The Two Versions of Roger Federer

Having recently turned my focus to tennis on this blog (tennis has always been a first love outside of social media), I have become much more aware of the drama surrounding Roger Federer.  In my naiveté, he was purely a tennis great with a persuasive GOAT case.  Like most, I loved his style of play, his dominance and the way he carries himself (I also like how he has generally always handled the press; you can ask him almost anything it seems.  “Your forehand was really effective today, Roger.”  “It was. I was able to control the match by keeping Thomas on the baseline, prevent him from getting too comfortable.”  Love the candor).  Roger is a confident (borderline arrogant) tennis player.  He is not afraid to agree with the typical glowing assessments of his game.  And there have been many since so many of us professional and amateur spectators have fallen in love with Roger Federer’s tennis; at some point at least a mild case of admiration.

In my case, I certainly enjoyed his run (continue to enjoy his more recent “limited” brand of world class tennis); however, once the more down-to-earth reviews (my own) hit the press, following some pretty clear examples of his demise, I focused more on other players and story-lines.  Tennis has a tremendous history; Roger, for the true tennis fan, has a strangle-hold on about five or six years of that history.  The 17 majors come primarily from that short HISTORICALLY PRODUCTIVE duration, with a couple of late Wimbledons (2009, 2012) a gift French from Soderling (2009) and an Australian Open (2010) that complete his majors accomplishments.

Pretty remarkable that he has been able to stay so hard-charging in these more recent years, but those numbers clarify that he has won only one major in the last five years.  So, again, although fans might want to create a much longer and dominant run by the Swiss craftsman, his was a more defined 4-5 year period of dominance.

He took-up residence at the top of the mountain as the previous era waned and gave way to this new comer.  A very interesting foreshadow is Federer’s match with Sampras in the fourth round of Wimbledon 2001.  Pete is the defending champion, trying to win his fifth straight and secure his eighth Wimbledon Championship, the most all-time (which would have extended Pete’s Wimbledon dominance – his seven, of course, was equaled by Roger).  Think of the significance of that match; Roger secured his tie with Pete, in effect.  That was the last we saw of Pete on that particular grass, and the 19-year-old Fed Express was just getting ready to take-off.

Another big match that speaks to this generational transition is the 2005 U.S. Open final between Roger and Agassi.  This is a great example of Roger’s styled dominance – any shot from the Swiss, even from a defensive position, becomes lethally offensive.  Federer actually beat Agassi in the 2004 U.S. Open quarter finals, as well.  The 2004 match went five sets while the 2005 one went four, again, echoing the gradual demise of the previous (Pete/Andre/et al) era.  Roger had conquered and ruled the court assertively by 2004-2005.

Indeed, for tennis fans, by 2005 the Roger Federer show was running strong with each successive year producing more of the same – dominance on three of the four surfaces, firm grip on #1, marketing darling, dashing, brilliant and so on.  Books were being written about him; formidable literary talent ventured explanations of his sublime, almost effortless control of the game.

On my end, I would routinely wake either at 2:00am to watch an Aussie Open final, or at some other odd hour to see the French or Wimbledon finals live as Roger contested another challenge to his peak supremacy.  This was men’s tennis during this period of 2004 through 2007 or so.

But then the fortress began to crumble.  I would love to research video and recall specific matches and changes in style, commentary on how Roger’s vulnerability, which began on the clay vs. Nadal, spread to other surfaces and tournaments.  In other words, this would be an interesting project: to chart the shocking (felt premature) realization that Federer was dying.

I chuckle at the suggestion that Federer/Nadal 2008 Wimbledon is the greatest match of all time.  This is my favoritism rearing its head; I was enjoying the dynasty.  Roger was the embodiment of tennis at the time, and his reign at Wimbledon was picture perfect. Roger losing to Nadal on grass seemed like a bad tennis joke.  This high energy Spaniard can have his clay, but beat Roger on grass?  Wow.  It was almost like an Albert Costa or Gaston Gaudio winning Wimbledon.  No thanks.  Greatest match of all time?  Too many others to consider.  I prefer some of the Sampras/Agassi battles, or Sampras/Rafter or one of my earliest tennis memories (and probably my greatest): Borg v. McEnroe 1980.  I was a huge Borg fan, couldn’t stand Johnny Mac and my mother would make me leave the room when my emotions got too heated, especially in that fourth set tie-break and epic fifth set.  Hell, I was twelve years-old.

