centre Court, to borrow a phrase from Boris Becker, his living room. Or as Federer laughed last year, “I’ve got the keys to it at the moment, for sure.”
In a tournament with a royal box, his haughty game fits; in an event where the men’s draw is known quaintly as the “Gentlemen’s singles”, his old-fashioned manners sit comfortably. Perhaps here, where his fast court game bites hardest, where he has lost only eight sets in winning five straight Wimbledons, he will remarry confidence.
It has not helped the Swiss that Nadal (this summer) and Djokovic (in January) have unveiled superior models of themselves. But this is expected, for Federer, almost 27, is a finished product, while the Spaniard, just 22, and Serb, just 21, are unfinished constructions. Said Nadal last week: “I think I improve my tennis, so I have more options. So I can slice some more balls. I can go to the net more times. The forehand I am playing good.”
But Nadal’s improvement was due, and in the drumbeat of disrespect headed Federer’s way, it is worth remembering the modest Spaniard is mostly a one-surface man. He won his last tournament of 2007 in July, on clay, and won his first tournament of 2008 in April, on clay. In between, he lived in hardcourt hell.
Nadal looks the superior player now, but in versatility he and Federer are not yet matched. If you compare their winning percentage on various surfaces it as follows: on clay, Federer 75.4, Nadal 91.7, on hard Federer 82.5, Nadal 72.4, on carpet Federer 72.4, Nadal 25, on grass Federer 87.2, Nadal 77.4.
If the Swiss needs Wimbledon to redeem himself, Nadal needs Wimbledon to announce himself as a multi-faceted player. For all the lopsidedness of their head-to-head record (11-6 in Nadal’s favour), the Spaniard has not beaten the Swiss outside clay in 28 months.
Yet his threat is growing. His backcourt assertiveness in France was riveting, his transition from the clay-slide to the grass quick-step in Queen’s was remarkable. But his finest advantage in Wimbledon is what lies beneath him: the courts this generation are harder, the grass slower, the balls heavier.
Twenty years ago, slices stayed low and balls slithered; now they bounce higher and at many kilometres slower. Once serve-volleyers named McEnroe, Becker, Edberg, Rafter, Sampras, most of whom would have eaten Nadal for lunch on quick grass, danced to the net every point and defied rivals to pass.
Now, men like Nadal are neither challenged by quality serve-volleyers, for this art form has died, nor make more than the occasional foray to the net themselves. As Djokovic admits: “The grass is slower and the baseline players have so much more success, which is why I am hoping I can do well.”
If eras have defining moments, this fortnight could be Federer’s. We can quibble about this being minor slump or major slide, but he needs to send a message to the field about his greatness. And if he has forgotten how, he can call an old friend in hospital, who is experienced in such matters, for advice. Mr Woods is free to help.