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?┬áThe 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The magic elixir

Why is Djokovic flying so high right now? What is the one thing that is allowing him to look down upon all others from stratospheric heights? What is the magic elixir that keeps him from becoming the modern day Icarus?

One word – confidence. Not the fleeting, day-to-day, or even hour-to-hour flimsiness version. The tangible, rock hard, version that can only be achieved with a clear mind and accumulation of wisdom. ┬áThe difference between a talented player and a true champion.

Despite his inherent natural ability and formidable athleticism honed through years of backbreaking, mind-numbing practice and hundreds of mental battles fought in matchplay, there was always a seamlessness missing from Djokovic’s tennis despite a game that professed exactly that. From the ever-present familial influence in his players’ box, his frequent gasping for air after long rallies, his slumped shoulders and bowed head and to his sometimes violent verbal outbursts, Djokovic appeared to be a man who played for something or someone outside of himself and was drowning under that burden. He was playing not for himself but for Serbia.

Djokovic is a proud and patriotic citizen of his beloved Serbia to the point where he felt compelled to address a rally in Belgrade commenting on Kosovo’s declaration of independence. It was no secret that last year following the US Open and during the Masters Cup, his real focus was on the Davis Cup final against France as the implications of a triumph would be the makings of history.

In that fateful final, he stood tall. He swept aside Gilles Simon to level the tie for Serbia at 1-1. Then, facing a 2-1 deficit on the final day of singles, he rose to the occasion again dismantling Monfils in straight sets to set the stage for Troicki to seal the historic triumph. Not only had Djokovic spearheaded his country to their first ever Davis Cup win but in doing so, he cast off the Atlas-sized pressure of carrying his country and consolidated his confidence that he could perform under immense pressure in one go.

In short, he became a man who plays free of any mental or physical shackles. A man of true confidence.

We saw it with Roger Federer from the Tennis Masters Cup of 2003 to the Tennis Masters Cup of 2007 before his wings began to smoulder from the sun’s fierce heat and he was forced to retreat to a lower, less perilous height where he steadily circles today.

We saw it with Rafael Nadal in 2010 when he emerged reborn after his triumph at Monte Carlo which sparked his superhuman rampage through the history books to the point where he went supernova.

And so we see it today with Djokovic. It is apt that the latest Head commercial features Novak playing tennis on an old world biplane in the skies and his results show that he is still playing such audacious tennis in reality.

Win or lose against Nadal in the final of Miami, this time his confidence won’t desert him so easily.