But I digress.  Federer’s castle was crumbling.  By the time Nadal was able to kick Roger’s ass on the grass, yikes.  This was getting all too real.  This is seven years ago, today.  That’s a long time ago, folks.  From what I recall, the 2009 Australian Open was the icing on the cake.  Roger had every potential tool to keep Rafa at bay; the growing lopsidedness of the rivalry (on ALL surfaces) was starting to baffle tennis fans.  Some of us got beyond the baffle.

What really baffled me at first was Roger’s stubbornness, beyond his own mental weakness, against Rafa.  If you look at some of the early Roger, against Pete at 2001 Wimbledon, for instance, you see incredible touch at the net, an amazing variety of shot-making for a 19-20 year-old.  Fast-forward to Agassi 2005; you see Roger so dominant he is staying more back-court, showing such incredible fore and back-hand ground stroke genius that he doesn’t have to come to the net as much.  But against Nadal, I would argue he needed to use more variety, take some pace off the ball, go to the net (I understand this is a scary proposition given Nadal’s ability to pass), make Nadal think.  Trading ground strokes with the bull was a fairly unsuccessful strategy, in my humble opinion.  I recall a point in that AO five-setter (Rafa’s only AO title by the way) where Roger was making this suggested change in strategy, which was working.  But he’d return to form, try to use pace to beat the game’s most physical presence.  You could see Roger’s frustration.  He so wanted to beat Rafa, over-power him. 2009. The verdict: Rafa owns Roger.

Roger Federer campaign officially over.  Clean-up after yourselves and get the hell off the top of the mountain.

Again, this is six or seven years ago (the ’08 Wimbledon should’ve been fair warning).  Sure, there is frustration since some of us thought Roger could have handled his tennis differently, but oh well.  Borg’s reign ended, Mats’, Boris’, Stefan’s, Lendl’s, Pete’s, Andre’s, as well.

Seeing some of the recent (continued) discussion of the aforementioned Fedhead phenomenon, I’m just surprised there is still so much Roger fervor.  It’s been a long time since he carried the proverbial big stick, especially at the majors.  This sort of nostalgia seems a bit delusional, a tad counter-productive.  Need less to say, we are in a golden era of tennis and other players have and are making quite a name for themselves.  Fedheads, look at the calendar.

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Having said all of that, Roger has still made a great living on tour since 2008-09; this has become a different version of Roger Federer.  Not dominant.  He’s a more benign feature of the game, a tour elder hopefully teaching, advising for the benefit of the sport.  Admittedly, there is still fodder for these Fed fanatics to clamor for more, renew their hope, etc.  In reality, the Federer of the five or six year dominance was just an earlier version, a different player.

For many, his “dominance” seems much longer (the Fedhead would probably argue) because of this newer version of Roger.  One could say that Roger has simply aged and become less a force in sport.  Or one could say that Federer has added this other dimension to his greatness.  He went through a lot (along with his fans) in that period where the physical and mental fortitude began to fail.  I would argue he came-out the other side a different version of Roger.  He is not at all the same player he was.  Keep in mind, we had five or so years of the first version, and five or so years of the second.  Is the second hurting or helping his legacy?  That’s where this discussion eventually goes.

The difficult-to-define-GOAT-distinction is a popular topic in many sports, including tennis.  Looking at things objectively (and using my own eyes), I was in the Sampras camp for a while.  Then Roger made a great case, as well.  One of the biggest points in support of Roger was the position of tennis itself, the institution, the industry.  Laver, McEnroe, Borg, et al., seemed to agree Roger is the GOAT.  I concluded this has to partly be a result of the fact that they have seen Roger play in person.  His greatness was visible on the screen, but how are all of these historians of the game (and great players) so definitive on this huge recognition?  It does not take an historian to suggest, for example, that Roger dominated a soft men’s field.  Go look at the results (If there was no Roger, Andy Roddick would have ten majors?  Holy crap 😉  That’s what puzzled me: the seeming consensus of so many intelligent and experienced tennis fans.

Living in southern California, I have access to Indian Wells, a great tennis venue that attracts a great men’s field (I would say women too, but the great Williams sisters boycotted this tour stop for years, so there you have it).  In 2012 I got to see the Roger/Rafa semi-final match and the final between Roger and John Isner.  The weather included stormy winds with on and off rain.  Pretty miserable actually.  But when the tennis did resume, Roger put on a show.  I was reminded of how Roger played in that windy U.S. Open final vs. Agassi, a match that I know many Fedheads probably point to for evidence (keep in mind, Agassi was 35 years old at the time).

