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.