The final challenge

Already, the twilight years have begun.

The man who is considered by many to be the Greatest Of All Time, if not by virtue of his achievements, but also by the completeness of his game and sheer audacity of his talent, has now entered his final years on the professional tour.

One could forgive Roger Federer if he chose to simply play out his final years whilst basking in the glory and the adulation showered upon him from adoring audiences wherever he went.

Instead, he is facing the greatest and most formidable challenge of his entire career. This is not a challenge wrought by any particular player, neither the Spanish nightmare or the Serbian juggernaut. This is a challenge that arises from the very core of Federer, lurking in every impossibly graceful movement and every incredulous shot he undertakes.

How can someone with the hand-eye coordination far beyond what ordinary people can comprehend, miss the most basic shots at the most inexplicable times and yet is capable of supernova-grade brilliance without blinking an eye? The answer is simple but yet so audacious that it beggars a more complex answer befitting someone of Federer’s stature and achievements in the game.

He is not as mentally strong as he should be.

At first, it appeared the jitters were only caused by one certain Spaniard and only on clay. Even the Australian Open 2009 final was deemed to be an aberration by some Federer loyalists, given its slow playing qualities at night.

Even after losses to Del Potro at the US Open 2009, Soderling at Roland Garros and Berdych at Wimbledon in 2010, and Tsonga’s stunning win from two-sets to love down at Wimbledon 2011, the general feeling was that he had been unlucky to run into extremely dangerous players who happened to be riding a wave of incredible form that day.

The one match that really laid bare Federer’s mental fragility was the semifinal of US Open 2011.

Federer surged strongly to a commanding two sets to love lead and many felt that after his loss to Tsonga at Wimbledon, he would not make that same mistake again. Especially when serving for the match at 5-4 in the 5th set against a punch-drunk Djokovic. Yet 3 games later, it was Djokovic who raised his hands in victory. In spite of that famous all-out service return winner at 40-15 by Djokovic, despite having one more match point on serve, despite still being on serve at 5-5, Federer was already a broken man. A startling sight to behold of a man considered to be the Greatest Of All Time.

How can such a statement be true now with not one, but two arch-rivals who have demonstrated much stronger mental fortitude on the biggest of stages?

This is Federer’s true challenge and the defining one of his career. His generational rivals, Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick, Marat Safin, David Nalbandian all burned brightly but faded quickly and Federer was unchallenged in a display of unparalleled dominance over a period of 4 years. It is fair to say that he is the greatest of his generation and never was truly pushed to improve.

Against Nadal and Djokovic, two incredible players who are more than 5 years younger than Federer, it is only now Federer has realised he has to make tangible improvements mentally, physically and tactically in order to compete. They force him to concentrate at crucial points, to develop truer self-belief under pressure and to actually take the win from his opponents, not just to wait for them to miss – something his generational rivals could not do on a sustained and consistent basis over a lengthy period of time, let alone in matches.

Nearly 31 years old and at No.3 in the world, facing public pressure, the weighty burden of his incredible past successes, two players who have thwarted him at every turn and his own mental demons, can Federer survive this career-defining challenge?

Since the US Open final, Federer has been on fire. He has won 6 tournaments in the space of 6 months and compiled a staggering 40-3 win-loss record, including wins over Nadal both on fast indoor court and outdoor slow hard court.

I wouldn’t bet against the great man.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New World Order

Over the last six months, great battles have been fought, with crushing defeats and soaring triumphs. As the dust settles and the horizon clears, the sun rises on a new day. A new world order.

The two great titans of our game, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have been dethroned in a manner that brooks no argument and reconfirms the ascendancy of the game’s best player, Novak Djokovic.

After a tumultuous French Open which saw Federer exhibit the magical talent of his supremely complete game to defeat Djokovic in a tight four-set battle and nearly toppled the modern-day juggernaut, Nadal in the final, many wondered if the old world order was still intact and if Djokovic would fade once again into the shadows. Questions would be asked and answered at the holiest of all tournaments, Wimbledon.

As play began and storylines unfurled on the hallowed lawns of the most prestigious Grand Slam, some believed it would be a return to the glory days of old for Federer by taking out his most cherished title. His nemesis, Nadal would become a captive of his own body again, suffering a injury to his left foot. However, in the quarterfinals, a powerful challenger named Tsonga delivered the first shock and awe of the tournament in defeating Federer by virtue of incredible blitzkrieg grasscourt tennis not seen since the days of the immortal and legendary Pete Sampras. The possible vestiges of the old world order had been swept away.

All eyes were on the young Bernard Tomic in his quarterfinal against Djokovic to catch a glimpse of the far future. The resurrection of Australian tennis albeit in a game not inherently found in the long and respected heritage of attacking Australian players. Djokovic proved to all that it was still his time by overcoming the young upstart and then dismantling Federer’s conqueror, Tsonga in the semifinals.

Meanwhile, despite his injury, Nadal was approaching his usual whirlwind momentum in rolling over Mardy Fish in the quarterfinals and in a shocking display of psychotic aggressiveness and control, rampaged right through Andy Murray while committing merely seven unforced errors. He was determined to show the world that Djokovic’s No.1 position was just a brief blip on the map of world atennis history.

In the final, Djokovic up against Nadal, a two-time Wimbledon champion and the man he had just replaced at the pinnacle of world tennis. This match would either be a coronation of the new World No.1 or a confirmation of Nadal’s dominance in the Grand Slams.

As the first few games progressed, two things were clear – Nadal can now be beaten consistently and comprehensively in baseline battles and because of this, he is mentally shaken.

Because of Djokovic’s incredible lateral court coverage and accurate backhand, Nadal can no longer rely solely on his crosscourt forehand to break open the rallies so that he can dominate with his patented inside-in/inside out forehand combinations. This results in the tactical scales being tilted in Djokovic’s favour as he can no only attack but also consistently expose Nadal’s backhand wing without having to resort to impatient and ‘hit it and pray’ shots from well out of position. He can utilise his flat laser-like groundstrokes to work his way to the net to the point where Nadal is well and truly in a difficult position and cannot offer anything more than a standard reply that is easily dispatched into the open court with a simple drop volley. The ease in and net positioning from which Djokovic was able to carry out those drop volleys attest to the excellent tactical application of those consistently heavy and accurate groundstrokes.

Djokovic has the better first serve and his return of serve is a level above Nadal’s – both vital ingredients to prevent Nadal from settling into rallies on his own terms and gaining momentum with which Nadal can unleash his exceptional swerving forehands free of any nerves.

In the end, Djokovic dominated in such an emphatic fashion that there were no questions as to his rightful supremacy of tennis today.

The Djoker has the last laugh today but will he tomorrow?