Seven-time Grand Slam singles champion Mats Wilander once offered this simple definition of tennis. “Ask your opponent a question,” said Wilander. “If he doesn’t have the answer, keep asking it.”
For Roger Federer, over the course of the last 12 months, the questions have proven more difficult than they have in a very long time. Federer’s run to the 2012 Wimbledon title had taken him back to the world No. 1 ranking. Since that time, it’s been a different story. At Wimbledon this year, Federer lost in the second round to 116th-ranked Sergiy Stakhovsky, his earlier exit from a Grand Slam event since 2003.
In the wake of that defeat, Federer entered a pair of European clay-court events, hoping to rack up some wins and also give a fair test to a new racquet with a larger head. Those two steps proved frustrating. Federer lost in the semis of Hamburg to 114th-ranked Federico Delbonis and in the second round of Gstaad to 55th-ranked Daniel Brands. The play test was shelved.
“I just felt like, you know what, I’m going to play with the old racquet through the US Open right now, and I’m going to do more racquet testing when I have, again, some more time after the US Open,” Federer told reporters after his opening-round victory at the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati. “At the end, I just felt like right now I need to simplify everything and just play with what I know best.”
As Cincinnati began, Federer stood at a crossroads. On Aug. 8, he’d turned 32, was ranked fifth in the world and had won but one title all year. According to 1999 US Open finalist Todd Martin, “I wouldn’t say Roger’s world is in upheaval now, but this is the greatest level of doubt that those in the know have had.”
While many men – including Federer – have won Grand Slam singles titles past the age of 30, only one man in the last 40 years has done so past the age of 32 (Andre Agassi at the 2003 Australian Open).
That’s a fact, but it’s also a fact to which Federer might answer: ‘So what?’
And rightfully so. With any subject, there are always two warring narratives. First comes the watching world, largely focused on outcome. Precedent. Data. Trends. Specifically with Federer, there’s the perception of increasing mishits, rumblings about a back injury and, invariably, comparisons to other aging titans and potentially dynamic plot lines. Said two-time US singles champion and former U.S. Davis Cup Captain Tony Trabert, “You compare it to Pete Sampras’ last couple of years, when he lost to everybody and then won the US Open again.”
Enter the second narrative, the path and desire from the player’s vantage point. As Trabert also notes, “Everyone can guess and say what they want, but only the player knows what’s really going on.” Only Federer, for example, knows how extensive his back injury is. Only Federer knows how the new racquet felt and why he decided to return to his old frame. Only Federer knows how it feels to compete against younger, hungry players well aware that he is closer to the finish than the start of his greatness.
Naturally, a longstanding king like Federer has zero tolerance for talk about his current outcome. After all, Federer’s entire career has been based on setting records few thought existed. For example, when Sampras won his record 14th singles title at the 2002 US Open, did anyone really imagine someone would shatter that mark in less than a decade?
Having skipped Montreal, Cincinnati was the only hard-court tournament Federer played prior to the US Open. He won two matches before losing a three-set quarterfinal to Nadal. Following Cincinnati, Federer’s ranking sunk to No. 7, his lowest since 2002. True to his spirit, he remained optimistic. “I can definitely take more things away from this week than I could for the last three months,” Federer said following the Nadal match. “So I’m happy about that. That sets it up nicely for me for New York, I think.”
In theory, so little competition on hard courts might not be enough for Federer to gain the kind of sharpness necessary for a forceful run in New York. Said Martin, “If he doesn’t have more than two to three matches leading up to the US Open, I don’t know if he’ll enter that event with the same level of confidence he’s had before.”
True, preparation is critical, particularly for a tournament as physically and emotionally demanding as the US Open. It’s the showdown Slam, one last chance for glory, the best way to make an emphatic statement on the tennis year. Federer did precisely that when he took his fifth straight title at Flushing Meadows in 2008 – his only Slam title that year. But he’d sharpened himself significantly at the Beijing Olympics, reaching the quarterfinals in singles and taking the gold in the doubles.
But again, this is Roger Federer, often considered the greatest player in the history of this sport. His tally of 17 Slams includes five US Open titles won on the trot from 2004-2008. Federer’s victims in those finals are among the most accomplished players of the last 10 years – Lleyton Hewitt, Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
“I’ve doubted myself in the past,” said Federer earlier this month. “I know where I have to go, so at least I know where I am, and I know what I need to work on… Every match gives me more info to tell me if I'm on the right path or not. I'm a strong believer that I am on the right path right now, and I just need to make sure that mentally I stay cool about it. I'm not putting too much pressure on myself, either. I'm really enjoying myself out there.”
Confidence? After so many years of off-the-charts excellence, of brilliant shot-making and everything from backhand half-volleys from the baseline to lacerating forehands to pinpoint serves, how much confidence does a man of Federer’s skill need to build for yet one more title run?
That’s the question. Now we will see if once again Federer can come up with another answer.