Roger dominated Rafa 6-3 6-4 and, as you can imagine, it wasn’t that close.  Two things jumped out at me: watching Roger play live, in person, gave me a different perspective.  His court vision, his footwork, his very obvious feel for the game was incredible.  There was a lightness about, a lot of ewwwwws and ahhhhhs.  Roger dazzled the crowd and his opponent.  Secondly, as the weather worsened, Roger’s game adjusted and rose to the occasion.  His game seemed to get better in the worsening conditions.  This says a lot about his fundamentals, the sustainability of his game which we see as a huge part of his success in 2015.  On the other hand, Rafa was befuddled, lacked confidence, couldn’t execute much at all.  This impressed me and gave me some insight into the GOAT claims made about this guy; the beauty of his argument – I know this is cliche at this point – is pretty persuasive.  This match also informs my position on Rafa.  Great player, even better competitor.  But limited.

Further more, I saw the men’s semi-finals at this year’s Indian Wells.  In the quarters, the day before I arrived, I watched (with dismay) Milos Raonic destroy Nadal (if Nadal had won, we would’ve been rewarded with Djok/Murray and Rog/Rafa semi-finals).  This beat-down along with his 2015 French and Wimbledon are enough to say the clay master is done.  If he comes back from this abomination, we should all have many many questions about his preparation and medical treatment.  Raonic destroyed him.  Nadal was 10-15 feet behind the baseline for the Canadian’s serve, and just looked tired and unfit – an utter mess.

I only clarify this last point because of what I saw in person the following day.  Roger toyed with Raonic.  The Swiss’ tennis display was so sophisticated, so brilliant.  Raonic was beaten easily, looked lost, like he didn’t quite belong.  It was incredible, again, to see Roger put together shots that seemed so strategic and improvisational at the same time.  One can begin to understand, I thought, the sheer joy and delight of this man’s greatness when it is seen in person.

He was great for the eyes, for the tennis exhibition, the purity of the sport.  This guy is not winning any majors.  But he was worth every penny (so was watching Novak DOMINATE the men, including Roger).  Roger is a purist’s GOAT.  People who say Rafa is GOAT have a point, but in the end are probably missing a critical part of that calculus.  Watch Roger play now.  He is clarifying the argument, perhaps.  It’s not all about majors, perhaps.

But getting too excited about Roger’s tennis exhibition has a flaw, I admit: that’s most likely true of watching other players in person.  And this was an ATP 1000 event, so it’s played in the best-of-three format.  Roger is definitely relevant in this format still.  Sure, Novak beat him in the Indian Wells final the following day, but Roger has consistently put himself in that position through out the years, including 2015.

In end, that’s the complication of Roger Federer: there are two versions.  His time at the top is over, has been for about six or seven years; again, he has only one major in the last five years.  However, where most players (even the great ones) fade away and out of the game entirely, Roger hasn’t.  He’s perhaps more an ambassador to the game at this point.  The man can still play.  At 33, almost 34, what he is doing is as remarkable as other players (Nadal) spiraling out of the sport before they reach 30 (on a side-note, we have heard Novak say he is confident he can play high-level tennis for several more years.  Saying he can dominate for 2-3 more years is quite reasonable.  Not all 28 year-olds are the same, as I argued earlier.  Like Roger, Novak could have a similarly extended impact on the sport).

This second version of Roger concerns his “longevity” (ala 2015 Indian Wells and Wimbledon – evidence of his spectacular game), which has underscored his earlier dominance.  May be this  has confused fans.  He’s not the same player, but this adds to his legacy and the confidence of that Roger-is-GOAT-contingent.

He is on a long farewell tour, so to speak.  Part of the (reasonable) tennis fan says Roger can not win the big tournaments anymore, hasn’t for a long time, he’s done; another part says he is still so magnificent on the court, playing the game we love so well, so polished, still somehow so brilliantly.  Because of that, he still gives people hope, I suppose.

Can you blame the Fedheads for their hope (false belief)?  Does it border on celebrity worship?  I suppose you can do whatever you want.  Either way, Roger continues to delight us and teach us about the game; and, despite his inability to go five sets with some of today’s younger athletes, he helps keep some of this next generation honest and accountable to the game’s tradition and class. Hopefully, these youngsters paid attention while the sport thrived in this golden age.

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